When Forrest Came to Dinner: The Federal Defeat at Murfreesboro
The Confederate victory at the First Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee on July 13, 1862 marked the beginning of a resurgence of Confederate fortunes in the western theater that dovetailed with Confederate victories back east in turning the tides of war. The first six months of 1862 had been marked by disaster and defeat for the western Confederates.
Since the turn of the year, Confederate armies had been driven out of Kentucky, lost Forts Henry and Donelson then control of Nashville, lost at Pea Ridge in Arkansas, lost New Madrid and Island No. 10 along the Mississippi, fought and lost a tremendous battle at Shiloh, lost New Orleans, and then evacuated Corinth, Mississippi. In early June, the Federal brown water navy had won a decisive victory at the Battle of Memphis that gave control of the Mississippi River to that point to the Union, and already naval patrols were starting to range further south towards Vicksburg. The closure of the Mississippi would sever the Confederacy and with Federal armies already penetrating into the deep South, the end of the dream of Southern independence was a grim possibility.
Entering the picture was a rough-hewn Memphis businessman, planter, and slave trader turned cavalry commander named Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest, although completely unschooled in military affairs, was proving himself to be an exceptionally talented soldier as his exploits at Fort Donelson, Nashville, and Shiloh gained much notice in the army. With the Federal armies spread across Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, Forrest resolved to launch a cavalry raid deep behind Federal lines to interrupt the flow of supplies and chose to strike the Union garrison at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The town, garrisoned by about 1,500 men primarily from the 9th Michigan and 3rd Minnesota infantry regiments, held a large supply depot and was an important point upon the railroad leading to Chattanooga.
Riding in at dawn, Forrest’s 1,400 troopers, men from Georgia, Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee struck hard at the camp of the 9th Michigan north of town.
“At daylight on the morning of the 13th, the 9th Michigan was awakened by the noise of wagons and cavalry dashing at full speed on the macadamized road leading to Murfreesboro,” the Detroit Free Press reported. “The pickets were surprised and captured, but the alarm was given and the command to form in line obeyed in the camp of the 9th with the utmost dispatch. Colonel [William W.] Duffield had but time to form the men on the parade ground in a square to meet the attack of some 800 Texan Rangers who rushed upon them like a hurricane. But about 175 men, half in undress, had sprung into line and so fierce was the attack that they were forced back to the center of the camp.”
Colonel Duffield was wounded twice in the initial attack and was carried off to the Maney house (Oaklands Mansion today) to have his wounds dressed, leaving command to Lieutenant Colonel John G. Parkhurst. Parkhurst directed that his men build a breastwork of hay bales and prepare for the next attack. “The hope was entertained by the Michigan men that they might keep off the enemy until they could either succeed in making a junction with the 3rd Minnesota, or that they would force their way through,” to the Michiganders the Free Press reported. It was not to be.
A few miles away along the Nashville Pike, Colonel Henry Lester of the 3rd formed his regiment into line and with Hewett’s 1st Kentucky battery fended off repeated attacks from Forrest’s men but would not march to join with the 9th Michigan.
A couple of messengers from the 9th Michigan made it to Lester’s position to report their condition, but Lester had them arrested as spies. The sounds of the engagement across the river were painfully evident, and the smoke pouring from the supply depot made it clear the Confederates were gaining the upper hand. Near noon, Forrest turned his attention back to Parkhurst and send him a demand for “an immediate surrender or he would put his whole remaining force to the sword.” Parkhurst, down to roughly 100 effective men, surrendered his detachment, and a few hours later, Colonel Lester surrendered his men as well in circumstances to be detailed below.
The editor of the Athens Post ticked off the spoils of Forrest’s “brilliant affair. The number of Yankees killed and wounded is 125; prisoners captured total 1,250 including the 3rd Minnesota regiment, the 9th Michigan regiment, the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, 150 of Hewett’s Kentucky battery of four guns (two brass and two steel), 300 horses and mules, 60 wagons, several ambulance, and 2,000 stand of arms.
