Tupelo National Battlefield | BATTLE OF TUPELO

Places of importance in the Battle of Tupelo

Places of importance in the Battle of Tupelo

Note: The Battle of Tupelo is also known as The Battle of Harrisburg. Harrisburg was the larger town during the Civil War, but over time Tupelo grew and eventually absorbed Harrisburg. Today, Harrisburg is no longer a city, but an historic and residential area within Tupelo. Thus, over time the battle became known as The Battle of Tupelo.

Background to the Battle of Tupelo

By May of 1864, General William T. Sherman, now in charge of the Union army in the west after General Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to commander of all Union armies, had begun his march from Chattanooga, Tennessee, towards Atlanta, Georgia. While it is legendary that Sherman made his “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah without maintaining a supply line, instead choosing to live off the land, this was not the case in the Atlanta Campaign. Sherman’s men depended heavily on getting supplies, with the main supply line being the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad.

Sherman was well aware that the Confederates wanted to cut his supply line and had a good idea of who would be leading the attacks—General Nathan Bedford Forrest. To put a stop to this before it could happen, he ordered General Cadwallader Washburn in Memphis, Tennessee, to put together an army with the sole purpose of finding and destroying Forrest and his cavalry corps. Washburn assembled an army of 8,000 men comprised of various units and put General Samuel Sturgis in charge.

On April 30th, Sturgis set out from Memphis with two infantry brigades and a cavalry division headed by General Benjamin Grierson. Forrest was known to be in Jackson, Tennessee, gathering men and supplies, and Sturgis was tasked with keeping him from escaping back into friendly territory in Mississippi. However, spies had alerted Forrest of the activity and after skirmishes with a few regiments of Sturgis’ men, he was able to slip back into Mississippi. Sturgis pursued him for a while, but on May 9th, short on supplies, he returned to Memphis in failure.

Once back in Mississippi, Forrest convinced General Stephen Lee, commander of Confederate forces in Alabama and Mississippi, that he could make a successful raid on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Lee agreed to the idea, and on June 1, 1864, sent Forrest and 2,000 men from Harrisburg, Mississippi, towards the rail line in middle Tennessee. Forrest had made it to Russellville, Alabama, when Lee learned of a new attempt by Sturgis to track him down. Lee immediately recalled Forrest, and on June 9th they met in Boonesville, Mississippi (30 miles north of Tupelo), to figure out their next move.

Though they did not know exactly where Sturgis was heading, the most probable route was towards Harrisburg. The plan was to stop him from reaching Okolona, a town 18 miles south of Harrisburg where a Confederate army was being formed. To accomplish this, Forrest chose to attack just north of Harrisburg at Brices Cross Roads, a dirt road junction near the Mobile & Ohio Railroad line. The two armies met on June 10th at what is known as the Battle of Brices Crossroads. Though out-manned more than 2 to 1, Forrest was able to defeat Sturgis and send him back to Memphis in disgrace. See the Battle of Brices Cross Roads history essay for more information on this battle.

The Battle of Tupelo

With Forrest and his men still on the loose, Sherman, having dismissed Sturgis, next ordered General Andrew Jackson Smith (aka A. J. Smith) to hunt down Forrest, with a secondary order to destroy the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and all farms along the way (Mississippi was known as the breadbasket of the Confederacy). Smith and his 14,000-man army started their march into northern Mississippi from La Grange, Tennessee, on July 5, 1864. One of the mistakes that Sturgis had made was having to rush his infantry into battle, which meant they were tired before the fighting even started. To avoid this, Smith moved at a very slow pace and kept his men in tight formation so they were always ready for an ambush.

Forrest, believing that Smith was sure to attack, chose to make a stand at Okolona. High on a ridge, the town offered him an excellent defensive position, and he hoped to lure the Union troops into what he felt was a trap. He began to assemble men from around the area, pulling troops from Harrisburg and Tupelo, among other places, thus leaving the towns free of Confederate military personnel. To buy some time, Confederate pickets instigated small skirmishes with the advancing Union troops as early as July 11th. Forrest ultimately put together a force of 7,500 men, of which 1,500 were without horses. Of these men, nearly 900 would spend the battle holding the horses, so Forrest had about 6,600 men available for fighting. Despite nearly all men being under Forrest’s command, he insisted that Lee, the senior officer, take command. Lee tried to convince him otherwise, but Forrest refused, stating that the responsibility was too great and that Lee, being of superior rank, should be in command. He also cited his failing health as a reason for refusal.

It was now July 13th. Smith, not wanting to fight Forrest on his chosen ground and learning that Harrisburg and Tupelo had been abandoned, made a sudden detour from his Okolona route towards the two highly defensible cities. His 14,000 troops formed a column 15 miles long, so while he and the vanguard of his forces may have entered Harrisburg, many of his men where still on the march. Once Forrest realized that Smith would not be coming to Okolona, he took the opportunity to attack the Union column throughout the day, but all attacks were repulsed. By nightfall Smith had set up his defenses in Harrisburg while the Union cavalry, under General Grierson, occupied Tupelo with the intent of destroying the railroad that went through there. The Union troops now waited for a Confederate attack the next day.

