On March 30, 1865, General Wilson detached Brig. Gen. John T. Croxton’s brigade to destroy all Confederate property at Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After capturing a Confederate courier who carried dispatches from Forrest describing the strengths and dispositions of his scattered forces, Wilson also sent a brigade to destroy the bridge across the Cahaba River at Centerville. This action effectively cut off most of Forrest’s reinforcements. This began a running fight that did not end until after the fall of Selma.
Gen. James H. Wilson
On the afternoon of April 1, after skirmishing all morning, Wilson’s advanced guard ran into Forrest’s line of battle at Ebenezer Church, where the Randolph Road intersected the main Selma road. Here Forrest had hoped to bring his entire force to bear on Wilson. However delays caused by flooding plus earlier contact with the enemy enabled Forrest to muster less than 2,000 men, a large number of whom were not veterans but militia consisting of old men and young boys.
The outnumbered and outgunned Confederates fought bravely for more than an hour as more Union cavalry and artillery deployed on the field. Forrest himself was wounded by a saber-wielding Union captain whom he killed with his revolver. Finally, a Union cavalry charge with carbines blazing broke the Confederate militia causing Forrest to be flanked on his right. He was forced to retreat under severe pressure.
Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest
Early the next morning Forrest arrived at Selma, “horse and rider covered in blood.” He advised Gen. Richard Taylor, departmental commander, to leave the city. Taylor did so after giving Forrest command of the defense.
Selma was protected by three miles of fortifications which ran in a semi-circle around the city. They were anchored on the north and south by the Alabama River. The works had been built two years earlier, and while neglected for the most part since, were still formidable. They were 8 to 12 feet high, 15 feet thick at the base, with a ditch 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep along the front. In front of this was a picket fence of heavy posts planted in the ground, 5 feet high, and sharpened at the top. At prominent positions, earthen forts were built with artillery in position to cover the ground over which an assault would have to be made.
Forrest’s defenders consisted of his Tennessee escort company, McCullough’s Missouri Regiment, Crossland’s Kentucky Brigade, Roddey’s Alabama Brigade, Frank Armstrong’s Mississippi Brigade, General Daniel W. Adams’ state reserves, and the citizens of Selma who were “volunteered” to man the works. Altogether this force numbered less than 4,000, only half of who were dependable. The Selma fortifications were built to be defended by 20,000 men. Forrest’s soldiers had to stand 10 to 12 feet apart in the works.
Wilson’s force arrived in front of the Selma fortifications at 2 p.m. He had placed Gen. Eli Long’s division across the Summerfield Road with the Chicago Board of Trade Battery in support. He had Maj. Gen. Emory Upton’s division placed across the Range Line Road with Battery I, 4th U.S. Artillery in support. Altogether, Wilson had 9,000 troops available for the assault.
The Federal commander’s plan was for Upton to send in a 300-man detachment after dark to cross the swamp on the Confederate right, enter the works, and begin a flanking movement toward the center moving along the line of fortifications. Then, a single gun from Upton’s artillery would signal the attack by the entire Federal Corps.
At 5 p.m., however, Gen. Armisted Long’s ammunition train in the rear was attacked by advance elements of Forrest’s scattered forces coming toward Selma. Both Long and Upton had positioned significant numbers of troops in their rear for just such an event. However, Long decided to commence his assault against the Selma fortifications to neutralize the enemy attack in his rear.
Long’s troops attacked in a single rank in three main lines, dismounted with Spencers carbines , supported by their own artillery fire. The Confederates replied with heavy small arms and artillery fire of their own. The Federals suffered many casualties (including General Long himself) but not enough to break up the attack. Once the Union troops reached the works, there was vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Many soldiers were struck down with clubbed muskets. But the Union troops kept charging into the works. In less than 30 minutes, Long’s men had captured the outer works protecting the Summerfield Road.
Meanwhile, General Upton, observing Long’s success, ordered his division forward. The story was much the same for his men as on Long’s front. Soon, U.S. flags could be seen waving over the works from Range Line Road to Summerfield Road.
