Civil War Photo Contest
Featured Book Reviewer
- Feb 23, 2013
- East Texas
The Battle of Brice's Crossroads, fought on June 10, 1864, in northern Mississippi was Confederate cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest's tactical masterpiece and has been favorably compared with the 216 BC victory of Carthaginian general Hannibal over his Roman enemies in the Battle of Cannae. In both cases a smaller army accomplished the frequently sought-after but rarely achieved maneuver known as double envelopment, essentially destroying a larger enemy force with its back against a river. Whether by design or accident this engagement raises Forrest above mere raider and places him as a contender to join the ranks of the great commanders of history.
The stage was set with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's 1864 Atlanta Campaign, depending as it did on a tenuous and easily disrupted supply line consisting mainly of the railroads from Nashville, Tennessee to Decatur, Alabama and Chattanooga, Tennessee, his base of operations. Forrest's mounted infantry had earlier in the war proven themselves to be capable railroad-wreckers so it was of prime importance to Sherman to keep them out of middle Tennessee. For this he turned to his commander in Memphis, Maj. Gen. Cadwallader Washburn, to mount an expedition into northern Mississippi to keep Forrest busy and away from the railroads supplying his army.
This task was entrusted to Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis, above center flanked on the left by the commander of his infantry contingent Col. William Linn McMillen, and on the right by cavalryman Brig. Gen. Benjamin Grierson, already famous for his raid the previous year on Newton Station, Mississippi during the Vicksburg Campaign. Sturgis had already made one abortive sortie against Forrest which had been cut short with nothing to show for the effort and he realized that his career might well be on the line. A professional member of the Old Army, previous to this he had led an infantry division in the east at the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg but had little experience as a raider in command of a mixed force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. His combined force totaled in excess of 8,000 men about evenly divided between the two branches. So far his march had been uneventful but tedious, involving much rain and the necessity of building corduroy roads over rain-swollen creeks and the flooded Hatchie River bottoms.
Sturgis was marching in a southeastern direction from the Hatchie crossing toward Guntown, a stop on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad leading south from Corinth, Mississippi and threatening the fertile Black Prairie region that was a breadbasket for this part of the Confederacy when Forrest learned of his move. Forrest himself was already in north Alabama on his way to wreck Sherman's supply line when he was ordered by department commander Lt. Gen. S. D. Lee to turn back to meet this new threat posed by Sturgis. He sent a scouting party west along the Baldwyn Road which intercepted Grierson's vanguard in the area above only a short distance from Brice's Crossroads.
The National Battlefield Trust map above shows the Stages through which the battle progressed and the position of the crossroads at the center of the action. Forrest rushed his available force, three small brigades of cavalry numbering fewer than 3,000 men, along the road from Baldwyn toward Brice's and Sturgis' line of march. Grierson was leading Sturgis' force with his two brigades of cavalry and at first was uncertain how many Rebels he faced or the composition of their force, eventually putting all his men in line, Waring's brigade to the north covering the Baldwyn Road and Winslow's Iowa brigade stretching south to the Guntown Road. Although the center of his line was held by three regiments armed with repeating rifled carbines, Grierson mistakenly believed he had run into Confederate infantry because most of Forrest's men were armed with Enfield rifles having a longer range than the short Federal carbines.
The terrain at Brice's Crossroads consisted mainly of thickets of blackjack oak like that below, interspersed by cleared farm fields like that above. Here the first battle lines were drawn and the first phase occurred between Grierson's dismounted cavalry fighting on foot against Forrest's dismounted men acting as infantry. As author Ed Bearss writing in Blue & Gray Magazine points out, Benjamin Grierson was having an exceptionally bad day, being himself more suited to the role of raider than that of fighter; concerned and remaining uncertain he called repeatedly to Sturgis to hurry forward the infantry which had been trailing the cavalry at a distance.
