March 25, 1863 (Wednesday)
While Rebels under General Pegram were advancing in Kentucky, well behind General William Rosecrans’ lines at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, General Nathan Bedford Forrest was on the prowl. Having received an independent command, Forrest set his sights upon the Union garrison in Brentwood, a few miles south of Nashville, but well behind the Union right flank.
For over a week, Forrest had been looking for such an opportunity. His picket lines extended from Thompson’s Station, site of a recent Confederate victory, east to the Harpeth River. His scouts, dodging Yankee outposts between Nashville and Franklin, discovered two units of Federal infantry at and near Brentwood. They were about a mile and a half from each other and seemed to Forrest the most perfect of targets.
On the night of the 24th, Forrest made his move, but things did not go well. He sent a brigade under James Starns to cross the Harpeth, keeping Franklin and it’s large Union garrison on his left, with orders to attack one of the isolated Union regiments at dawn. Forrest with more cavalry and two pieces of artillery would follow and be there by at first light.
Starns arrived well before dawn and dispatched fifteen men to capture the Union pickets. This is where things went bad. Instead of capturing them, the Rebels were discovered. More than a few shots rang out and the Federal pickets hightailed it back to camp, sending word to Franklin. In no time at all, General Gordon Granger commanding the town, sent Union cavalry to reinforce the infantry. The element of surprise was gone.
In the pre-dawn, Starns continued to ready his men for an attack. They set up a strong picket line south of town and occupied a hill overlooking the camp. But when dawn came, neither Forrest nor the artillery were anywhere to be seen. He waited until 7:30am until breaking off contact with the enemy, pulling back to the east.
But Forrest was on his way, he was just taking a different road. In the early dawn, he and Starns passed each other without ever knowing it. When Forrest arrived at the rendezvous point, there was no Starns. This didn’t seem to bother Forrest a bit. He unlimbered the two guns and decided to attack with the force on hand – about a brigade’s worth. He sent four companies to guard the rear, figuring that by now the Federals had been clued into what was happening.
Just as the skirmishers on both sides began to take shots at each other, Forrest sent an officer, Major Anderson, under a flag of truce to demand the surrender of Brentwood. Col. Edward Bloodgood, commanding the town, refused. If Forrest wanted Brentwood, he would have to come and take it himself.
Forrest, with the brigade still behind him, had nearly surrounded the enemy position. Only a small break existed to the north. It was through this break that Bloodgood quickly decided to escape towards Nashville. But just as he was about to set off, Forrest attacked.
It was all too late. “I had barely time to post the other companies before I discovered that we were completely surrounded by the enemy in overwhelming force,” reported Bloodgood. Feeling hopeless and without any chance for reinforcements, he had no choice but to surrender. The whole thing lasted no longer than a half hour.
Col. Bloodgood, along with 521 Wisconsin infantrymen were surrendered. Forrest, knowing that his visit could not be a long one, ordered his men to take the prisoners, and anything else that they could carry, east. Anything that couldn’t be moved had to be destroyed, especially the railroad depot.
But Forrest was not yet finished. Only one of the isolated units near Brentwood had been encountered. To the south another regiment guarded the railroad bridge over the Little Harpeth River [not really on our map]. He had no time for a battle and so decided to try a bit of deception.
He ordered Major Anderson to again take his flag of truce to the enemy. “Tell them I have them completely surrounded, and if they don’t surrender I’ll blow hell out of them in five minutes and won’t take one of them alive if I have to sacrifice my men in storming their stockade,” Forrest was recorded to have said.
But Anderson couldn’t find his white handkerchief and nobody else seemed to have one. So, at Forrest’s prodding, he took off his white linen shirt, now stained with all the typical grime of a cavalryman, and proceeded to the stockade. The colonel of the Union regiment bought the ruse, and surrendered 230 Michiganders.
As before, anything that could be carried was captured and anything that couldn’t be, including the railroad bridge, was burned. And so with roughly 1,000 men, Forrest bagged 750 Yankees.
But what of the Union cavalry reinforcements coming from General Granger at Franklin? So quick was Forrest’s work that they simply arrived too late. The Federal vanguard nipped at Forrest’s heels, but that was it. For the next two days, Forrest would dodge them before returning to his lines near Thompson’s Station. Throughout the whole affair, he lost only four killed and thirteen wounded. He appears to have suffered no casualties at all on this date.1
- Sources: The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills; That Devil Forrest by John Allan Wyeth; Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company by Andrew Nelson Lytle. [↩]