Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory?
The Double Envelopment at Brice’s Crossroads
Nathan Bedford Forrest was an outstanding cavalry leader and moreover, probably the most controversial personality of the entire war.
However, his incredible victory at Brice’s Crossroads is rarely explained.
At Brice’s Crossroads, he defeated an infantry force twice his size. Forrest used his more mobile cavalry to threaten both ends of the Union infantry line simultaneously and his artillery to hold the center.
The biggest threat to General William T. 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.
After the massacre at Fort Pillow, Sherman became concerned that his lines back to Chattanooga might be threatened and thus ordered pursuit.
At Brice’s, Union general Samuel Sturgis, outnumbering Forrest 8500 to 3500, attacked Forrest at a crossroads. On June 10, 1864, Sturgis moved his army led by his cavalry at dawn heading southwest. As a result, this required crossing a river into a swampland where a crossroads was located. Federal cavalry led by Grierson confronted Confederate cavalry. The Federal cavalry ran into a Confederate Kentucky brigade about ½ mile east of the crossroads at around 9:30 am. Forrest was reinforced, and began to press the cavalry back towards the crossroads.
Sturgis then made a strategically unsound move. Sturgis ordered his infantry to attack the Confederate cavalry, despite their not being up in the line of battle and having to march on the double for 5 miles to get there. An arcing battle line was formed, and a battle ensued for several hours.
Forrest ordered a double envelopment (see map) despite never having had any formal military training. He was able to go around both Union flank simultaneously then ordered a frontal attack, which broke through Sturgis’ line. The Union army retreated toward Memphis. An overturned wagon at the Tishomingo Creek bridge obstructed the Federal retreat and threatened annihilation. A brigade of United States Colored Troops put up a stout defense allowing Sturgis to escape.
A double envelopment was attempted in several other Civil War battles, but none of them came off except for Brice’s Crossroads.
What led Forrest to that strategy?
Forrest improvised it on the fly. When the union infantry took over for the cavalry, both union flanks were uncovered and the road crossed swampy ground. Forrest merely chose to try to go around both flanks rather than just choosing one. It required about 5 hours to accomplish it, but once he did, he defeated a foe that outnumbered him almost 2.5:1, and on the defensive.
However, Forrest’s success at Brice’s Crossroads was short lived. A second Union expedition was soon sent out against him, defeating him just over one month later at Tupelo on July 14 1864.
After Brice’s Cross Roads, Forrest was regarded as a potential mortal threat to the supply lines of Sherman.
Major General Andrew C. Smith departed La Grange, Tennessee on July 5, 1864 with a Union force of 14,000 men. His mission was to find Forrest and defeat him, and thereby prevent him from staging raids into middle Tennessee to cut Sherman’s supplies. On July 11, 1864 Smith was in Pontotoc, Mississippi.
Forrest was nearby at Okolona, Mississippi, and was under orders from his commander Stephen D. Lee not to engage Smith until Lee reinforced him. On July 13, Smith became apprehensive of an ambush and marched his force to Tupelo, Mississippi and took up a defensive position.
Lee having reinforced Forrest, on July 14, beginning at 7:30 AM, Lee launched a series of uncoordinated attacks with his force of 8,000, all of which were bloodily repulsed.
Lee halted the attacks after a few hours.
Forrest attacked again twice.
Once in the evening and once on the morning of the 15th, and both attacks were repulsed. Smith attempted no pursuit, for which he was heavily criticized. And on July 15th, Smith retreated back to Memphis, pursued by Forrest.
Defeating Forrest secured Sherman’s lines of communication and supply allowing him to prosecute the Atlanta Campaign without needing to commit more troops to secure his rear. If Forrest hadn’t been beaten, Atlanta might not have been taken. Smith accomplished his goal of stopping Forrest from raiding into Tennessee. Furthermore, was now a member of the exclusive, and minute, club of Union commanders who defeated Forrest in battle.
After the war, Sherman said of Forrest:
“After all, I think Forrest was the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side. To my mind he was the most remarkable in many ways. In the first place, he was uneducated, while Jackson and Sheridan and other brilliant leaders were soldiers by profession. He had never read a military book in his life, knew nothing about tactics, could not even drill a company, but he had a genius for strategy which was original, and to me incomprehensible. There was no theory or art of war by which I could calculate with any degree of certainty what Forrest was up to. He seemed always to know what I was doing or intended to do. While I am free to confess I could never tell or form any satisfactory idea of what he was trying to accomplish.”
Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory?
Written by Dr. Lloyd Klein
Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein
Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies.
Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.
Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.