McMillen's infantry was organized in three brigades of varying composition, two each having five small regiments with 4-6 attached guns, and a third consisting of only two large newly-recruited black regiments and a two-gun section of black artillerymen. They had been toiling all day through the drying roads with mud like clay that clung to the men's feet and resulting oppressive humidity and a rising temperature that would eventually reach the mid 90's. The last mile or so they were made to march at the double-quick to reach and succor Grierson who was running low on ammunition; when Sturgis arrived he asked his cavalry commander how it was he had shot up so much ammunition so quickly! In the area above the exhausted Union footsloggers formed their contracted line to replace Grierson's men, most of whom mounted up and retired from the battle altogether.
In the meantime, Forrest himself had received reenforcements in the form of Bell's Tennessee cavalry brigade and his artillery. Above, Bedford Forrest at center is flanked by Brig. Gen. Abraham Buford at right, to whose division Bell belonged; and at left by young twenty-two year-old Capt. John W. Morton commanding the artillery battalion, consisting of his own and Rice's Tennessee batteries. Buford was the brother of Confederate general Napoleon Buford and a cousin of Union MajJohn Buford of Gettysburg fame. Although he nominally commanded Bell's men, here as Forrest's second-in-command he took charge of the Confederate right while Forrest personally led Bell and attached small units on the Confederate left. Up until this point, the Confederates had been fighting without any artillery, but that was about to change in a dramatic way when Forrest ordered Morton to charge with his guns into the front lines with his cannon loaded with double canister.
The battle had raged in the woods for some time as Forrest "got the bulge" on McMillen's infantry, stretching his own lines thin so as to outflank the infantry on both the Baldwyn and Guntown roads simultaneously (double envelopment). The map at the right above in the acre of land maintained by the National Park Service at the site of the wartime two-story Brice farmhouse at the crossroads depicts the general course of the action as Forrest sent the Second Tennessee against the Union left while he personally led Bell's men and his escort company against the Union right which was briefly held by the remnant of Grierson's men still on the field.
The monument above and below commemorates Morton's unusual charge; he had been ordered that when he heard the signal blown by Forrest's personal bugler he was to gallop forward to a position only 200 yards from the Union line and quickly go into battery with his already-loaded guns and fire a point-blank salvo of double canister into the closely packed Union center while the mounted infantry assailed the flanks. The gigantic Buford, who weighed in at nearly 300 pounds, cried out in his stentorian voice, heard over in the enemy lines, for his men to "Fix [their non-existent] bayonets!", reinforcing the idea that it was infantry that the Federals were fighting against.
It should be observed that when Grierson's cavalry quit the field to be replaced by McMillen's infantry, the Union line had moved back closer to the crossroads. The exhausted infantry formed in close order covered less ground and their constricting line was now subject to converging fire, as the Confederates fighting in more open order began to overlap or edge nearer to their flanks, which were essentially "in the air" resting upon no natural obstacles. Forrest's aim soon became that of getting around one or both flanks into the Union rear.
The marker above is in the area where Captain H. A. Tyler (pictured) led his men against the Union left flank in an effort to seize the bridge across Tishimingo Creek, Sturges' route of retreat. Although neither Tyler nor Forrest himself were able to capture the bridge the threat was enough to create a stampede of Union infantry who could hear the firing in their rear as Sturgis' line began to crumble and give way.
The Area of the crossroads which today is the site of the battle monument above became a scene of pandemonium as Union soldiers, at first singly, then in small groups, and eventually entire units began to move to the left of the photo in the direction of the Guntown Road leading back the way they had come. Here neither Sturgis nor any of his subordinates were able to exercise any control over what was happening as the units dissolved around them.
The area above borders Tishimingo Creek which was flooded and running high due to the recent rains and impassable, save for a small bridge. Matters here were compounded by the sheer stupidity - there's simply no other word for it - of whoever ordered Sturgis' two hundred vehicle wagon train across the creek while the battle was in progress. The bulk of it had camped in the open area in the creek bottom as seen in the background of the photo below. As usual in cases like this, the teamsters panicked, many cutting the draft horses out of their traces in order to ride to safety and abandoning the wagons altogether. Others excitedly attempted to get their charges across the tiny span, creating a huge traffic jam.
