Brices Cross Roads: The Greatest Battle in World History?

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Early June 1864 was a bleak time for Washington and the Union cause. What began that spring as a determined Federalist push to crush the Confederacy was moving at a grinding, bloody pace. In Virginia, Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac endured a painful reversal at Cold Harbor. As tens of thousands of Union troops fell before the defenses of Richmond, William Tecumseh Sherman was still laboring to reach the outskirts of Atlanta. A month earlier a Union offensive meant to seize upper Louisiana was turned back and abandoned. Progress elsewhere was either absent or fleeting. Meanwhile, the long casualty lists churned animosity in the Union press. With Abraham Lincoln facing re-election in the spring, popular doubt clouded the future of a restored United States.

Buried amid the bad news that early summer were reports of a clash in the northeast corner of Mississippi. The battle took place on June 10th outside of Guntown, a few scant miles north of Tupelo. There, a mixed force of Union infantry and cavalry met a smaller contingent of Confederate troops and was routed. Wire services carried news of the engagement across the Atlantic, stating definitively that all of the Union’s wagon train, including artillery, was lost in the stampede that followed. For Northern critics, blame for the fiasco rested with the Union commander, Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis. A correspondent for the Chicago Tribune denounced Sturgis as a “drunken and inefficient” general whose defeat inspired bitterness among all the ranks below him. The Union general was demoted for his disgrace and transferred west where he later distinguished himself again for his failures against fighters from the Nez Perce.

In the grand scheme of things, Sturgis’ defeat, now remembered as the Battle of Brices Cross Roads, contributed little to the Confederate cause. Sherman seized Atlanta before the summer of 1864 was through. Grant pressed on beyond Richmond and, with time, compelled Confederate forces to abandon their capital. Yet in today’s hyper-politicized American history, Brices Cross Roads continues to ring out as a battle worthy of recognition and wonder. For believers in the Lost Cause, it is celebrated as a quintessential Confederate victory, one defined by the South’s determination and daring in the face of long odds. Brices Cross Roads holds still more significance for those who have celebrated the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the battle’s architect and victor. For generations, historians and admirers have likened the Confederate general to Napoleon for his trouncing of Union forces in northeast Mississippi. It continues to be lauded as the epitome of Forrest’s leadership and military genius.

One could argue, however, that Brices Cross Roads distorts more about Forrest’s character than it genuinely reveals. Without his victory along the Guntown Road, Forrest’s name would be far more synonymous with white supremacy and massacre.

 

 

The Figure of Forrest

“Colorful” is among the more charitable adjectives used to describe Forrest’s life and eccentricities. Born in middle Tennessee in 1821, he attained wealth and status despite having received no more than six months of formal schooling. He neither drank nor smoked but gambled large sums in his leisure time. His livelihood as a slave trader and plantation owner afforded him a fortune large enough to arm and outfit a battalion of cavalry at the outbreak of the Civil War. In the course his service as an officer in the Confederate army, he personally killed 30 Union men in hand-to-hand combat (as well as a fellow officer in a personal dispute). Sherman, having served in the South, believed he knew Forrest’s type well before truly meeting him in battle. He was drawn from a class of “young blood of the South,” men who delighted in war and who were “brave, fine riders, bold to rashness, and dangerous subjects in every sense.” Forrest, he warned his commanding officer in the summer of 1862, was among a select few in the Confederate army who “must all be killed or employed by us before we can hope for peace.”

Sherman was correct in one respect. Forrest was indeed a fine horseman and a dogged fighter. In the first year of the Civil War, he had distinguished himself as having risked life and limb at Fort Donelson and the Battle of Shiloh. As time progressed, he assumed even greater notoriety in the North as a raider capable of striking effectively behind enemy lines. By 1864, he also attained a reputation for mercilessness. As they raided northwards along the Mississippi, Forrest’s men threatened to massacre Federal troops, in particular African American volunteers, if they failed to surrender. His men followed through on their vow in April of that year, slaughtering hundreds of disarmed black soldiers with the seizure of Fort Pillow. News of the massacre north of Memphis traveled fast, leading to widespread condemnation throughout the North and across the Atlantic. One British editor agreed that Lincoln “would be perfectly right to make an example of any of these bandits” who had murdered unarmed Union troops. Given the fact that Southern armies were fighting for their lives outside of Richmond and Atlanta, such exploits by Forrest and his men appeared to “prove that Confederates did not understand their business.”

