Nathan Bedford Forrest’s legend grows substantially when his Confederate cavalry routs a much larger Union force in Mississippi at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads.
When Union General William T. Sherman inched toward Atlanta, Georgia, in the summer of 1864, he left behind a vulnerable supply line through Tennessee. Of utmost concern to Sherman was the Rebel cavalry under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a daring leader who gave Union commanders in the west difficulty throughout the war. Sherman insisted that Forrest be neutralized and ordered a force from Memphis to hunt down Forrest’s command, which at that time was in northern Alabama.
On June 1, some 5,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry troopers under the command of General Samuel D. Sturgis trudged out of Memphis in search of the elusive Forrest. But rain and poor roads slowed them, and a week’s travel found the Yankees only 50 miles from Memphis.
Forrest had been preparing for an assault on central Tennessee, but Sturgis’s expedition forced him back to northern Mississippi. The Confederates spread out along a railroad between Tupelo and Corinth and awaited the Union advance. On June 8, Forrest learned that Sturgis was moving on Tupelo. He carefully selected Brice’s Crossroads for its muddy roads and dense woods to mitigate the Union’s numerical advantage and called for his men to attack the leading Yankee cavalry, which would force the trailing infantry to hurry to the battle and fight before recovering from the march.
The plan worked to perfection. Around 10 a.m. on June 10, the cavalry forces began fighting, and the Union infantry made a five-mile dash in intense heat and humidity to aid their fellow soldiers. In the afternoon, Forrest orchestrated a series of attacks all along the Union front, which broke the Yankee lines and sent the Federals from the field in disarray with the Confederates in hot pursuit. The chase continued into the next day.
Sturgis’s command suffered over 600 killed and wounded and over 1,600 captured—more than a quarter of the entire force. Forrest’s force suffered less than 600 killed and wounded, and the Confederates captured 16 cannons and 176 supply wagons. Forrest was never able to disrupt Sherman’s supply lines. However, the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads stands as his greatest military victory.