After the outer works fell, General Wilson himself led his escort, the 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment in a mounted charge, one of three that day, down the Summerfield Road toward the unfinished inner line of works. The retreating Confederate forces, upon reaching the inner works, all rallied and poured a devastating fire into the charging Union column. This broke up the charge and sent General Wilson sprawling to the ground when his favorite horse was wounded. He quickly remounted his stricken mount and ordered an assault by several regiments.
Mixed units of Confederate troops had also occupied the Selma railroad depot and the adjoining banks of the railroad bed to make a stand next to the present day Broad Street. The fighting there was heavy, but by 7 p.m., the superior numbers of Union troops had managed to flank the Southern positions causing them to abandon the depot as well as the inner line of works. In the darkness, the Union troops rounded up hundreds of prisoners, but hundreds more escaped down the Burnsville Road, including Generals Forrest, Armstrong, and Roddey.
To the west, many Confederate soldiers fought the pursuing Union soldiers all the way down to the eastern side of Valley Creek. They escaped in the darkness by swimming across the Alabama River near the mouth of Valley Creek (where the present day Battle of Selma Reenactment is held.)
The jubilant Union troops and some slaves looted the city that night and many businesses and private residences were burned. The words of a Union trooper describe it best.
“Of all the nights of my experience, this is most like the horrors of war —
a captured city burning at night, a victorious army advancing,
and a demoralized one retreating.
…this Sunday night now nearly gone, will be remembered.
If there is a merciful God in the heavens.
He must be looking down upon this scene in pity.”
E. N. Gilpin 3rd Iowa Cavalry US
Selma, April 2, 1865
The Union troops spent the next week destroying the Army Arsenal, Naval Ordnance Works and other war industries. Then they left Selma heading to Montgomery and then Columbus and Macon, Georgia, and the end of the war.
Wilson’s Cavalry Raid
By Donald J. Haynes
February 17, 1966
In the spring of 1865, late in the war, federal cavalry under Brevet Maj. General J.H. Wilson was gathered in the vicinity of Eastport, Mississippi, on the Tennessee River at the Northwest comer of Alabama. On the 22nd of March, these troops started south with the immediate objective being the Confederate arsenal and works at Selma, Alabama through an area commanded by the Confederate Lt. General N.B. Forrest. This campaign has been referred to as Wilson’s Cavalry Raid, and while for the most part only cavalry forces were involved, it represents the last major action between opposing forces in the West.
Some confusion exists in the specific reasons and motivating factors behind Wilson’s Cavalry Raid. General Grant had suggested to General Thomas that Wilson be detached with a force of “say five-thousand men to make a demonstration on Tuscaloosa and Selma.” The official records indicate that Thomas viewed it not only for its importance in regard to the capture of Selma, but also as an aid in Canby’s campaign against Mobile. However, a close study of the record indicates that this raid not only bears a casual resemblance to Sherman’s well known march to the sea, but rather that Wilson’s Cavalry Raid can be directly attributed to General Sherman and was conceived by him at the same time as the more famous march.
In the fall of 1864, General J. H. Wilson had been detached from Grant’s command at City Point and ordered to proceed to command of Sherman’s Cavalry. Wilson spent the month of October with Sherman at Gaylesville, in northeastern Alabama, following the movements of Hood’s army after the fall of Atlanta.
While here, Sherman on several occasions discussed with him personalities and various operations in the war as well as the proper use of cavalry. In addition, he discussed his strategic concepts and reviewed his general plans for marching to the sea. In late October, he planned to send Wilson to Nashville in command of cavalry to assist Thomas and Schofield against Hood. In further discussion, he suggested directly to Wilson that as soon as Hood was disposed of, he should gather all the cavalry he could get his hands on and then sweep down through Alabama and Georgia to join him whenever he might be found in the Carolinas or Virginia.”
Later communication from Wilson make plain that these limited discussions with Sherman in the month of October had inspired the energetic young man with the brilliance and importance of Sherman’s strategy, as well as planting in his mind, for maturity some six months and many battles later, the desire to accomplish Sherman’s design with his own Cavalry Corps — which he believed uniquely suited for this purpose. The fact that Wilson’s Cavalry Raid can thus be directly attributed to General Sherman adds significance to this campaign.
