It is possible to argue that the biggest threat to General Sherman’s advance towards Atlanta in 1864 did not come from General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate army directly in front of him, but from the swarms of cavalry that threatened his supply lines back to Chattanooga and through Tennessee to Union territory.
One of the most effective of those cavalry forces was the one led by Nathan Bedford Forrest. In March and April this daring cavalry commander had led a raid through western Tennessee that actually reached as far north as Kentucky, before returning to the south. On their way south, Forrest’s men captured Fort Pillow (12 April 1864), massacring many of the black soldiers in the garrison after they had surrendered.
Forrest’s raid worried Sherman. His response was to order the commander at Memphis to detach a suitable force of cavalry to catch and defeat Forrest. That force, of 8,000 men, left Memphis on 1 June. It outnumbered Forrest’s 3,000 men by nearly three to one. The Union force was commanded by General Samuel D. Sturgis, fresh from failing to intercept Forrest after the Fort Pillow massacre.
On 10 June Sturgis’s force was marching south, when at Brice’s Crossroad its advance guard found the first signs of Forrest’s men. The road at the crossroads showed signs of recent use by a large force of horsemen, while the fences in a large open space around the crossroads had been removed, possibly in order to prepare for a cavalry battle. The Union cavalry formed up in a line across the open space, just in time to repel Forrest’s first attack.
While this was going in, the Union infantry was five miles to the north, making slow progress over poor roads. The Union cavalry commander, General B. H. Grierson, sent back repeated requests for infantry support. Sturgis responded by ordering his men on a forced march towards the fighting, and then set off to join the cavalry.
Just as Sturgis arrived, Forrest launched a second attack. This time the Union cavalry was forced back, forming a second line in a narrower part of the clearing. The road here was almost a causeway, crossing over swampy ground. When the infantry finally arrived, at about two in the afternoon, they took over this line, replacing the cavalry, who now formed a reserve.
This new line was dangerously exposed to flanking attacks. Neither left nor right flank was adequately protected. Forrest saw this, and spent the next three hours attempting to turn both flanks. Finally, at about five in the evening, he succeeded. In a classic double envelopment, Forrest’s cavalry got around both flanks of the Union force. The line crumbled, then broke. This was one of the worst routs suffered by Union forces in the west. By the next morning some of the retreating troops had already reached Ripley, 24 miles from the battlefield. It proved impossible to properly stop the retreat until the defeated men had returned to the relative safety of Memphis.
Forrest captured the entire Union wagon train, 14 artillery guns, 52 officers and 1,571 men as well as inflicting over 500 casualties. This was his most impressive victory, and one of the worst Union defeats in the west. However, Forrest’s success was short lived. A second Union expedition was soon sent out against him, defeating him just over one month later at Tupelo (14 July 1864).