February 22, 1864: Battle of Okolona

Okolona Campaign

It is quite easy to assume that of the many victories won by General Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War, the saddest for him was that of Okolona where his brother Colonel Jeffrey Forrest was killed leading a charge of his brigade.  As Forrest himself observed:  War means fighting and fighting means killing.

As part of Sherman’s drive to take Meridian, Mississippi,  read about that campaign here,  Major General William Sooy Smith led 7,000 cavalry out of Memphis to rendezvous with Sherman at Meridian.  But Smith got off to a late start, and Sherman, waiting for Smith for five days at Meridian, marched out of Meridian on February 20, 1864.  Smith, learning of this, headed bakc north towards Okolona, Mississippi, pursued by Forrest.  The pursuit was classic Forrest.  Outnumbered three to one, and short of ammunition, it was of course Forrest who was pursuing Smith!    Late on February 20, Forrest skirmished with Smith’s force at Prairie Station and Aberdeen, which hastened Smith’s retreat.

At dawn on February 22, on the prairie south of Okolona, Forrest opened the attack on Smith’s force, which had dismounted and prepared field fortifications.  Forrest’s frontal attack and flank probes quickly caused the Union troopers to retreat, abandoning five cannon.  The Federals reformed on a ridge, where Colonel Forrest received his mortal wound.  Forrest rushed to his brother, and cradling him in his arms cried “Jeffrey! Jeffrey!”.   He then told his adjutant to look after his brother’s body, and led the charge which swept the Union cavalry into headlong retreat, Forrest personally killing three Union soldiers in close combat.  Forrest pursued the retreating Federals for eleven miles.

The defeat was considered a vast humiliation for the Union Army and General Smith resigned from the Army before the year was out.   Here is the report of Forrest on the battle:

HEADQUARTERS FORREST’S CAVALRY DEPARTMENT.

Columbus, Miss., March 8, 1864, COLONEL: I have the honor to submit the following report of the movements and operations of my command against the Federal forces under command of General Smith, in the engagements of the 20th, 21st and 22nd ultimo:

Learning on the 14th ultimo, at Oxford, that the enemy was moving in heavy force in the direction of Pontotoc, and believing his destination to be the Prairies, and from thence a junction with Sherman, I withdrew all my forces from the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers and moved rapidly to Starkville, which place I reached on the evening of the 18th ultimo.

On the 19th, the enemy were reported at Okolona, but his movements or intended course was not developed, and fearing he mightcross the Tombigbee. I ordered Bell’s brigade to Columbus and also dispatched General Ruggles to use all his effective force to prevent them from doing so. At the same time ordered Brigadier-General Chalmers, commanding division, to send Forrest’s brigade to Aberdeen, or in that direction, to meet and ascertain the movements of the enemy; and also with McCulloch’s brigade of his division, and Richardson’s brigade, under Colonel Neely, to move out to West Point, leaving General Richardson at Starkville in command of all the dismounted men of the command of protect my wagon train, and send out scouts in the direction of Houston in order to give timely notice should the enemy divide his forces and move in that direction.

On the morning of the 20th, Colonel Forrest met the enemy in force and fell back toward West Point, skirmishing with them, but avoiding an engagement. In repelling their attacks he lost 2 men killed and several wounded and captured. I moved over to his assistance with General Chalmers and his remaining brigade, taking with me also Richardson’s brigade and two batteries of artillery, joining Colonel Forrest within 3 miles of West Point. Finding the enemy in heavy force, and having been informed that General Lee was moving to my assistance, and desiring to delay a general engagement as long as possible, I determined at once to withdraw my forces south of Sakatonchee Creek, which I did, camping a portion of them near Ellis’ Bridge and the remainder at Siloam. After crossing the river a courier reported the enemy as having crossed the river 8 miles above Ellis’ Bridge, destroying mills and taking horses and negroes. With five companies of Faulkner’s regiment and my escort I moved rapidly to the point, clearly designated by the smoke of the burning mill, gained the bridge, and succeeded in capturing the squal, which proved to be a lieutenant and 22 privates of the Fourth Regulars, U. S. Cavalry. Fearing the enemy might attempt to cross at the upper bridge during the night, I ordered its destruction and concentrated my force at Ellis’ Bridge, 3 miles from West Point. This bridge I determined, if possible, to defend and preserve, because it was necessary in the event we could drive back the enemy to use it in advancing on them; and had I allowed the enemy to cross it and them succeeded in driving them back they would have burned it behind them, rendering pursuit impossible without heading the stream.

