(Painting by John Paul Strain)
One hundred and fifty years ago today, a significant battle took place at Brice’s Crossroads, Mississippi. The battle would prove to be General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s greatest victory of the war, and the best example of his strategic genius. It has been referred to as the perfect battle, and has been studied by contemporaries in battle strategy, including German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel during WWII.
On the evening of June 9, Forrest was informed that Union forces were approaching Brice’s Crossroads. When the morning dawned, he realized that the Federals would have to contend with the heat and humidity, which was something Northerners were unaccustomed to.
“Their cavalry will move out ahead of their infantry,” he told Confederate Colonel Edmund Rucker, “and should reach the crossroads three hours in advance. We can whip their cavalry in that time. As soon as the fight opens, they will send back to have the infantry hurried up. It is going to be hot as hell, and coming on a run for five or six miles, their infantry will be so tired out we will ride right over them.”
Forrest was following one of his homely but spectacularly effective combat aphorisms, one he stated again to Captain John W. Morton, Jr. while riding in pursuit of the routed Federals. “Get ‘em skeered, and then keep the skeer on ‘em.”
Forrest’s prediction proved accurate. Using the topography and heavy undergrowth to his advantage, he bluffed the Union cavalry into believing his forces were larger than they actually were. The Confederates charged, colliding with Federal cavalry. The battle devolved into hand-to-hand combat. By 12:30, the Federals retired from the field.
A half hour later, Union General Samuel D. Sturgis’ 8,500 foot-weary soldiers came up. The tremendous heat of the midday sun bore down on the men, who were given little time to rest. Forrest commanded his soldiers to charge, and the two sides again collided, resulting in close combat.
By 5:00, a final attack was made on the Federals. The charge was a classic Forrest tactic: a fierce attack in the front and a charge on both flanks and in the rear. Forrest, astride King Phillip, placed himself ahead of his Special Forces and ordered a pursuit.
Commanding his artillerists to charge the enemy with their guns, he said, “Give ‘em hell right over yonder where I’m going to double ‘em up.” His action is believed to have been the first time a commander ordered his guns forward in a charge without immediate support.
The 3,500 cavalrymen spurred into action, and as one member of the Seventh Tennessee Cavalry later reported, the fighting was intense.
When our movement was too slow to suit Forrest, he would curse, then praise and then threaten to shoot us himself, if we were so afraid the Yanks might hit us… He would praise in one breath, then in the next would curse us and finally said, “I will lead you”… guns once fired were used as clubs and pistols were brought into play, while the two lines struggled with the ferocity of wild beasts.
As before, Forrest paraded his soldiers to make them appear larger in numbers. The Confederates drove off their attackers and captured sixteen of their artillery pieces. Ordered to give chase, they fired on the retreating Federals, hitting wagons, killing horses and mules, and stampeding the Union soldiers. Drivers abandoned their wagons. Sturgis ordered the wagons burned, but Forrest’s men managed to save over 100, salvaging their contents of food, ammunition, and supplies.
General Forrest outfoxed nearly twice his opponents. His genius has been a subject of study ever since.