A study of strategy and tactics in the Civil War indicates it o be somewhat unique. While both sides produced men who were brilliant in the tactical use of troops in the field, neither side apparently produced leaders who had a good grasp on the strategic concepts involved. It was not until late in the war, and in retrospect today — after finding application in two World Wars, that the talent of General Sherman in formulating decisive strategic concepts is recognized.
While both Scott’s Anaconda Theory and Lincoln’s Attrition Theory may have proved influential in the long term, these appear to overlook the realities involved; i.e., that for the South to gain its independence it really did not have to win the war, but simply to keep from losing it. The South merely had to hold the field long enough to weary the North with fighting. The importance of this premise is shown by the fact that even relatively late in the war, the summer of 1864, when the South was beginning to lose importantly, in the war weary-weary North greenbacks fell to forty-seven cents on the dollar., draft riots swept New York, the Democratic Party adopted a platform that declared the war a failure and Lincoln concluded that he could not be re-elected.
It was for Sherman to see that in the only effective strategy, the South must be occupied and its resources for conducting and supporting the war must be destroyed. His own actions in carrying out this strategic concept are clear and self evident, but less well known is the fact that this second march — Wilson’s Cavalry Raid — also resulted from his original thinking in this area.
In order to gain perspective concerning the importance of Wilson’s Cavalry Raid, it’s necessary to consider both its timing and also its objectives. Inasmuch as it was one of the last campaigns in the South, beginning in March of 1865, and indeed only weeks prior to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, it’s difficult to build an argument in terms of this being a primary battle of the War. Grant in his memoirs passes it off as “. . . Forrest was in front, but with neither his old time army nor prestige … not enough to even retard materially the progress of Wilson’s Cavalry .
Indeed, while Beauregard then in command in the West for the Confederacy lists opposing forces of General Forrest as 12,000 men, Wilson more realistically assesses the total at 10,000 in the entire command, with straggling and desertion being major problems as active operations began. Surrounding Forrest were overwhelming Federal forces including not only Wilson located at Eastport, but also armies capable of attacking from Memphis, Vicksburg, and Pensacola as well as General Canby with a large force outside of Mobile. At this point in time, Sherman had completed his march to the sea, had turned north and had completely traversed South Carolina. Lee was strongly besieged in Petersburg, and only days from disaster.
However, the difficulty and importance of Wilson’s Cavalry Raid should not be underestimated. Forrest was an aggressive and effective leader who had defeated much larger forces than his own in previous battles, as iron disciplinarian who never the allowed the quality of his forces to degenerate into the predatory state of some other Southern Cavalry commands in the West. Selma was deep in the center of the Confederacy and, hence, a natural location to allow concentration of remaining infantry, irregular and militia forces. In addition, it forced the opposing forces to operate long distances through hostile territory far from their base of supply.
The strategic importance of Selma was unquestioned. Located here was one of the last major Confederate manufacturing centers, with arsenals, foundries and storehouses of Quartermasters and Commissary’s supplies. Selma was a key link in the Confederate East-West supply line, which in earlier times had stretched from the Trans-Mississippi Department by rail to Selma, by road and river to Montgomery and hence by rail again to Atlanta and through alternative routes to Richmond. Even at this time, with Sherman interposed between Richmond, this rail line with Selma at its center represented the major logistic tool for the Confederacy in the West. It was over this route that 1-food has transported the remnants of his troops to Augusta to oppose Sherman.
In November of the previous year, Thomas had written Sherman “The country of middle Alabama, I learn, is teeming with supplies this year. . ., ” supplies which would be of great value in continuing the war in the West as envisioned by Jefferson Davis, or in providing subsistence to Johnston’s Army in the Carolinas or even Lee should he leave Virginia as planned.