Forrest’s plan of luring the Union troops to attack his well fortified and superior position at Okolona had failed. In fact, the Confederates now found themselves in the lesser position. An attack on Harrisburg would mean having to charge across up to 1,000 yards of open fields against a well fortified Union line, all the while being outnumbered by nearly two to one. Despite the overwhelming odds of success, General Lee still decided to go on the offensive, reasoning that the Confederates were always outnumbered at this point in the war, and if that was the reason for not attacking, they might as well surrender now.

However, the one factor most responsible for precipitating the attack was that Confederate scouts reported to Forrest that the Union troops were actually preparing to withdraw back to Memphis from their positions in Harrisburg and Tupelo. Forrest had suspected this would happen because they seemed to be delaying on their march towards Okolona a few days earlier. He decided then that if the Union army retreated, he would attack immediately. He and Lee therefore began preparing a battle plan for an early morning attack the next day.

Battle of Tupelo map (rotated to North-South direction)

Battle of Tupelo map (rotated to North-South direction)

On July 14th at 7:30 AM, Lee, taking charge of the right wing of his army, launched a series of attacks on the center of the Union line, which was on the west side of Harrisburg. Due to complete miscommunication and conflicting orders by Lee and Forrest, the attacking Confederate units charged at different times, not in one, synchronized charge as planned, and as a result, Union infantry and artillery were able to concentrate fire on individual units. The attacks were easily defended, and the Confederates sustained heavy losses. Lee then attacked the Union right flank, again with no success, and again with heavy losses.

Forrest was in command of the right wing of the army and had planned to attack the Union left flank, but called off the attack at the last minute after seeing what happened to Lee’s men and after assessing the Union position and numbers facing him. He determined that he was out manned, that the Union defense was impregnable, and that any attack would end in slaughter. He instead ordered his men to retreat to a position where they could keep the Union from capturing the supplies of the badly battered units on the left wing.

By the early afternoon the Confederates had pulled back to regroup for possible fighting the next day. The Union soldiers did not pursue them, nor retreat, but held their positions. That evening they started burning the town of Harrisburg in preparation for a retreat the next day. The added light was enough to allow the Confederate artillery to begin shelling the Union positions. At around 10 PM, Forrest took a brigade of Colonel Edmund Rucker’s men around to the Union left flank and opened fire, starting an intense skirmish that ended without any significant results.

General Smith, despite easily defending his position and clearly being the victor of the day’s fighting, chose to retreat the next day as scouts had reported. His ammunition and food were running low and the heat had gotten to his men. Thus, around 10 AM on July 15th, the Union army began a retreat north back to Memphis. However, it was not until noon that the Confederates were aware of it, for small contingents of Union troops remained behind to cover the retreating troops and engaged the Confederates in battle all morning.

Once the retreat was discovered, the Confederate forces set out in pursuit, catching up with the rear of the Union army just as it was crossing the Old Town Creek five miles north of Tupelo. The rest of the army had set up camp for the night. Now occupying the high ground, the Confederates fired upon the Union troops with rifle and artillery. However, several brigades of Union soldiers recrossed the creek and counter attacked, driving the Confederates back. When Forrest arrived he ordered a withdrawal. He was also shot in the foot, which prompted him to summon Lee to come take command. When Lee arrive he reversed Forrest’s withdrawal orders and had the retreating men form a new line, then wait to see if the Union troops would advance further. They did not, and soon Confederate troops withdrew back to their camps. Some units pursued Smith’s men for a few days, but the fighting at Old Town Creek on the 15th ended the Battle of Tupelo.

Both sides claimed victory in the battle, but history has proven that it was clearly a Union victory. Yes, the Confederates had driven the Union troops back to Memphis, but the retreat was a matter of being short on supplies, not defeat. As far as casualties were concerned, the Confederates suffered 1,300 killed or wounded, including Forrest himself, while the Union had only 650 casualties. However, the Union’s true victory was that Forrest and his cavalry were prevented from reaching Sherman’s supply line in Tennessee.

Union commanders were not happy with Smith, who they felt had ample opportunity to capture or kill Forrest at Harrisburg. They did not buy his claims of low rations and ammunition. He was in a heavily farmed region and supposedly killed plenty of civilian cattle and pigs out of spite at Harrisburg. Certainly he could have found food for his men. His claim of having only 100 rounds per gun at the time of the retreat, which he considered low, was seen by this superiors as plenty enough to fight another battle. Regardless, Smith was soon set out again to find Forrest, but again he had no success. Forrest’s cavalry, which never regained its former strength after the Battle of Tupelo, spent the rest of the war wagging guerrilla warfare against Union targets.

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Last updated on February 24, 2020
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