Col. Robert C. Murphy was lucky to still have a place in the Union Army. In September, he abandoned supplies during the Iuka campaign. After narrowly missing a court martial, he found himself in command of a gaggle of troops guarding General Grant’s advance supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi.
And on the morning of this date, he found himself roused out of bed at 5am – far earlier than he was planning on greeting the day. From his slumber, two troopers were shaking him all so that he could talk to a black man who apparently saw a bunch of Rebels somewhere or another.
After listening, he dismissed it, telling them that it was old news. He shot Grant a quick wire sort of informing him of the report and promising to send out scouts to ascertain the truth. With that accomplished, Col. Murphy went back to bed. He never sent out the scouts, perhaps hoping that his intentions would be good enough.
In a sense, it was old news. The previous day, Grant had learned that a force of Rebel cavalry had gotten behind his lines. He knew about Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troopers farther to the north, but also caught wind of another force, though he had no real idea where it was. He ordered pursuit, but it was slow and poking blindly.
What Grant was most worried about was Holly Springs and the huge stores of supplies. Grant made a special point in contacting Col. Murphy and ordered him to be vigilant and to throw out scouts. Murphy replied that his scouts wouldn’t leave camp until dawn (of this date).
Grant had every reason to be worried about Holly Springs. It was the supply depot that was the target of the 2,500 Rebel cavalry troopers under Earl Van Dorn. The Confederates had left their camp near Grenada, and zig-zagged their way north, throwing off Union pickets and scouts as they went.
By the night of the 19th, Van Dorn was five miles away from Holly Springs. There, he halted his men, sending a handful into Col. Murphy’s camp with forged passes. When the scouts arrived, they found the Union troops disorganized and scattered about. There were no preparations for a defense, a fight, a chase or anything aside from a ball that was to take place the following evening.
Van Dorn’s spies returned well before dawn, giving their commander everything he needed to know about the layout and disposition of the supplies and troops. The plan, constructed on the fly, divided up Holly Springs, giving each of his regiments an objective to hit.
And just as the dawn spread its light over Mississippi, Van Dorn attacked, sweeping into town in a rush.
Immediately, Van Dorn’s men were upon the Federals. The Rebel Missouri Cavalry hit the Illinois Infantry, sending them running without so much as a fight. The Texas regiment screamed into the unguarded downtown, putting everything they could to the torch. Just as the Illinois Cavalry was assembling for the morning roll call, the Mississippi Cavalry dashed into their lines.
At arms, the Federals now put up a bit of a fight, but not much. Being taken by surprise and outnumbered, the Union cavalry could do little but surrender or run for their lives.
By 8am, Holly Springs was Van Dorn’s. Aided by the local ladies, he found Union supplies and troops in hiding. He even found General Grant’s wife, Julia, who had come to Mississippi to visit her husband. Van Dorn took special care that she would not be harmed, placing guards on her house for protection.
Col. Murphy, who had rolled over and went back to sleep after being told of a mass of nearby Rebels, could hardly do that with that mass riding through the streets of Holly Springs. Still in his night clothes, he too surrendered.
Things quickly got out of hand. With the Union supplies in flames, the Rebels, captured Union prisoners and local slaves all took to looting. The town was soon in flames. It took until 4pm for Van Dorn to get his men under control. He paroled the Union prisoners, including Col. Murphy, and went on his way, tearing up tracks and cutting telegraph lines as he went. Van Dorn and his Rebels had destroyed Grant’s main supply depot.
Murphy was in a frenzy. “My fate it most mortifying,” wrote Murphy that night in what would become his official report. “I have wished a hundred times to-day that I had been killed. I have done all in my power – in truth, my force was inadequate.”
Major John Mudd, commanding the Illinois Cavalry heartedly disagreed: “I cannot doubt but that the place could have been successfully defended by even half the force here had suitable precautions been taken and the infantry been concentrated, their officers in camp with them and prepared to fight.”
Grant agreed, writing in his own report that Murphy “took no steps to protect the place, not having notified a single officer of his command of the approaching danger, although he himself had received warning, as hereinbefore stated.”
And as the new year rolled around, Col. Murphy would find himself out of a job and before even that, Grant would find himself out of a campaign.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 1, p477, 509, 513; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. [↩]