Next Johnsonville attracted his attention, where Sherman had collected his stores, and the gunboats once terrible conniption floated grandly and proudly at its doors, but Forrest’s artillery battalion, Morton, Rice and Waltham and Thrall, set fire to Sherman’s gunboats and transports, nor ceased till they had burned them all.
Line from Confederate song celebrating the victories of General Nathan Bedford Forrest
The handwriting was on the wall by the beginning of November in 1864 that the Confederacy was going down to defeat, but that did not stop General Nathan Bedford Forrest from staging perhaps his greatest raid. The Union had established a huge supply depot at Johnsonville, Tennessee on the Tennessee River and that was Forrest’s target. On October 29-30 with artillery he placed at Fort Heiman, Forrest captured three Union gunboats. Repairing two of them he used them for his attack on Johnsonville. With his artillery and his tiny flotilla, Forrest closed river traffic to Johnsonville, beat off Union gunboats, and got close enough to Johnsonville to bombard it. 28 Union steamboats and barges were lost, either sunk by Forrest’s artillery, or burned by the Union commander who feared that Forrest would capture them. Seeing the depot ablaze, Forrest withdrew, his mission accomplished. Forrest destroyed millions of dollars worth of Union supplies and destroyed 4 gunboats, 14 transports, 20 barges, 26 pieces of artillery. This raid crippled Sherman’s supply line, and made Grant nervous about Sherman’s planned March to the Sea with a raider of the caliber of Forrest left free to devastate Union supply lines. Here is Forrest’s report on the raid:
HEADQUARTERS FORREST’S CAVALRY CORPS,
Verona, Miss., January 12, 1865.
COLONEL: Continued active service in the field for two months has prevented me from reporting at an earlier day the action of my troops on the expedition along the Tennessee River. I avail myself, however, of the first leisure moment, and have the honor of submitting the following report:
On the 16th of October I ordered Colonel Bell to move with his brigade from Corinth and to form a camp at Lavinia. On the 18th Brigadier-General Buford was ordered to move with the Kentucky brigade to Lexington for the purpose of watching General hatch, who was reported to be in that direction. I moved from Corinth on the morning of the 19th, with my escort and Rucker’s brigade, to Jackson, Tenn. At this place I was joined by Brigadier-General Chalmers with about 250 men of McCulloch’s brigade and 300 of Mabry’s brigade, which, with Rucker’s brigade, constituted his DIVISION. On the 29th I ordered him to proceed to the Tennessee River and there co-operate with Brigadier-General Buford, who was blockading the river at Fort Heiman and Paris Landing. On arriving at the river I found it most, effectually blockaded by a judicious disposition of the troops and batteries sent for this purpose.
On the morning of the 29th, the steamer Mazeppa, with two barges in tow, made her appearance. As she passed the battery at Fort Heiman, supported by Brigadier-General Lyon, she was fired upon by one section of Morton’s battery and two 20-pounder Parrott guns. Every shot must have taken effect, as she made for the shore after the THIRD fire and reached the opposite bank in a disabled condition, where she was abandoned by the crew and passengers, who fled to the woods. A hawser was erected on this side of the river and she was towed over, and on being boarded she was found to be heavily loaded with blankets, shoes, clothing, hard bread, &c. While her cargo was being removed to the shore three gun-boats made their appearance, and commenced shelling the men who were engaged in unloading the Mazeppa. They were forced to retire, and fearing the boat might be captured Brigadier-General Buford ordered her to be burned.
On the 30th the steamer Anna came down the river and succeeded in passing both the upper and lower batteries, but was so disabled that she sunk before she reached Paducah. The Anna was followed by two transports (J. W. Cheeseman, the Venus) and two barges under convoy of gun-boat Undine. In attempting to pass my batteries all the boats were disabled. They landed on the opposite side of the river and were abandoned by the crews, who left their dead and wounded. Lieutenant-Colonel Kelley, with two companies of his regiment, was thrown across the river and soon returned to Paris Landing with the boats. The steamer J. W. Cheeseman was so disabled that she was ordered, with the two barges, to be burned; the gun- boat was also burned while moving up the river to Johnsonville. The Venus was recaptured by the enemy on [November 2,] but was destroyed the next day [November 4] at Johnsonville by my batteries.
On the 1st of November I ordered my command to move in the direction of Johnsonville, which place I reached on the 3d. At this point Colonel Mabry joined Colonel Chalmers with Thrall’s battery. The wharf at Johnsonville was lined with transports and gun-boats. An immense warehouses presented itself and was represented as being stored with the most valuable supplies, while several acres of the shore were covered with every description of army stores. The fort was situated on a high hill and in a commanding position, and defended by strong works.
All my troops having arrived, I commenced disposing of them with a view of bombarding the enemy. As he commanded the position I designed to occupy, I was necessarily compelled to act with great caution. I planted most of my guns during the night, and while completing the work the next morning my men worked behind ambuscades, which obscured everything from the enemy. Thrall’s battery of howitzers was placed in position above Johnsonville, while Morton’s and Hudson’s batteries were placed nearly opposite and just below town.
I ordered a simultaneous assault to commence at 3 o’clock. All my movements for twenty-four hours had been so secretive the enemy seemed to think I had retired, and for the purpose of making a reconnaissance two gun-boats were lashed together and pushed out just before the attack opened. The bombardment commenced by the section of Morton’s battery commanded by Lieutenant Brown. The other batteries joined promptly in the assault. The enemy returned the fire from twenty-eight guns on their gun-boats and fourteen guns on the hill. About FIFTY guns were thus engaged at the same time, and the firing was terrific. The gun-boats, in fifteen minutes after the engagement commenced, were set on fire, and made rapidly for the shore, where they were both consumed. My batteries next opened upon the transports, and in a short time they were in flames. The immense amount of stores were also set in fire, together with the huge warehouse above the landing. By night the wharf for nearly one mile up and down the river presented one solid sheet of flame. The enemy continued a furious cannonading on my batteries.
Having completed the work designed by the expedition, I moved my command six miles during the night by the light of the enemy’s a burning property. The roads were almost impassable, and the march to Corinth was slow and toilsome, but I reached there on November 10, after an absence of over two weeks, during which time I captured and destroyed 4 gun-boats, 14 transports, 20 barges, 26 pieces of artillery, $6,700,000 worth of property, and 150 prisoners. Brigadier-General Buford, after supplying his own command, turned over to my chief quartermaster about 9,000 pairs of shoes and 1,000 blankets.
My loss during the entire trip was 2 killed and 9 wounded; that of the enemy will probably reach 500 killed, wounded, and prisoners.
On this expedition my DIVISION commanders, Brigadier-Generals Chalmers and Buford, displayed the same prompt observance in obeying orders, the same kill, coolness, and undaunted courage which they have heretofore exhibited, and for which I thank them.
My brigade commanders, Colonels Bell, Rucker, Crossland, and Mabry, are deserving of the highest commendation for their conduct on this as on all former occasions.
Brigadier-General Lyon, who had been assigned to another department, reported to me on this expedition and rendered much valuable service at Johnsonville and Fort Heiman.
To Captain John W. Morton, acting chief of artillery, and the brave troops under his command, my thanks are especially due for their efficiency and gallantry on this expedition. They fired with a rapidity and accuracy which extorted the commendation of even the enemy. The rammers were shot from the hands of the cannoneers, some of whom were nearly buried amid the dirt which was thrown upon them by the storm of shell which rained upon them by the enemy’s batteries.
All of which is respectfully submitted.
N. B. FORREST,
Colonel E. SURGET,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Meridian, Miss.