Forrest is the devil, and I think he has got some of our troops under cower…I will order them to make up a force and go out to follow Forrest to the death. If it costs ten thousand lives and breaks the Treasury. There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead.
General William T. Sherman to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton-June 15, 1864
General Nathan Bedford Forrest gained some incredible victories in the Civil War, but his victory at Brice’s Cross Roads in which he routed a well supplied Union force outnumbering his by almost three to one, ensured that he would enjoy mythic stature for the remainder of his life.
Sherman made Forrest one of his chief targets in the late spring of 1864, Sherman being concerned that Forrest would raid and shred his supply lines as he moved further south into Georgia. For that purpose Major General Samuel D. Sturgis was given a mixed force of 8500 infantry and cavalry and given the mission of finding Forrest and destroying him. Leaving Memphis on June 1, 1864, Sturgis headed into Mississippi.
As in so many times in his Civil War career, Forrest the hunted, quickly became Forrest the hunter. Commanding only 3200 men, Forrest decided that he would fight Sturgis on ground of his choosing. Realizing that Sturgis was heading for Tupelo, Mississippi, Forrest decided to fight at Brice’s Crossroads about 15 miles north of Tupelo. The prospective battlefield had heavily wooded areas and one creek, Tishomingo Creek, with only one bridge across it, which the Union force would have to use to reach Brice’s cross roads. Forrest was aware that the Union cavalry part of the force of Sturgis was about three hours ahead of the Union infantry, wearily marching over muddy roads.
At 9:45 AM a brigade of General Benjamin Grierson’s cavalry division crossed the bridge over Tishomingo Creek and headed towards Brice Crossroads. Forrest immediately launched a delaying attack with one of his cavalry brigades. By 11:30 AM all of the Union cavalry was committed and Forrest was driving them back with his cavalry.
By 1:30 PM the exhausted Union infantry regiments began to arrive after struggling all morning marching along the muddy roads.. The Union force briefly went on the offensive attacking Forrest’s left. Forrest repulsed this attack and launched attacks on both Union flanks while battering the Union center with his artillery. An unsuccessful attack on the bridge over Tishomingo Creek at 3:30 PM caused a panic in the Union force. Sturgis decided to retreat and the retreat became a rout with panic beginning as the bridge across the creek became a bottle neck. Sturgis by this time was hoping merely to escape as he indicated to Colonel Edward Bouton of the 59th US Colored Infantry: “For God’s sake, if Mr. Forrest will let me alone I will let him alone. You have done all you could and more than was expected of you, and now all you can do is to save yourselves. ”
Forrest chased Sturgis back to Memphis across six counties. Union casualties were 2610, including 1500 prisoners. Forrest had 492 casualties. Huge amounts of supplies, ammunition, horses and 16 cannon were Forrest’s reward for one of the most brilliant victories of the Civil War. Here is the report of Sturgis, which is refreshingly blunt overall regarding his drubbing:
HEADQUARTERS U. S. FORCES, Collierville, Tenn., June 12, 1864.
Major General C. C. WASHBURN,
Commanding District of WEST Tennessee:
GENERAL: I have the honor to report that we met the enemy in position and in heavy force, about 10 a. m. on the 10th instant, at Brice’s Cross-Roads, on the Ripley and Fulton road, and about six miles northwest of Guntown, Miss. A severe battle ensued, which lasted until about 4 p. m., when, I regret to say, my lines were compelled to give way before the overwhelming numbers by which they were assailed at every point. To fall back at this point was more than ordinarily difficult as there was a narrow valley in our rear, through which runs a small creek, crossed by a single narrow bridge. The road was almost impassable by reason of the heavy rains which had fallen for the previous ten days, and the consequence was that the road soon became jammed by the artillery and ordnance wagons. This gradually led to confusion and disorder. In a few minutes, however, I succeeded in establishing two colored regiments in line of battle in a wood on this side of the little valley. These troops stood their ground well and checked the enemy for a time. The check, however, was only temporary, and this line in turn gave way; my troops were seized with a panic and became absolutely uncontrollable. One mile and a half in rear, by dint of great exertion and with pistol in hand, I again succeeded in checking up the flying column and placing it in line of battle. This line checked the enemy for ten or fifteen minutes only, when it again gave way, and may whole army became literally an uncontrollable mob. Nothing now remained to do but allow the retreat to continue and endeavor to force it gradually into some kind of shape. The night was exceeding dark, the roads almost impassable, and the hope of saving my artillery and wagons altogether futile, so I ordered the artillery and wagons to be destroyed. The latter were burned and the former dismantled and spiked-that is, all but six pieces, which we succeeded in bringing off in safety. By 7 o’clock next morning we reached Ripley, nineteen miles. Here we reor-ganized and got into very respectable shape. The retreat was continued, pressed rapidly by the enemy. Our ammunition soon gave out; this the enemy soon discovered and pressed the harder. Our only hope now lay in continuing the retreat, which we did, to this place, where we arrived about 7 o’clock this morning.
My losses in material of war were severe, being 16 guns and some 130 wagons. The horses of the artillery and mules of the train we brought away.
As my troops became very greatly scattered and are constantly coming in small parties, I am unable to estimate my loss in killed and wounded; I fear, however, it will prove severe, probably 1,000 or 1,200.
While the battle lasted it was well conducted, and I think the enemy’s loss in killed and wounded will not fall short of our own.
This, general, is a painful record, and yet it was the result of a series of unfortunate circumstances over which human ingenuity could have no control. The unprecedented rains so delayed our march across a desert country that the enemy had ample time to accumulate an overwhelming force in our front, and kept us so long in an exhausted region as to so starve and weaken our animals that they were unable to extricate the wagons and artillery from the mud.
So far as I know every one did his duty well, and while they fought no troops ever fought better. The colored troops deserve great credit for the manner in which they stood to their work.
This is a hasty and incoherent outline of our operations, but I will forward a more minute account as soon as the official reports can be received from DIVISION commanders.
I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
S. D. STURGIS,