February 10, 1864 (Wednesday)
As the Federal column under General William Tecumseh Sherman marched east through Mississippi, there was another column, mounted, that was integral to the success of the scheme. General William Sooy Smith’s cavalry was to move in concern with Sherman, both reaching Meridian at about the same time. While Sherman advanced from Vicksburg, Smith was to descend from Collierville, near Memphis.
Sherman was still several days out from Meridian, and not fully convinced that his path would be a clear one to that important railroad hub. Still, he was fairly certain that Smith would not appear when he was supposed to do so. Smith was ordered to move on February 1st, traverse the 250 miles to Meridian, and arrive on this date. But on this date, he and his command were still in Collierville.
If there was one thing that Sherman feared would completely derail Sooy Smith’s advance (apart from Smith, himself) was the Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest. They had thinly spread themselves as a sort of buffer between Smith and Sherman, being much closer to the former, nestled along the Tallahatchie River. Smith, however, believed he could whip Forrest with the simple strategy of attacking the enemy en masse and charging whenever possible. Smith was enthusiastic about fighting the famed cavalier, promising “to pitch into Forrest wherever I find him.”
Smith was more or less ready to move at the date slated for departure, but he decided instead to wait for an additional brigade, which did not show up until the 8th. When the brigade arrived, its horses were worn out and needed to be rested a few days, delaying the column even more.
On this date, Smith wrote to Sherman, gushing over the weather, the roads and the find condition of his men. But he was late, and had to say something to justify it. “I fear this delay,” he began, “will rob me of the opportunity of accomplishing the work assigned to me; but it has been unavoidable by any effort that I could make, and I will now do all that I can. My command is in splendid condition, and all the information that I have been able to get – and it is quite full, and, I think, reliable – justifies me in waiting for the brigade from above.”
He ended by vowing, “I will hurt them all I can, and endeavor to open direct communication with you at the earliest possible moment. Weather beautiful; roads getting good.”
From his vantage point on the Tallahatchie, General Forrest knew that Smith had gathered a great force in Collierville – perhaps as many as 10,000 cavalry as well as infantry. He also knew that his own force consisted of only 2,500. What he didn’t know what Smith’s intentions. At the time, the idea that Sherman was ultimately headed for Mobile, Alabama was en vogue, and though that didn’t directly concern Forrest, it also muddied the waters as to how Smith was to aid Sherman, if at all. For the time being, Forrest assumed that Smith was, at first, aiming for Okolona, a small railroad town fifty-five miles southeast of his own headquarters in Oxford.
He had positioned his troops near the river crossings, admonishing them to preserve their numbers. “Do not allow your command to engage a superior force,” he told General James Chalmers, leading troops near Panola. “Fall back to the river and defend the crossings.” Forrest also told him the route he expected Smith to take. “The enemy will attempt to move on our right by the way of Ripley, and from Collierville toward Okolona. Chalmers in Panola was on the Confederate left, and Forrest ordered him to be “prepared to move at a moment’s notice.” The idea was to gather at Oxford and attack the moving Federal column.
Chalmers, for his part, wanted to Federals to cross at Panola, writing to Forrest: “Will try to deceive the enemy into the belief that we are evacuating to induce them to come on.” In this, Forrest gave his complete support, warning him not to show his artillery “unless compelled.” Still, he thought it more likely that the Federals nearest to Chalmers would lay their pontoon bridge at Belmont, upriver from Panola.
The troops before Chalmers were not really part of Smith’s force, however. They were part of a brigade of infantry ordered by Smith to aid his column when crossing the Tallahatchie River. Led by Col. William McMillen, the Federal soldiers moved down the railroad from Memphis, beating back Forrest’s pickets as they passed through Hernando and Senatobia, drawing closer to the crossing at Panola. Hoping to deceive Forrest, Smith planned to follow McMillen’s troops for a bit, but then change course to cross on Forrest’s right. This, of course, was Forrest’s notion all along.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p255-256; Part 2, p363, 700, 707-708; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster; The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman by Brian Steel Wills; That Devil Forrest by John Allan Wyeth. [↩]