February 23, 1864 (Tuesday)
“Forrest at last accounts was within 3 miles of Okolona in pursuit of the enemy, who was still retreating,” wrote Confederate cavalry commander, S.D. Lee. “I think they are bound for Memphis.”
Lee’s scouts, as well as word from Nathan Bedford Forrest, brought a sliver of good news after weeks of bad. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee had burned a swath through Mississippi, and utterly decimated Meridian. By this time, they were returning to Vicksburg, having run out of things to destroy. The Rebel Army of Mississippi, under Leonidas Polk, had retreated into Alabama and there remained.
At the inception of Sherman’s plan, he had deemed a column of cavalry under Sooy Smith to be essential. As own infantry would leave from Vicksburg, Smith’s cavalry would depart Memphis. With any luck, they would arrive in Meridian at the same time. But Smith was woefully late, not even starting until Sherman was in sight of their quarry, on February 11th. He was scheduled to leave ten days before.
Unable to truly aid Sherman, Smith developed his own plan – to destroy the already scattered cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest. Sherman had little faith that the man could pull this off. “I deem General Sooy Smith too mistrustful of himself for a leader against Forrest,” wrote Sherman to Grant that past December, as they were planning the winter campaigns.
As Smith left Collierville, a small town near Memphis, Forrest was in the fog as to their plans. Ultimately, he understood that Smith wanted to join with Sherman, 150 miles to the southeast, but which roads he would take, and where he would cross the rivers, for the time, alluded him. His best guess, however, was that Smith would make for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, using the town of Okolona as a point of reference.
It took Smith but three days to traverse the sixty miles to New Albany, Mississippi, where they crossed the Tallahatchie River. Forrest’s men had guarded several river crossings, but he had too few to stretch them all the way upstream to the crossing selected by Smith, who had started his march by feinting south, and throwing Forrest off his scent.
For the next four days, until the 18th, Forrest could do little to stop Smith’s slow move to Okolona. The Federals outnumbered the Rebels several times over, and though Forrest was undoubtedly a fighter, he also understood a lost cause when he saw one.
Smith’s force had been on the road for a week, facing very little opposition. There was some local militia here and there, spies, to be sure, and even some guerrillas dressed as women. But the forty miles to Okolona were mostly uncontested.
That did not mean, however, that they were forty uneventful miles. Smith’s men had been told to forage off the land for food. This they did, but burned and cut as they went. While Sherman’s troops mostly torched public property, Smith’s men hardly discriminated, making Sooy Smith more like Sherman than Sherman.
With all this chaos and the fires of Mississippi homes illuminating the horizon, Forrest knew exactly Smith’s location. As the Federal column advanced farther into the untouched counties of the state, flocks of slaves, freeing themselves from dehumanizing bondage, began to follow. Soon, Forrest vowed, he would have his revenge.
The Rebels had concentrated at West Point, a small crossroads thirty miles to the south. Smith received word on the 17th and contemplated calling off the expedition. Though convinced by his underlings to continue, Smith was hardly convinced of success, and reluctantly led his troops into the fray.
By the 19th, the lead elements of both forces were skirmishing, as Forrest developed his plan to defend against Smith. The Southern cavalry general established a line of defense south of West Point. Forrest deemed this ground nearly perfect. Several miles to the east was the Tombigbee River, overflowing its banks due to the recent rains. To the west, lay a creek, which was similarly flooded. Both were uncrossable, and if Forrest could draw Smith toward him, he was certain his troops could trap the Yankees.
Dividing his force, he left a brigade to skirmish with the descending Federals, while others scattered to the east and west, essentially hiding behind the rivers and creeks, waiting for Smith to stumble into West Point so they could slam shut the corral.
