Forrest Battles at Tupelo, Mississippi

July 14, 1864 (Thursday)

“The enemy have a strong position,” argued Nathan Bedford Forrest, “have thrown up defensive works and are vastly our superior in numbers and it will not do for us to attack them under such conditions.” He was speaking to S.D. Lee, his commander, and the commander of the Confederate cavalry forces in Mississippi. Before them were 14,000 Federal troops under A.J. Smith, who had descended from Tennessee in an attempt to secure the lines of supply to William Tecumseh Sherman’s armies nearing Atlanta.

Though Forrest may not have wanted to attack, he did want to hit the Yankees.”One thing is sure,” he was to have said, “they enemy cannot remain long where he is. He must come out, and when he does, all I ask or wish it to be turned loose with my command.” But S.D. Lee wanted the immediate action that waiting out the Federals would not give him. But with no more than 7,000 men, how was this possible?

But on the morning of this date, the chances seemed brighter. In rode a scout with news that the Yankees appeared to be in retreat. This was all Forrest needed to hear. He and Lee arrayed their numbers, Forrest taking the right, and Lee with the left.

As Forrest was aligning his troops, he heard firing on his left. It was too early – an entire brigade had stepped off without orders. To the Federals, however, this was a boon, as they were not in retreat at all. This accidental piecemeal assault was disintegrated by Federal artillery, and the gray line melted.

Forrest sped to the scene, grabbed the brigade’s colors and hurriedly formed a new line. So unexpected was the attack that only two brigades could come to their support. And though they surged forward, they were ultimately beaten back. On the Confederate right, S.D. Lee ordered an attack, but these men met the same fate, attacking as before, one brigade here, another there.

As the Rebel attacks waned, A.J. Smith’s troops scrambled over their own defenses and struck the Confederate lines, pushing them back and capturing scores. But the men were quickly exhausted and faded back to their original lines.

S.D. Lee
S.D. Lee

Lee was livid. In his mind, Forrest had utterly failed to attack. If they had been together as one unit, perhaps things might have been different. But once Forrest saw the slaughter unleashed upon the first brigade to stumble forward, he knew the whole thing was pointless.

The rest of the day was spent in light skirmishing, shelling and waiting. When darkness fell across the field, the Federals burned several buildings and S.D. Lee fired relentlessly into the flames. Smith replied in kind, but in the darkness could not get the range.

But though he had the better of Forrest, Smith was determined to retreat. A few hours after dark, Forrest made one last attempt to hit them, but that too was thrown back.

The next day, Smith’s retreat was obvious. Lee turned over the pursuit to Forrest, now in his element. But even this was a task – the Federal rear guard continually turned back his approaches. During the thick of it, Forrest was wounded in the foot. Rumors spread quickly that he was, in fact, killed. Far from the truth, it did nothing for Confederate morale.

He would take a few weeks to recover, and in that time, the Federals, too, believed him dead. Finally, in the middle of August, they would figure out the truth of the matter. Forrest was still alive, and Sherman’s supply lines were still in danger.

The losses for the Rebels were staggering. Though the whole of the affair, they lost 210 killed, and 1,116 wounded (with fifty or so captured). The Federals suffered about half the amount.1

  1. Sources: The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills; Bedford Forrest and his Critter Company by Andrew Nelson Lytle; That Devil Forrest by John Allan Wyeth. []
Creative Commons License
Forrest Battles at Tupelo, Mississippi by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by