The Federal camps with all their contents embracing a large lot of new clothing were burned as was also the depot at Murfreesboro containing near half a million dollars’ worth of quartermaster and commissary stores. The Confederate loss in killed and wounded was about 46.” Forrest’s victory was the first of a series of cavalry raids and attacks that eventually forced General Don Carlos Buell to suspend his drive on Chattanooga; by early September, with Bragg’s Kentucky campaign in full swing, Buell would be on the march for Louisville, Kentucky and the Confederacy would regain control of large swaths of the rich foraging grounds of Tennessee.
Forrest’s triumph was an embarrassing defeat for the western Federals who to this point in the war had nearly run the table on their Butternut opponents.
The Cincinnati Commercial labeled it “the Murfreesboro disgrace” and pilloried Colonel Henry Lester of the 3rd Minnesota as the villain of the affair. Lester’s own regimental surgeon stated that the colonel had been “stupefied” by Forrest’s attack and “utterly paralyzed by fear” he surrendered his regiment. “The men wept like children with mortification and rage, but Colonel Lester would listen to no remonstrance and so the regiment of fine, stalwart, admirably drilled and armed men gave up to a parcel of cavalry,” Surgeon Butler reported.
Adjutant Cyrene H. Blakeley of the 3rd Minnesota provided the following cohesive account of the Murfreesboro “affair” to the Louisville Journal shortly after the battle. Interestingly, Blakeley had left Murfreesboro the day before Forrest’s raid and was in Nashville awaiting transportation North for recruiting duty when word arrived of the battle.
The force at Murfreesboro consisted of six companies of the 9th Michigan, two companies (A and C) of the 4th Kentucky Cavalry, nine companies of the 3rd Minnesota, and four pieces of Hewett’s 1st Kentucky Battery. The 9th Michigan and the cavalry [4th Kentucky] were encamped in the edge of the town [on the grounds of Oaklands Mansion] and the 3rd Minnesota and the battery were a mile and half outside on the Nashville Pike. The forces are part of the 23rd Brigade which is commanded by Colonel William W. Duffield. General Thomas T. Crittenden assumed command of the post on Friday night.
The attack was made on Sunday morning at 4 o’clock upon the cavalry and the 9th Michigan, they being completely surprised. So large was the attacking party that the infantry could not form in line of battle and after fighting as best they could for several hours, the Michigan regiment surrendered. Our cavalry was of no assistance whatever; not a man mounted his horse and but one or two escaped.
This Tiffany & Co. sword was presented to Colonel Henry Lester by the men of his regiment as a token of their high regard and confidence. That confidence was irreparably shattered on July 13, 1862. The Minnesota State Historical Society purchased this sword several years and it is now part of their collection.
In the meantime, a portion of the enemy had burned the railroad depot and freight house which contained commissary stores and a large warehouse containing forage and quartermaster’s stores. Having compelled the surrender of the cavalry and infantry in town, they broke for the battery. Colonel Lester had been advised of the attack and placed the battery on a knoll a quarter of a mile from his camp with his own regiment to support it.
The Rebels passed around to the north of the camp and driving through it, they burned the officers’ tents and killed or wounded the guards. As they came out of the woods to make the attack, Colonel Lester retained his fire until they were within 40 paces of him when the battery was opened upon them. They were completely disorganized and retired in the greatest confusion. Upon the next charge the infantry and battery both fired, and the enemy was thrown into confusion a second time.
Oaklands Mansion; the Maney family was living here at the time of the battle and the 9th Michigan lay camped upon its front lawn. Colonel Lester of the 3rd Minnesota reportedly visited here the day before the battle and became inebriated. The next morning, Colonel Duffield of the 9th Michigan was carried into this house after being wounded and in its dining room that night, the triumphant Forrest ate dinner with the senior Federal officers.
Not relishing such treatment, a portion of the Rebels went round to the rear for the purpose of attacking us there as well as in front. This, however, was of no avail for Colonel Lester formed his men in a square and Captain Hewett directed his pieces both ways. A third attempt was made to cut the brave men to pieces, but the result was the same as before. The Rebels retired for a while and Captain Hewett turned his pieces upon the town, shelling it in the most approved style. It is said the town was badly damaged and at last accounts was on fire in several places.