The Day of the Battle

Crushing Forrest assumed even greater importance after Fort Pillow. With his columns pushing closer to Atlanta, Sherman assigned Sturgis to march on northern Mississippi in the hopes of hunting down the Confederate raider. Sturgis possessed a strong service record up to that point, having distinguished himself during early fights at Wilson’s Creek, South Mountain, and Antietam. With a force of over 8,000 infantry and cavalry, the Union generally sallied southward from Memphis in early June. Hampering the march into Mississippi was a driving rain and blistering heat that lasted for days. When Forrest gained knowledge of Sturgis’ advance, he understood that he was generally outnumbered. Despite possessing just over half the manpower, the Southern cavalrymen elected to attack. The conditions and circumstances, he reasoned, favored him. Mississippi’s muddy roads and dense forests appeared likely to fragment Sturgis’ forces. If the Federal cavalry pressed ahead of the main column, Forrest gambled he could first “whip it” before reinforcements came to their aid. “It’s going to be hot as hell,” Forrest prophesized, “and coming on a run for five or six miles over such roads, their infantry will be so tired out we will ride right over them.”

His plan, once put into motion on June 10th, was executed with incredible precision. Maintaining the initiative despite insufferable summer heat, Forrest kept the Union cavalry at bay as Sturgis’ main force arrived to the scene at Brices Cross Roads. He had ordered his men to dismount and engage the enemy at close quarters, driving them on with no regard to his own safety. The fighting raged for much of the afternoon before the Union line broke. With retreating Federal troops enveloped from both sides, the exhausted Confederates proved relentless in sweeping the field before them. Whatever order Sturgis’ officers initially mustered became undone as fleeing troops found themselves hindered by artillery pieces and wagons stuck in the Mississippi mud.

By the end of that June day, the Confederate victory proved complete. In addition to inflicting vastly more casualties upon their enemy, Forrest’s men seized 16 pieces of Union artillery and almost 200 wagons stacked with arms and supplies. Southern newspapers were exultant at the news of Sturgis’ defeat. Forrest, one Richmond paper declared, had taught the North a lesson with the “eloquence of his remorseless sword.” He was not the barbarian the Federals had accused him of being. “We believe the Northern soldiery hold Forrest more in reverence and fear than any other Confederate General.” “A dozen Forrests in the field,” the paper concluded, “and a little of the Forrest theory of warfare against the invaders would clear our land of Lincoln’s minions in half a year.”

Aftermath

Brices Cross Roads solidified Forrest’s reputation and mystique, but its effect upon Northern operations was short-lived. A month later he helped lead a Southern advance against a Federal offensive outside of Tupelo. This time Forrest’s instincts failed him in guiding his troops in a desperate attack against fixed Union defenses. The fighting at Tupelo bled the Confederate of men and materiel he no longer could easily replace. Moreover, his reversal helped insure the security of Sherman’s supply lines as Federal forces approached Atlanta. Thereafter, Forrest would cease to inspire the sort of terror he and his raiders once inflicted upon the Union.

The transitory effect Brices Cross Roads had upon Confederate fortunes has done little to undermine the battle’s significance in historical memory. One factor that elevated the importance of Forrest’s victory is its general uniqueness within the history of the Civil War’s western theater. Unlike the fighting in Virginia, Confederate forces enjoyed exceedingly few definitive victories west of the Appalachians. Brices Cross Roads echoes some of intrepidness displayed by Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Like Lee’s great victories at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville, the Confederates won the day at Brices Cross Roads despite disadvantages in men and firepower.