Across the 20th, Smith tossed back Forrest’s skirmishers, who were playing well their part as a lure, entering West Point that afternoon. Forrest’s plan had worked, and the next day, he would pounce. But Smith was not unaware of his predicament. When finally in West Point, he knew that Forrest had led him into a trap, and he began to panic. Word had come into his lines that S.D. Lee’s Cavalry was soon to join Forrest’s. This also convinced him that Sherman had already taken Meridian, since Lee’s troopers were obviously freed from their duty 100 miles to the south.
Smith had also fallen ill, and turned the command over to his second, Benjamin Grierson, who wanted to continue south. Thinking that was a bad idea, Smith retook command and decided to retreat the following day. And so, without so much as a major skirmish with Forrest, the Federals were returning. Most other grossly outnumbered officers might have let loose a sigh of relief. But not Forrest – on the morning of the 21st, he attacked what was then Smith’s rear guard.
The fighting was, from the start, vicious, with the Union troopers charing several times in an attempt to drive back the Rebels. When Forrest arrived on the scene, he quickly deduced that Smith was retreating. Taking the lead, Forrest threw two of his brigades against Smith’s rear guard, playing on their flanks when he could. Each time the Federals tried to make a stand, there was Forrest and their blue lines melted away.
Though Smith had wrested command back from General Grierson, both issued orders that day, and many were confusing and contradictory. This string of mishaps sent regiments criss-crossing the countryside until night finally put an end to the battles. The Federals were encamped at Okolona, with Forrest’s Rebels close at hand.
The next morning, the 22nd (yesterday, as it were), found Forrest moving his column toward Egyptian Station on the railroad, where his scouts had placed the Federal rear guard. Once more hitting their flanks, he herded the Yankees back to Okolona. But it was there that they formed an imposing line of defense, and prepared to counterattack.
Forrest’s troopers had become scattered, and only a brigade remained in good standing. That would have to do. As the Federals prepared to assault Forrest’s disordered lines, the single brigade, with Forrest himself in the lead, sprang forth. Quickly, one Federal regiment broke – but they were green and it could be expected. Another, made up of US Regulars, might not be so easy. But as their support faded away, casting off their sidearms and accouterments, they found themselves outnumbered and decided to fall back.
General Forrest, of course, wanted to pursue, but his troops were still in disarray. He regrouped as quickly as he could, but by the time he found his footing, the Federals were discovered on a ridge and ready to receive him. As he and his men fell into line of battle, the Union artillery opened upon them. With two brigades, one led by his brother, Col. Jeffrey Forrest, he called for a charge.
Within moments, the Rebels were falling dead and wounded from the concentrated Federal fire. Jeffrey Forrest fell too, shot through the neck. The first Confederate attack had failed. After Forrest bade his brother farewell, he called for another assault upon the Federals, who had begun again their retreat. This time, it sent the Yankees reeling. Having two horses shot out from under him, Forrest led his men forward until, due to fatigue, confusion, woundings and deaths, there were but 300 left with him by his side – most from his brother’s brigade.
Soon, Forrest’s two other brigades joined him, and the Federal opportunity had nearly slipped away. Seeing the Rebels perhaps in some disorder, one of Sooy Smith’s officers suggested a charge to break them up before they could fully concentrate. Smith agreed, and the charge began. Seeing he was about to be attacked, Forrest called for a charge of his own. His men were low on ammunition, but the saber would suffice. The two lines met, crashing together, the Rebels getting the worst of it, though only at first. When Forrest’s second wave hit the Yankees, they broke, leaving behind their artillery.
Forrest held the field, but, as his men were exhausted and out of ammunition, he had to let them escape. The next morning (this date), elements of Forrest’s command harassed Sooy Smith’s retreating column. It would take five days for them to return to their original camps, facing starvation as they had to retrace the roads scorched and still smoldering from their own destruction the week prior.
Through the whole of the expedition, the Federals lost 319, while Forrest claimed only 144 of his own. In the end, Sherman was proven right – Sooy Smith was indeed too mistrustful of himself to battle Forrest.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2, p795; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster; 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. [↩]