Here’s a look at events in the Civil War 150 years ago this week.
These two men – US General William Sooy Smith and CS General Nathan Bedford Forrest – clashed in Mississippi.
If you saw the events unfold in a movie, you’d say it was over the top, and yet they actually happened.
The Google Map image below shows the main points of this week’s action – Houston, Pontotoc, Okolona, Starkville, Aberdeen and West Point – as they are today. The marker is at Chuquatonchee Creek; if you zoom in on the map itself, you will also see the site of the Battle of Ellis Bridge nearby.
Having said that, there was action elsewhere – in fact, Florida saw its biggest military engagement of the war.
Military events: Mississippi operations/Meridian campaign: CS General Chalmers and his men, on their way to Houston, Mississippi, to intercept the US column under General Sooy Smith that is advancing toward a junction with US General Sherman in Meridian, are overjoyed to see abundant forage when they reach Palo Alto, “the fertile prairie region of Mississippi, abounding in forage and subsistence.”
Meanwhile, Sooy Smith is advancing in a line to Pontotoc but thereafter moving more in the direction of Okolona. He has had easy going, except for some long-range sniping and one river crossing. The river was in flood and he had to wait almost two days while a bridge was built. Sooy Smith is practicing a scorched earth policy as he passes through this rich region. However, as the US column nears Houston, it starts running into organized resistance. (3, including quote; 9)
Military events: Mississippi operations/Meridian campaign: General Forrest, whose force is mostly composed of men he recruited in Tennessee some 60 days earlier, is also moving to intercept Sooy Smith’s column. He opens communication with Chalmers from Starkville and sends his brother, Colonel Jeffrey Forrest, forward toward Aberdeen to harass and delay the marching Federals. Chalmers has halted at Tampico for foraging. (3)
Military events: Mississippi operations/Meridian campaign: General Chalmers joins General Forrest in Starkville. Meanwhile, Colonel Forrest strikes the Federals at Aberdeen and is involved in a series of skirmishes as they force his brigade back toward West Point. (3)
Battles: Florida operations. The Battle of Olustee/Ocean Pond Among the retreating US forces is the Massachusetts 54th – the “Glory” regiment. No, they weren’t wiped out the previous year at Fort Wagner, and Colonel Edward Hallowell is now leading them.
This battle may have had something to do with politics. Per source 15, in 1863 a group of Florida Unionists had visited Treasure Secretary Salmon Chase…
…the Florida Unionists told Chase in 1863 that bringing Florida back into the Union would help Chase challenge Lincoln in the 1864 US general election. Per source 5:
Treasure Secretary Chase’s supporters in Florida received the assistance of Major General Quincy A. Gilmore, commanding the Department of the South, who ordered an expedition into eastern Florida to cut supply lines, enlist black soldiers, and disrupt Confederate operations in the state.
Gilmore apparently sent General Truman Seymour into Jacksonville on February 7th and met Seymour in Baldwin. Together they moved on Olustee/Ocean Pond. It did not turn out well. That background to the battle is worth mentioning, considering news from the White House on the 22nd from another source.
Military events: Mississippi operations/Meridian campaign: Thinking that Sooy Smith might cross the Tombigbee River at Aberdeen and head down the east bank, General Forrest sends out a brigade under Colonel Barteau to cross the Tombigbee at Columbus and head north up the river’s east bank to oppose any Federal movement there. Barteau finds the US troops massed as far south as West Point and decides to take a position at Waverly, from which he can cross the Tombigbee under cover of darkness and hit the Federal left flank. Meanwhile, Forrest leaves Starkville at sunrise with all of his men to support Colonel Forrest, who is falling back toward West Point as slowly as he can without becoming seriously engaged with the Union force, which greatly outnumbers him. General Forrest’s plan is to make use of local geography and the rain-swollen rivers to bottle up Sooy Smith until General Stephen Lee can arrive. In the afternoon, the general joins his brother Jeffrey, and they continue slowly falling back through West Point to the Ellis Bridge over Chuquatonchee Creek (Jordan and Pryor call it the Sook-a-toncha, and Wyeth refers to it Sakatonchee) some four miles west of town, where they stop for the night. The Federals are burning everything as they advance, and some 3000 former slaves have also joined the US column, slowing it down. (3; 9)
Military events: Mississippi operations/Meridian campaign: In the morning, Barteau’s brigade crosses the Tombigbee and keeps the Federals on the west side of the river all day, camping at Egypt Station on the Memphis and Ohio Railroad, where the Union soldiers try to surround him but fall.
