By 1864 much of Confederate Mississippi had been overrun by Federal troops. Jackson, the state capital, had been occupied, and Vicksburg, the vital port city on the Mississippi River, had fallen. As a result, military movements in the state were driven in large part by activities taking place elsewhere. During the summer of 1864 William Tecumseh Sherman was moving on Atlanta from the north, meeting limited resistance from an outnumbered Confederate Army under the command of Joseph E. Johnston. Sherman pushed Johnston back, but not without concerns regarding the Union general’s ever-lengthening supply lines. Sherman was particularly worried that his supply lines between Nashville and Chattanooga were vulnerable to attack from Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest. While he had never studied military science, Forrest was recognized by both sides as perhaps the most effective cavalry commander the war produced. Some referred to him as the Wizard of the Saddle, while Sherman called him “the very devil.”
Sherman’s fears were well-founded. Desperate to stop Sherman’s advance, the Confederate high command realized that Union supply lines in Middle Tennessee might be vulnerable. As a result, Gen. Stephen D. Lee ordered Forrest out of Mississippi toward Nashville with instructions to destroy railroad lines and disrupt communication between the Union-controlled Tennessee capital and Sherman’s army. Forrest left Tupelo on 1 June with three thousand cavalry and two artillery batteries. At the same time, Union general Samuel Sturgis left Memphis and moved southeast into Mississippi with eight thousand infantry and cavalry in hopes of keeping Forrest occupied. Lee ordered Forrest back to meet the threat, and the two forces clashed several days later at Brice’s Cross Roads, near Baldwyn in Northeast Mississippi.
On 10 June 1864 a bloody, daylong battle ensued there in the summer heat. Though outnumbered, the Confederates soundly defeated the Federals, forcing them into a disorderly retreat. By the end of the day Sturgis had lost more than 2,200 men, while the Confederates had suffered only 492 casualties. In Forrest’s words, the Federals had been “beaten, defeated, routed, [and] destroyed.” Sturgis shouldered the blame for the defeat, and his career as a Civil War commander effectively ended that day. For Forrest, the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads was the high point of a unique military career, and he emerged from the clash as a hero if not a living legend. Despite the Confederate success, however, Sherman’s supply lines remained intact, and Atlanta fell later in the year.
Sturgis remained in the army until his retirement in 1888. Forrest survived the war to great glory, and in 1867, while living in North Mississippi, he became grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a position he held for two years. He later settled in Memphis.
- Edwin C. Bearss, Forrest at Brice’s Cross Roads and in North Mississippi (1979)
- John Allan Wyeth, That Devil Forrest (1989)