June 10, 1864 (Friday)
Ten days had now passed since General Samuel Sturgis set out from Memphis with a mixed array of 8,000 cavalry and infantry. His object – his only stated goal – was to kill or cripple the Confederate forces under Nathan Bedford Forrest.
To William Tecumseh Sherman, Forrest had been a regular worry. Sherman’s supply lines stretched long through western Tennessee. Keeping them operational was becoming less of a concern, but was still a line a battle or two might warrant.
To this end, Sturgis was dispatched, and for over a week, he and his men slogged through the muddy roads of northern Mississippi. Almost immediately, they were spotted, and word came to Forrest of their route, though the Federal intentions were still a mystery. By the 6th of June, Forrest had entered Tupelo and learned that Sturgis was nearing Corinth.
This column, believed Forrest, was another corps bound for Sherman’s lines north of Atlanta. Through pouring rains, both columns marched. On the 8th, Sturgis came upon the town of Ripley, and there learned of Forrest’s band. The thought of turning about crossed his mind, but in a council of war, he was urged by his underlings to continue, even though the enemy’s number was for all an estimate. With the words of General Sherman still echoing, Sturgis went on.
But their plans remained unknowable by the Rebels. Forrest had been joined by his superior, S.D. Lee, in Tupelo. Together, they deduced that Sturgis was making either for their present encampment or for Sherman’s lines. Due to the indecision, Forrest arrayed his troops widely across the surrounding land.
On the 9th, scouts reported the Federals to be in Ripley, 45 miles north of Tupelo. Now Lee and Forrest concluded that Strugis was not attempting to join Sherman, but was moving into the fertile country south of Tupelo. S.D. Lee then moved south, urging Forrest to follow, but ultimately allowing the cavalry commander to do whatever he wanted. Forrest, instead, held his own council of war.
From further pickets and spies, Forrest had learned of Sturgis’ camp at a place called Stubb’s Farm, south of Ripley. He wished to hit it quickly, catching the Yankees unawares. But his force was divided. Half were twenty-five miles north of the camp, while the rest were still at Tupelo, not much closer, the two halves nearly 40 miles apart.
Forrest understood that he was outnumbered, though not as much as he believed. He hoped to hide his numbers, or lack thereof, under the cover of the dense brush surrounding. Additionally, the Federals wouldn’t simply stay in their camp awaiting attack. They would be strung out along the road, cavalry in front and the infantry a few miles to the rear. If he could hold an intersection, known locally as Brice’s Crossroads, he could whip them as they came.
General Sturgis kept an almost leisurely pace, and didn’t start his infantry until 7am, their general at the head. Before them, by a few miles, rode the cavalry, commanded by Benjamin Grierson. Unlike their comrades on foot, Grierson’s troopers had risen early and were on the road with the sun.
Forrest was not fast enough, and one of Grierson’s brigades arrived at Brice’s Crossroads before 10am. Moving through, the Federal lead soon encountered Forrest’s advance, now on foot and settled into the thick brush. Forrest himself arrived soon after and ordered his largest division, along with his artillery, to make haste. Grierson, as well, sent word back, asking his commander to send forward the infantry at a run.
For a time, Grierson pushed back Forrest’s men. But Confederate reinforcements arrived, and the tables turned. Forrest attacked, taking keen advantage of an exposed gap in the Federal lines. The battle was vicious and exhausting, and soon there fell a lull as both sides awaited their respective reinforcements.
At 1pm, Forrest received his last, which included artillery. Unlimbered and now firing, their Northern counterparts joined and the air was filled with iron. Sturgis, himself, directed the fire of his own batteries as his infantry still tramped their way to the battle.
They arrived already whipped. The pace through mud with the stifling heat of the day had sapped their strength. They filed into line regardless, forming a semi-circle about the crossroads and allowing for interior lines.
The lull was finally broken by a charge from the Rebel left, which bent the Federal right back upon itself. Along with the charge, the center opened upon the Federals, but the right remained silent. This sat ill with Forrest, who arrived in person to push them forward, artillery booming.
In this way, the two forces clashed for the better part of two hours, neither gaining any advantage. But to Forrest, he seemed to sense that the Federals were about to break, if only he could drive them.
First, Forrest ordered his artillery forward, edging them closer and closer to the Federal lines and leaving them unsupported. He then ordered his center forward, and with them the entire force, all screaming toward the Federal heart.
With that, the Federals could withstand no more. The line buckled, broke and the troops were routed completely. So panicked was the retreat that wagons and sixteen pieces of artillery were left on the field. Along with them came 223 dead Federals, 394 wounded, as well as 1,500 or so prisoners.
Sturgis’ decimated command would be tormented for the next two days by Forrest’s advance, but they returned to Memphis, and Forrest remained, once more, at large. General Sherman would be dumbstruck over how Sturgis could have been so beaten. He would continue to worry about his supply line. Forrest, in the meanwhile, would regroup and await the next Federal column.1
- Sources: Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company by Andrew Nelson Lytle; That Devil Forrest by John Allan Wyeth; The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills. [↩]