The next morning, Barteau will proceed to Okolona and get involved in the fight there.
Meanwhile, at Chuquatonchee Creek, General Forrest and his men have a skirmish at the north end of the rickety bridge early in the morning, but the US forces withdraw, thinking they are drawing Forrest out into the open prairie:
But it soon became evident that we were not to “retire,” but to “retreat.” Forrest had only his “escort and a portion of Faulkner’s regiment.” With this force he drove our seven thousand men without difficulty, the First and Third brigades receiving constant orders from Smith to hasten on and give the road to the Second Brigade for its retreat. It was an unwilling retreat, and but for its orders, the command could easily have held its position at any moment. We proceeded in this manner to the camp of the division about three miles south of Okolona.
Sooy Smith evidently believes that by now Sherman must be returning back to Vicksburg from Meridian and that Forrest has been reinforced. (Sherman says he sent part of his troops to Canton and with the rest of his force he set out “to a place called ‘Union,’ whence I dispatched the cavalry farther north to Philadelphia and Louisville, to feel as it were for General Smith, and then turned all the infantry columns toward Canton, Mississippi.”  The tales of Forrest’s strength might have been partly disinformation put out by Forrest himself, but General Stephen Lee notes, “On February 20th, at West Point, Forrest received a dispatch from Lee, saying he would arrive on the 22d. Smith, at West Point, the same day heard of this dispatch, and also had it confirmed from prisoners and deserters taken in the evening of that day, when Forrest was retiring across the Sookatouchie [Chuquatonchee] stream. He [General Smith] determined at once to retreat rapidly before Lee joined his forces with Forrest, and to draw Forrest after him. Forrest, with his usual perception and vigor, at once comprehended a change of programme in Smith’s plans, and commenced one of his headlong pursuits, following Smith to vicinity of Pontotoc.” )
Smith therefore leaves West Point and heads for Okolona.
Forrest, after giving orders in the morning for General Chalmers to hold Ellis Bridge and river crossings north of it against any Federal flanking attempts, pursues the Union forces. The day is spent in skirmishes along very muddy, churned-up roads and ground, with Forrest losing about 80 killed and wounded, Sooy Smith about 200, including 75 prisoners taken.
Forrest keeps up the pursuit after dark and almost meets the same fate as General Thomas Jackson did less than a year earlier at Chancellorsville when a Confederate unit mistakes him and his men for Yankees. Luckily for Forrest, the bullet just goes through his clothes, but one of his men is killed.
They decide to stop for the night. (3; 9; 22, including quote; 23)
Battles: Georgia operations/Meridian campaign: The First Battle of Dalton, Georgia. Per source 14:
From Vicksburg, Mississippi, Sherman launched a campaign to take the important railroad center at Meridian and, if the situation was favorable, to push on to Selma and threaten Mobile, in order to prevent the shipment of Confederate men and supplies. To counter the threat, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered troops into the area. While these operations unfolded, Thomas determined to probe Gen. Johnston’s army in the hope that Johnston’s loss of two divisions, sent to reinforce Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk as he withdrew from Meridian to Demopolis, Alabama, would make him vulnerable. Skirmishing and intense fighting occurred throughout the demonstration. At Crow Valley on the 25th, Union troops almost turned the Rebel right flank, but ultimately it held. On the 27th, Thomas’s army withdrew, realizing that Johnston was ready and able to counter any assault.