During the night all was quiet. On Sunday morning, the 21st the vedettes and pickets were driven in, and the enemy reported advancing from West Point, in full force. I had ordered General Chalmers to dismount his division, throwing Forrest’s brigade across the creek in front of the bridge, while McCulloch’s bridge took possession of the south bank of the stream to support Colonel Forrest and protect him in the event he was compelled to retire and recross the stream. Dispatches were sent to General Richardson to move up all his force to the bridge across Line Creek, 8 miles of Starkville and 4 miles in my rear; also to Colonel Barteau to move across the Tombigbee, to keep on the flank, and, if possible, to gain the enemy’s rear. I ordered Colonel Neely to move his (Richardson’s) brigade at once, and to guard all the ferries and fords across Tibbee River from the mouth of Line Creek to Tibbee Station, sending Major-General Gholson with the State forces under his command to Palo Alto to watch any movement of the enemy from the direction of Houston. In making these necessary dispositions my effective force in front of the enemy was reduced to Chalmers’ division, my escort, and two batteries. The enemy attacked Colonel Forrest at 8 o’clock, and after a fight of twohours were repulsed with considerable loss. The hastily-improvised breast-works of rails and logs thrown up by Colonel Forrest greatly protected his men, and our casualties during this fight were 7 men wounded.

As the enemy withdrew I followed them with my escort and a portion of Faulkner’s regiment, mounted; also with a section of Morton’s battery, supported by a regiment from McCulloch’s brigade on foot. Our advance at first was necessarily slow and cautious. I soon ascertained after a few well-directed shots from our artillery, that the enemy had begun a rapid and systematic retreat, and dashed on after them, sending back orders to General Chalmers to send forward to me, as rapidly as possible, 2,000 of his best mounted men and Hoole’s battery of mountain howitzers. I soon came on their rear guard, charged it with my escort and Faulkner’s command, and drove it before me. They made several stands, but Colonel McCulloch, with his brigade, having caught up, we continued to charge and drive them on, killing and wounding 15 or 20 of them and capturing a number of prisoners.

Night came on, and we kept so close to the enemy that my men mistook each other for the enemy and fired a volley at each other, without, however, doing any damage. Fearing a recurrence of such mistakes, and considering the great risk necessarily incurred in following and fighting a superior force after dark, I determined to encamp for the night and resume the chase at daylight next morning. Early next morning, the column moved forward, taking a different road. With my escort I came upon and charged the enemy 4 miles from Okolona, and drove their rear guard into town, when I found them drawn up in line of battle and apparently awaiting our arrival. Colonel Barteau, with Bell’s brigade, had also reached Okolona, and was in line of battle awaiting the arrival of the balance of my forces. Leaving my escort in line as skirmishers, with my staff I made a circuit around the town, took command of Bell’s brigade, and advanced upon them. They received us with a volley and charged with yells, but were handsomely repulsed in the open field and forced to retreat, which they did rapidly and in confusion, using every exertion to check pursuit by ambuscading and forming regiments on either side of the road, who would fire and retreat successively. Before attempting or being able to make a stand of any kind they were crowded so closely that they cut out the horses and abandoned five pieces of artillery (some of the pieces spiked), and gaining the broken and hilly country on the Pontotoc road their resistance became more stubborn. They had every advantage in selecting position, and to drive and dislodge them I was compelled to dismount the most of my command, and fought the last 9 miles on foot. About 5 miles from Okolona they formed and awaited us, making a determined stand, McCulloch’s and Forrest’s brigades both arriving with Hoole’s battery. After a short but obstinate resistance the enemy gave way.