Today the modern bridge is only a short distance from its wartime predecessor but the steep banks, which contained a full creek, can still be seen in the photo below. Union infantry also began to panic here at the blocked bridge, many throwing away all their weapons and accouterments in order to swim the stream.
The stretch of road below likely resembles those of the period - mere ribbons of mud and standing water through which the Federals now rushed to escape Forrest and his pursuing men. A brief lull ensued as the Southern cavalry had to collect their horses for the pursuit.
Thus far, the two regiments of United States Colored Troops and their attached section of guns commanded by Colonel Edward Bouton had remained unengaged on the north bank of Tishimingo Creek as train and rearguard but were called forward now to cover the Union retreat. Two companies of the 55th USCT had actually crossed and fought briefly on the Union left against Tennesseans led by Col. Clark Barteau but joined in the retreat. The remainder of Bouton's men were positioned on a ridge at a place called the White House to cover the road, whose wartime trace can be seen at left above. The White House was a local landmark belonging to Dr. Samuel Agnew but has since disappeared; its site was in the background of the photo below at right receding into the distance.
The flooded Hatchie caused the abandonment of most of the artillery and vehicles that had thus far survived, so there was little to impede the Federal rout. In addition to casualties, in the retreat Sturgis lost eighteen pieces of artillery along with most of their caissons, limbers, and harness; several ambulances and other vehicles; and most of his wagon train and its contents. It was said that it had taken his shattered army ten days to march from Memphis to Brice's, but only a single day and two nights to return! Sturgis' downfall was symbolized by the fact he had ridden off proudly, mounted on a fine charger, but when he returned he was now mounted on a battery draft horse like many of his teamsters.
Remaining onsite at the White House is the grave of James C. Jourdan of Moreland's Alabama Cavalry Battalion, killed in the battle. Since Forrest remained in control of the battlefield, the Confederate wounded were removed to nearby towns and their ninety dead buried in a tiny cemetery near the crossroads; unfortunately the wooden markers were allowed to deteriorate so that the exact burial sites have been lost. The markers below were placed in the 1990's and many bear the names of those known to have been killed here. The final tally was killed: 223 Federal, 96 Confederate; wounded: 503 Federal, 396 Confederate; and captured or missing: approximately 1,800 Federal, 0 Confederate.
By the time the fleeing Federals reached the vicinity of Memphis Sturgis' self-confidence was completely gone and his career ruined,so he asked to be relieved. Oddly enough, however, he remained in the army and due to his rank postwar he was named the commander of the new 7th Cavalry Regiment, though he spent most of his duty at a desk job in Washington, leaving his second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer to lead it in the field. However that did not pervent the death of at least one Sturgis in the Battle of the Little Big Horn: his son, newly graduated from West Point died as a second lieutenant in one of Custer's companies there.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, seen above in shirtsleeves directing the battle of Brice's Crossroads in a painting by Rick Reeves, possibly had never heard of Hannibal nor his overwhelming victory over Varro and Paullus at Cannae but clearly understood the principle by which victory had been achieved. He expressed it in his own inimitable way, "Hit 'em on the end"; or in this case, "Hit 'em on both ends [at the same time]." His complete victory here was to prove a short one, however, as Sherman insisted on outfitting yet another expedition, this time of almost double the numbers, under Maj. Gen. A. J. Smith, a solid commander known for rocklike stability under fire. Smith brought Forrest to bay a little farther south of Brice's Crossroads at Tupelo, and although he inflicted heavy losses on the Confederates and won the fight he nevertheless also retreated in the end. Regardless, all these actions, although they failed to either kill Forrest - Sherman's express wish - or destroy his command, nevertheless prevented Forrest from interfering with Sherman's extended supply line.