Mississippi operations/Meridian campaign: The Battle of Okolona/Ivey’s Farm/Ivey’s Hill. General Forrest hulks out after his brother is killed; as the Hulk was unknown in the 19th century, Jordan and Pryor instead say he turned into “a Scandinavian Berserk.” (23, including the following description)
At Ivey’s Hill, some six miles beyond Okolona, the Federals came to a stand. Dismounting they occupied a timber-covered ridge and threw up fence rail barricades across the road. Col. Jeffrey Forrest, the general’s youngest and favorite brother, led the attack on the Yankee roadblock. In the ensuing desperate fighting, Jeffrey was shot through the neck and fell mortally wounded, within 300 yards of the enemy strongpoint. His men faltered as they saw their leader fall, and, dismounting, they prepared to hold the ground gained. General Forrest informed that his brother had been shot, galloped to the site and dismounted. Jeffrey died as Nathan Bedford cradled him in his arms and called out “Jeffrey, Jeffrey” in a voice choked with emotion. Satisfied that Jeffrey was dead, Forrest kissed him on the forehead, laid him down, and called for Maj. John P. Strange, and, with tears in his eyes, asked him to take care of his brother’s body.
In the immediate vicinity, battle-hardened Confederates had ceased fire [the order was given out of respect for Forrest's loss (3); Smith did not take advantage of the moment to order an advance (9)], but to the right and left the dismounted Rebels exchanged shots with the bluecoats on the ridge. As Reinforcements came into view, Forrest remounted and brandishing his saber ordered his bugler to sound the charge, as he shouted for his men to follow him. With his escort hard on his horse’s heels, Forrest galloped toward the enemy, and to some of his people his actions seemed “so rash as to savor madness.” The Federal troopers defending the roadblock “broke to the rear and retreated at great speed.” Forrest, closely trailed by some 120 of his men, pursued. About a mile up the road, some 500 Yanks were encountered. Forrest, undaunted by the odds, assailed the roadblock. One of the war’s most furious hand-to-hand fights occurred. In which the general killed three of the enemy horse soldiers. Just as it seemed that Forrest and his small force was about to be overwhelmed, Col. “Black Bob” MuCullough, wounded earlier in the day’s fighting, led his brigade to his general’s rescue, brandishing his bloodstained bandages above his head as a flag.
The Federals gave way before the Rebel reinforcements, pulled back about a mile, and rallied on a plantation house, its outbuildings, and fences. Forrest’s horse, as he led his men toward the stronghold, was killed. One of the escorts surrendered his steed to the general, as the Federals soon abandoned this position in favor of another roadblock, while General Smith and their officers sought to buy time. Here there was another short, sharp fight, in which Forrest’s second horse was shot down. His favorite charger “King Philip” was brought up, and Forrest rode him until nightfall, closing the day’s fighting, though “King Philip” received a light neck wound.
Other: “Crisis in the Lincoln Administration over the Pomeroy Circular backing Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase as Republican candidate for President in the 1864 elections.” (5, including quote) Lincoln receives the endorsement of the Republican National Committee today. (4) Chase sends a note to US President Lincoln. See note at Battle of Olustee/Ocean Pond above.
Battles: Georgia operations/Meridian campaign: The First Battle of Dalton, Georgia, (skirmishing) continues. (14)
Military events: Mississippi operations/Meridian campaign: Sooy Smith begins his northward retreat. All along the way, the Federals will be harassed and fired on, they believe, by Forrest and his men (however, Forrest does not take part in the pursuit and instead reestablishes his headquarters at Starkville). After he gets back to Memphis, Sooy Smith will be criticized for not leaving on February 1st as ordered, and in July he will leave the service, citing rheumatoid arthritis as the cause. (3; Wikipedia)
(2) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).
(3) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).
(4) The Lincoln Log timeline.
(6) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.
(9) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).
(10) Captain Raphael Semmes and the CSS Alabama, US Naval Historical Center.
(12) The Siege of Charleston, “The State.” (South Carolina)
(13) Friends of the Hunley.
(15) The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War.” (2002) David J. Eicher.
(17) The Pictorial Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the War of the Rebellion…, Richard Miller Devens (1866).
(18) Rosser’s Raid.
(19) Memoirs of W. T. Sherman – The Meridian Campaign.
(20) The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War. James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., 1995.
(21) “Sherman’s Meridian expedition and Sooy Smith’s raid to West point. A Review by General S. D. Lee,” in Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 8., Reverend J. William Jones, Ed.
Categories: American Civil War