Perhaps more importantly, these were victories often celebrated as demonstrations of the Southern soldier’s resolve, daring and dash. During a commemorative ceremony in 1925, one Mississippi congressman compared Forrest’s victory to Napoleon’s genius at Austerlitz, albeit one attained through the persistence of “his small band of half-naked, half-starved veterans.” He further reminded well-wishers that the Confederates that June day had faced units comprising “a black mass of recently liberated slaves, members of a semi-savage race which our forefathers had elevated from the position of savage” through “the light of civilization.” Observers by the mid-20th century have largely abandoned the racialization of Forrest’s victory while still finding more significance in Forrest’s planning and execution. After World War II, legend has it that Erwin Rommel drew inspiration from Brices Cross Roads, calling it “the greatest battle in world history.” The seeming similarities in style and vision between Forrest and the Desert Fox was enough for one novelist to pen a historical fantasy exploring the lessons and adventures Rommel gleans during an imaginary visit to Tennessee and Mississippi. The conceit of Rommel and the Rebel, which was released to some fanfare in 1986, is that Forrest is a true father of modern warfare.

Among the more influential contributors to the mythos surrounding Forrest and Brices Cross Roads has been Ken Burns. The Confederate general’s presence is felt throughout much of Burns’ epic on the Civil War. Forrest’s importance to The Civil War is buttressed by more than its homage to Brices Cross Roads (which features one of the few live action shots in the film). It is through the voice of Shelby Foote, whose august Southern sensibilities lie at the heart of The Civil War, that the viewer receives a rather heartfelt appreciation of Forrest. Decades later, critics continue to flinch at Foote’s assertion that Lincoln and Forrest were the two great geniuses produced by the conflict. Even though The Civil War does not shy from invoking the horrors of Fort Pillow, nor avoid Forrest’s earnest racism, Burns treats the Brices Cross Roads with unmistakable affection and admiration.

People in northern Mississippi never required the likes of Burns to move them to commemorate Brices Cross Roads. In 1929, a consortium of politicians, private citizens, and Confederate veterans successfully lobbied Congress to set aside funds for the erection of a monument to Forrest’s marquise triumph. Spearheading this legislative achievement were a handful of the Confederate general’s surviving comrades. One aging veteran declared he had lived in hiding immediately after the war for fear of vengeance on the part of Union soldiers (a few of whom, he claimed, he left dead in the wood). For him, Brices Cross Roads was a “good fight,” one marred only by the fact that the Federals had raised “the black flag” declaring they would take no prisoners (a charge, he later learned, was untrue).

Though the park was originally only an acre in size, a local commission has since purchased an additional 1600 acres of land in the hopes of preserving a larger portion of the battlefield’s natural landscape. An annual reenactment of the battle has long since been a tradition in northeast Mississippi (one that now feature living history demonstrations as well as live music from the era).

To the north in Tennessee, the politics of Forrest’s memory has attracted far greater amounts of controversy. Recent years has witnessed an annual wreath-laying ceremony at the site of Fort Pillow in remembrance of the African American soldiers massacred there in 1864. Forrest’s association with the killings, coupled with his notoriety as one of the founders of the Klu Klux Klan, has led to efforts to remove busts and statutes in the Tennessee State House and in the city of Memphis. Public efforts at minimizing his glorification, however, remains only partial in his native state. In 2019, Governor Bill Lee declared July 13 a state-wide day of observation in honor of the Confederate general. “Forrest Day” remains in effect to this day.

The politics revolving around Forrest and his legacies cannot be divorced from the much larger debate regarding popular memory and commemoration of the Civil War. Yet in Forrest’s case, it is hard to imagine the extent of his enduring glorification in the absence of his leadership at Brices Cross Roads. Like the case of Lee, Forrest’s demonstrable brilliance and ingenuity on the battlefield partially shields a more sordid picture of the man and his exploits. As one scholar recently argued, Brices Cross Road allows Forrest’s admirers both license and ambiguity in proclaiming their affections for him.

 

 

Ryan Gingeras is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is a frequent contributor to War on the Rocks and is the author of a half-dozen books covering the history of the late Ottoman Empire and Early Turkish Republic. As a life-long enthusiast of Civil War history, he attained second place in 1995 national essay contest hosted by the official magazine of the Civil War Society. His views expressed here do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.