Forrest Gets The Bulge On Sooy Smith
January 16, 2012
by Edwin C. Bearss
The following article first appeared in Morningside Bookshop’s Catalog 18, issued in September 1985.
In early February 1864 Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman marched 20,000 soldiers eastward from Vicksburg to Meridian, Mississippi, driving Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk’s little army into Alabama. Sherman’s army remained at Meridian from the 14th to the 20th anxiously awaiting the arrival from Memphis of 7,000 cavalry led by Maj. Gen. W. Sooy Smith. Not hearing anything from Smith, Sherman led his columns back to Vicksburg.
Sooy Smith and his powerful mounted corps on their foray deep into Mississippi were fated to meet Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his 2,500 “critter” cavalrymen. Although the Yanks outnumbered the Rebs almost three to one, Forrest, one of the great combat leaders of American history, evened the odds. Forrest, a physically powerful man, knew that war meant fighting and fighting meant killing, a philosophy that made him a terrible enemy. In the running engagement, known as the battle of Okolona, Forrest demonstrated these qualities of leadership as he and his men put the “skeer on Sooy Smith and his corps.”
Smith’s 7,000 horsemen had left Memphis on February 11, ten days late. When they took the field, their march was slowed by muddy roads and it was the 16th before they crossed the Tallahatchie at New Abany. Riding down the Pontotoc Ridge, the bluecoats struck the Mobile & Ohio Railroad at Okolona on February 18. Two days later, one mile north of West Point, Sooy Smith’s troops encountered and drove one of Forrest’s brigades through the town. Smith now lost his nerve. Satisfied that Sherman was already en route back to Vicksburg from Meridian and that Forrest had been reinforced, Smith, on the 21st, retired from West Point to Okolona.
Forrest and his men resumed that pursuit at first light on the 22d. By mid-morning the Confederates had advanced some 14 miles overtaking the Yankees as they neared Okolona. Forrest’s efforts to cut off and destroy the enemy rear guard as it passed through the town were frustrated by the usual problems in coordinating converging columns, and the enemy retreated northwestward up the Pontotoc road. The chase continued, Forrest leading his escort.
At Ivey’s Hill, some six miles beyond Okolona, the Federals came to a stand. Dismounting they occupied a timber-covered ridge and threw up fence rail barricades across the road. Col. Jeffrey Forrest, the general’s youngest and favorite brother, led the attack on the Yankee roadblock.
In the ensuing desperate fighting, Jeffrey was shot through the neck and fell mortally wounded, within 300 yards of the enemy strongpoint. His men faltered as they saw their leader fall, and, dismounting, they prepared to hold the ground gained. General Forrest, informed that his brother had been shot, galloped to the site and dismounted. Jeffrey died as Nathan Bedford cradled him in his arms and called out “Jeffrey, Jeffrey” in a voice choked with emotion. Satisfied that Jeffrey was dead, Forrest kissed him on the forehead, laid him down, and called for Maj. John P. Strange, and, with tears in his eyes, asked him to take care of his brother’s body.
In the immediate vicinity, battle-hardened Confederates had ceased fire, but to the right and left the dismounted Rebels exchanged shots with the bluecoats on the ridge. As reinforcements came into view, Forrest remounted and brandishing his saber ordered his bugler to sound the charge, as he shouted for his men to follow him. With his escort hard on his horse’s heels, Forrest galloped toward the enemy, and to some of his people his actions seemed “so rash as to savor madness.” The Federal troopers defending the roadblock “broke to the rear and retreated at great speed.” Forrest, closely trailed by some 120 of his men, pursued. About a mile up the road, some 500 Yanks were encountered. Forrest, undaunted by the odds, assailed the roadblock. One of the war’s most furious hand-to-hand fights occurred, in which the general killed three of the enemy horse soldiers. Just as it seemed that Forrest and his small force was about to be overwhelmed, Col. “Black Bob” McCulloch, wounded earlier in the day’s fighting, led his brigade to his general’s rescue, brandishing his bloodstained bandaged hand above his head as a flag.
The Federals gave way before the Rebel reinforcements, pulled back about a mile, and rallied on a plantation house, its outbuildings, and fences. Forrest’s horse, as he led his men toward the stronghold, was killed. One of the escort surrendered his steed to the general, as the Federals soon abandoned this position in favor of another roadblock, while General Smith and their officers sought to buy time. Here there was another short, sharp fight, in which Forrest’s second horse was shot down. His favorite charger “King Philip” was brought up, and Forrest rode him until nightfall, closing the day’s fighting, though “King Philip” received a slight neck wound.
The day’s last battle took place halfway between Okolona and Pontotoc, when the Yanks “made a last and final effort to check pursuit.” There were charges and countercharges before the Federals disengaged abandoning a cannon. Dusk was at hand and Forrest, seeing that his men and his mounts were fagged out by two days of marching and fighting which had brought them nearly 50 miles—from the crossing to the Sakatonchee to within ten miles of Pontotoc—called a halt.
Discouraged and beaten, Sooy Smith’s once proud corps hurried on to Memphis, where they arrived on February 27. A Union brigade commander best summed up Forrest’s accomplishments:
The retreat to Memphis was a weary, disheartening, and almost panic-stricken flight, in the greatest disorder and confusion, and through a most difficult country. The First Brigade reached its camping-ground five days after the engagement, with the loss of all its heart and spirit, and nearly fifteen hundred fine cavalry horses. The expedition filled every man connected with it with burning shame, and it gave Forrest the most glorious achievement of his career.