September 27, 1864 (Tuesday)
Following his raid into Memphis, Tennessee, Nathan Bedford Forrest did not simply fade into the grays of Tennessee. For a time in late August, he was ushered to Mobile when it was feared that the city might fall, but when the crisis drew to a timely close, he returned to northern Alabama, where he met General Richard Taylor, no longer serving under Kirby Smith in Louisiana.
Taylor had become the new department commander of the increasingly unimportant Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. With literally nothing for the cavalier to do within said department, Taylor proposed sending Forrest back into Tennessee. At first, Forrest seemed to balk, expressing doubts and shying away from any commitment. But before long, he had worked out the details and the fire returned to his eyes.
By September 19th, Forrest was with his command at Cherokee Station, from which they crossed the Tennessee River at Florence, Alabama. His first target was the Federal fort in Athens, garrisoned mostly by black infantry soldiers. It was on the 24th when he sent a flag a truce, allowing the fort to surrender. The “white soldiers,” he wrote, “shall be treated as prisoners of war and the negroes returned to their masters.” This was a giant step for Forrest whose last foray with black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow did not go so well. Of course, he made no mention of what was to become of the black soldiers who had been free prior to joining the Federal army. To him, it was a nonissue.
In the end, the fort surrendered, though Forrest turned to a bit of ingenious deception to convince the fort’s commander that his numbers were far greater than they actually were.
With the Federals dealt with, Forrest’s men set themselves upon the railroad, tearing up track and destroying anything and everything that might be used by the enemy, including a couple of locomotives. Continuing on, they devoured a few small forts guarding the railroad.
The next day was much the same as he captured a fort and burned a large trestle. He sent back nearly 1,000 prisoners that day, but he was running out of ammunition. So too was he losing his own men in the process. These losses were not from battle so much as they were sent back to guard the captured prisoners, most of whom were now slaves.
Now moving north, Forrest entered Tennessee on the 26th, dogged only slightly by Col. George Spalding’s Federal cavalry. A small attempt was made to bar his way across the Elk River, and then again at Richmond Creek, but most either deserted their posts or simply surrendered when asked to by Forrest.
On this date, however, things began to change. Forrest explained in his official report:
“Six miles from Pulaski the enemy attacked my advance force and compelled them to fall back. General [Abraham] Buford hurried forward his division. I sent my escort to the extreme right, where they found the enemy strongly posted, and where seven of my escort were severely wounded in the engagement that occurred. The resistance of the enemy was most obstinate. He contested every inch of ground and grew more stubborn the nearer we approached town, but my troops drove them steadily back.
“Three miles from Pulaski he made a stand with seeming determination to yield no more ground. Colonel Kelley now occupied the extreme left, Colonel Johnson the center, and General Buford’s division on the right. The engagement was becoming a general one. The enemy threw his right around for the purpose of making an enfilading fire upon my troops who had pushed far into his center.
“About this time my troops on the left advanced, and the artillery in that direction unexpectedly opened a destructive fire, which caused the enemy to make a hasty retreat. He was closely followed up and driven into town and into his fortifications.”
After seven hours of fighting, Forrest finally reached Pulaski. Seeing how well placed were the Federals, he decided it best that he not attack, and ordered his command to withdraw. Once more he turned to deception, lighting as many campfires has he could manage, hoping that the enemy would believe a much larger force before them.
With the fires now burning, and night now fallen, Forrest sent forward squadrons of troopers to prey upon the railroad and telegraph lines between Pulaski and Columbia to the north. Forrest, however, would not be continuing north with the rails, but would turn east the following morning for Fayetteville. There, he would dispatch more troops to fall upon the rails to Chattanooga, cutting, as he went, the lines feeding General Sherman’s forces in Atlanta.
But the weather was turning against him. This, along with the lessening of ammunition and troops detached to guard prisoners and destroy the railroads meant that his raid might not last as long as he had wished. Still, he pressed on.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p545-546; 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. [↩]