The fighting commenced again at noon and continued unabated until 3 o’clock when a flag of truce from the enemy appeared stating that the 9th Michigan had surrendered early in the day and demanding the unconditional surrender by the remainder of the forces. It is said that a threat was also made that if Colonel Lester did not surrender, General Crittenden and Colonel Duffield, who were taken out of the beds by the enemy at the outset [italics original], would be immediately shot. Colonel Lester rode into town under protection of the flag of truce and ascertained that he had to encounter a force of about 4,000 and that he could rely only on his little handful of men to sustain himself.
His ammunition, too, had nearly given out and the battery had only 65 rounds of case and solid shot while the infantry had but a few rounds of cartridges left. He returned and after consultation with Captain Hewett and his own officers, it was determined to surrender which was done about 5 p.m.
Colonel Lester had been deceived by Forrest; the cavalry numbered roughly 1,400 troopers and while Lester was in town, Forrest had the men parade in such a manner that it appeared that he had far more troops than he actually did. Forrest’s threat to shoot the captured officers was pure bunkum and a typical Forrest scare tactic, similar to his earlier threat to Parkhurst that he would put the whole command to the sword.
Armed with the deception and believing Forrest’s threats, Lester brought back the news to his officers and in a secret ballot, they voted to keep fighting. But Lester would have none of it; he insisted that they surrender and after another ballot, Lester received the vote he wanted. Later that evening, Forrest had dinner at the Maney mansion with the senior captured Federal officers and presumably Lester then learned how he had been deceived. One of Lester’s men later wrote that in Lester, “the boys were deceived; he was a noble-appearing man, a first-rate drillmaster, great for show, but the pluck wasn’t there.”
History has not been kind to Colonel Lester who, along with the officers who voted to surrender, was dismissed from the service after Murfreesboro; the officers and soldiers of the 9th Michigan spared few words in condemning Lester, and Lester’s own men were hardly in a forgiving mood after his actions saddled them with the reputation as cowards and quitters. But the fact is that the two regiments were camped too far apart to provide mutual support and when Forrest’s men made their attack, they were able to leverage their advantage of numbers to isolate and defeat the two pockets of Federal resistance.
But it is clear that Federal command confusion also contributed to this defeat. General Thomas T. Crittenden was in command of the post of Murfreesboro, but he did not command the troops per se, and besides had only arrived on Friday evening July 11th. The 9th Michigan, 3rd Minnesota, and Hewett’s Battery formed the 23rd Brigade which was under the command of Colonel Duffield of the 9th. However, Colonel Duffield had been away for several weeks and did not arrive until late Saturday evening July 12th and had not yet formally resumed command of the brigade, which left Colonel Henry Lester of the 3rd Minnesota as nominal brigade commander.
Rumors persisted of jealousies and problems between Lester and Parkhurst and this is why their regiments were camped so far apart; General Crittenden noted a certain looseness in the discipline and control of the troops at Murfreesboro when he arrived to take command. Soldiers of the 3rd Minnesota blamed Lester’s actions during the battle on either love or whiskey or both; presumably the bachelor colonel had made a social visit to the Maney mansion the night before the attack and had returned to camp stone drunk, spending half the night barfing up his evening reverie.
Darker rumors suggested that Lester had fallen in love with a local woman who drugged the unsuspecting colonel. The impact of being hung over or drugged on Lester’s subsequent battlefield performance is not hard to imagine.
Written by Dan Masters
When Forrest Came to Dinner: The Federal Defeat at Murfreesboro
Walter N. Trenerry. “Lester’s Surrender at Murfreesboro,” Minnesota History, Spring 1965, pgs. 191-197
“The Ninth Michigan Regiment: Full Account of the Affair at Murfreesboro,” Detroit Free Press (Michigan), August 2, 1862, pg. 1
“The Capture of Murfreesboro,” Detroit Free Press (Michigan), August 8, 1862, pg. 1
“The Confederate Victory at Murfreesboro,” Athens Post (Tennessee), July 25, 1862, pg. 2
“The Minnesota Third,” St. Cloud Democrat (Minnesota), July 31, 1862, pg. 2
“The Affair at Murfreesboro, Tenn.-Full Particulars,” Fox Lake Gazette (Wisconsin), July 23, 1862, pg. 3 (republished from Louisville Journal)