In this engagement Colonel Forrest was killed while rallying and leading his men. In a few miles they again formed, and having dismounted a portion of their men and made breast-works of the fences on each side of the road, they were with some difficulty and hard fighting compelled again to retire. In driving them at this point, Lieutenant-Colonel Barksdale, commanding Fifth Mississippi Regiment, fell mortally wounded.Ten miles from Pontotoc they made a last and final effort to check pursuit, and from their preparations, numbers, and advantageous position no doubt indulged the hope of success. They had formed in three lines across a large field on the left of the road, but which a turn in the road made it directly in our front. Their line were at intervals of several hundred paces, and the rear and second lines longer than the first. As the advance of my column moved up they opened on us with artillery. My ammunition was nearly exhausted, and I knew that if we faltered they would in turn become the attacking party, and that disaster, might follow. Many of my men were broken down and exhausted with clambering the hills on foot and fighting almost constantly for the last 9 miles. I determined, therefore, relying upon the bravery and courage of the new men I had up, to advance to the attack. As we moved up, the whole force charged down at a gallop, and I am proud to say that my men did not disappoint me. Standing firm, they repulsed the grandest cavalry charge I ever witnessed. The Second and Seventh Tennessee drove back the advance line, and as it wheeled in retreat poured upon them a destructive fire. Each successive line of the enemy shared the same fate and fled the field in dismay and confusion, and losing another piece of artillery, and leaving it strewn with dead and wounded men and horses.

Half of my command were out of ammunition, the men and horses exhausted and worn down with two days’ hard riding and fighting, night was at hand, and further pursuit impossible.

Major-General Gholson arrived during the night. His command was small, but comparatively fresh. I ordered him to follow on the next morning and press them across the Tallahatchie. Having received no official report from him, I cannot give any details of his pursuit after them.

Considering the disparity in numbers and equipments, I regard the defeat of this force, consisting as it did of the best cavalry in the Federal army, as a victory of which all engaged in it may justly feel proud. It has given, for a time at least, peace and security to a large scope of rich country whose inhabitants anticipated and expected to be overrun, devastated and laid waste, and its moral effect upon the raw, undisciplined and undrilled troop of this command is in value incalculable. It has inspired them with courage and given them confidence in themselves and their commanders. Although many of them were but recently organized, they fought with a courage and daring worthy of veterans.

I herewith transmit you a list of casualties, which, under all the circumstances, is small, and especially so when, compared with that of the enemy.

The killed and wounded of the enemy who fell into our hands amounts to over 100. We captured 6 pieces of artillery, 3 stand of colors, and 162 prisoners. By pressing every horse, buggy, carriage, and vehicle along the road they were enabled to take off all their wounded, except those severely or mortally wounded, and it is but reasonable to suppose and a low estimate to place their loss in killed, wounded, and missing at 800.

My force in the fight did not exceed, 2,500 men, while that of the enemy was twenty-seven regiments of cavalry and mounted infantry, estimated at 7,000 strong.

I regret the loss of some gallant officers. The loss of my brother, Colonel J. E. Forrest, is deeply felt by his brigade as well as myself and it is but just to say that for sobriety, ability, prudence, and bravery he had no superior of his age. Lieutenant-Colonel Barksdale was also a brave and gallant man, and his loss fell heavily on the regiment he commanded, as it was left now without a field officer.

I desire to testify my appreciation of the skill and ability of Colonels McCulloch, Russell, and Duckworth, commanding brigades. Colonel McCulloch, although wounded on the evening of the 22nd, continued in command. Colonel Russell assumed command of Bell’s brigade after the injury to Colonel Barteau, and Colonel Duckworth took command of Forrest’s brigade after Colonel Forrest fell on the morning of the 22nd ultimo.

I have formally congratulated and returned my thanks to the officers and troops of my command for their gallant and meritorious conduct; for their energy, endurance, and courage, and it would afford me pleasure to mention individual instances of daring and dash which came under my own observation but for fear of doing apparent injustice to others who in other parts of the field perhaps did as well.

My escort deserves especial mention; Commanded by Lieutenant Thomas S. Tate on the 21st, and by its commander, Captain Jackson, on the 22nd, its battle-flag was foremost in the fray, sustaining its reputation as one of the best fighting cavalry companies in the service. I also desire to acknowledge, as I have often done before, my indebtedness to Major J. P. Strange, my assistant adjutant-general; Captain Charles W. Anderson, my aide-de-camp, and Lieutenant Tate, assistant inspector-general, for prompt and faithful services rendered in the delivery and execution of all my orders on the field.

All of which is respectfully submitted.

N. B. FORREST,

Major-General.

[Lieutenant Colonel THOMAS M. JACK,

Assistant Adjutant-General.]

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Published in: on February 21, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on February 22, 1864: Battle of Okolona  
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