November 4, 1864 (Friday)
Nathan Bedford Forrest had been a fairly busy fellow over the past few days. In the end of October, he set his mind to capturing a couple of Union gunboats along the Tennessee River near the town of Paris. This he was able to do, and then steamed them down the river toward Johnsonville. On the 2nd, they were met by two Federal ships, which were able to ground on of Forrest’s vessels, but not the other. The next day, with the one remaining gunboat, the cavalry commander actually challenged three other Federal ships, though they begged off.
Accomplishing this feat was embarrassing for the Union troops, who dispatched several more ships to deal with Forrest. By the afternoon of the 3rd, they were near Paris Landing, but Forrest was long gone. It was in the meanwhile, that Forrest decided he was not finished.
There was a large Federal supply depot in Johnsonville which provided provisions for General George Thomas’ army now gathering to deal with John Bell Hood’s Rebel force. Striking a blow against their supplies could be a great boon for the southern cause in Tennessee.
“The wharf at Johnsonville was lined with transports and gun-boat,” explained Forrest in his report. “An immense warehouse presented itself and was represented as being stored with the most valuable supplies, while several acres of the shore were covered with every description of army stores.”
Through the night, Forrest placed most of his artillery, taking care to hide them from the view of the enemy until it was too late. In this way, and with three emplacements, Forrest covered the town, above, across, and below.
“I ordered a simultaneous assault to commence at 3 o’clock,” he continued. “all my movements for twenty-four hours had been so secretive the enemy seemed to think I had retired.”
Just before the bombardment, Forrest tied together two vessels and sent them adrift into the river. And then his artillery opened upon the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, but actually from everywhere. When the Federals returned their fire, nearly fifty guns were blazing away at each other in the afternoon haze.
The boats cast into the river were set ablaze and made their own way to the shore where they burned as they pleased. With this distraction, Forrest ordered his batteries to open upon the transports, which too were soon engulfed.
Forrest’s efforts were greatly aided by the Federals. The officer in command of the gunboats, Lt. Edward King, ordered his men to set fire to their boats, ordering his men back to the main fort, reporting that “Johnsonville can only be saved by a large force of iron-clads.”
King also ordered the transports to be put to the torch, but when this was done, the flames quickly spread to the piles of stores described by Forrest as lining the shore. From the stores, the fires spread to the warehouses.
Just over an hour after Forrest first opened fire, he had inadvertently destroyed everything in Johnsonville. Following the battle, all blame pointed to Lt. King as every other officer on site slowly backed away from the ordeal.
“I do not think there was the most remote necessity of burning either the transports or gun-boats, as the enemy had made no demonstration to cross whatever, nor could they have crossed and captured them under our fire,” came one report from the colonel of the 43rd Wisconsin. Others told the same story, that all could have been saved, especially if the transports had not been burned.
And though the stores were saved from Forrest’s hands, he made out like a bandit on the raid, “during which time I captured and destroyed 4 gun-boats, 14 transports, 20 barges, 26 pieces of artillery, $6,700,000 worth of property, and 150 prisoners. Brigadier-General Buford, after supplying his own command, turned over to my chief quartermaster about 9,000 pairs of shoes and 1,000 blankets.”
The attack upon the supply depot sent ripples through the west. That night, General Thomas ordered the Twenty-third Corps, commanded by John Schoefield, to Johnsonville, which he desperately wanted to be held. Forrest, on the other hand, knew when his time and luck were up. He would soon be ordered to Hood’s side for a final thrust into the heart of Tennessee.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p859, 861, 865, 866-867, 870; The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills. [↩]