Considering the opposing forces in detail, in November 1864, G. T. Beauregard had been dispatched to assume command of all Confederate forces in the West. General Dick Taylor — son of President Zachary Taylor, brother-in-law of Jefferson Davis, and the man who had defeated Banks in front of Shreveport — was in command of infantry forces in the District of Mississippi, East Louisiana and West Tennessee with headquarters in Meridian, Mississippi. In January, 1865, cavalry forces in this District were grouped under General N. B. Forrest at West Point, on the Alabama line in north central Mississippi.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the more controversial figures to emerge from the Civil War. An uneducated man, raised on the western Tennessee frontier, who became a successful business man and yet even among his friends was known for his violent temper. A man who held life cheap, even that of his own troops, who could order suspected deserters shot with hardly the benefit of drum head courts, who while seriously wounded in a misunderstanding with one of his own officers hunted down his confused assailant with the avowed intent of killing him. A man of fierce independence with rigid standards of duty who had difficulties with his immediate superiors, leaving both Wheeler and Bragg under conditions that in a more formal organization would have been gross insubordination. He was condemned by his enemies for his contact with the slave trade, for the “massacre at Fort Pillow,” and for his brief post war activities with the Ku Klux Klan.
And yet, independently of his personal characteristics, his skill in the particular type of military operations in which he specialized was unquestioned. His accomplishments without benefit of formal military training and with forces which were typically about 3,000 – 5,000 men and which never exceeded 10,000 were phenomenal. Even when the major aspects of his tactics became well known, he continued to be successful.
The important elements of his tactics included surprise, usually resulting from unbelievable mobility (in the words of Sherman, “his cavalry can cover 100 miles while ours cover 10″), a fierce initial contact (either in battle or with a note peremptorily demanding surrender or disclaiming responsibility for the carnage to follow), the us of artillery almost in the skirmish line, and a flank or rear diversion followed by frontal assault. A chance remark of Forrest in meeting with Thomas’ representatives in February, 1865, has been paraphrased to ” . . . getting the fustest with the mostest” and while literally inaccurate probably typifies the major aspects of his tactics.
Forrest had fought in almost A major engagements in the West; Fort Donelson, Nashville, Shiloh and Chickamauga, but his greatest successes and largest value to the South was in disrupting federal communications and transportation. In December, 1862, he so disrupted Grant’s line from Memphis that the proposed overland attack on Vicksburg was abandoned. Grant, and later Sherman, were constantly bedeviled and endangered by Forrest on their line of communication. Sherman’s Meridian campaign in early 1864 was expressly designed to destroy Forrest in northern Mississippi and despite a complete description of Forrest’s tactics, General Sooy Smith with a force of 7,000 was defeated by Forrest with 4,000 men. As late as January, 1865, Sherman was writing Thomas ” . . . I would like to have Forrest hunted, but doubt if we can do this yet.”
Under Forrest at West Point were four divisions of cavalry comprising about 12,000 troops. Divisional commanders, who had served with him in most cases earlier in the war, included General Chalmers — with Stark’s, Armstrong’s and Wirt Adams’ brigades, General W. H. Jackson — with Crossland’s Brigade (previously Lyon!s Kentucky Brigade), Ross’s Texans, and T. H. Bell’s Brigade, General Buford with a single brigade of troops and General Roddey with a brigade stationed at Montevallo, Alabama, and responsible for covering the territory from this point north to the Tennessee River. In addition to these troops, militia were present at Montevallo under District Commander Dan Adams as well as at Selma.
Federal General J. H. Wilson was almost the complete antithesis of Forrest. Wilson was born in Shawneetown, Illinois, and graduated from West Point in 1860. His urbane and educational attainments were reflected in his later life, serving illustriously in the military through the Spanish American War and Boxer rebellion and as an author in later years of numerous books and articles. At the time of the Civil War, he was one of the youngest Generals in the Federal forces, receiving his Brevet Major General commission at the age of 27. He excelled in interpersonal relationships, and was in direct contact with leading political and military figures throughout the war.
Wilson had served with McClellan at Antietam and had been on General Grant’s staff as a topographic Engineer and Inspector General. He was both an administrator and man of action. In early 1864, he was appointed chief of the Cavalry Bureau of the War Department where he made important contributions in obtaining remounts and also was responsible for the introduction and use of the Spencer carbine, a repeating rifle having a magazine in the stock holding six cartridges which could be fired as rapidly as the action could be worked.
His effectiveness as a military commander is shown in his later service as head of a division of cavalry in Sheridan’s Cavalry Corp in the battle of the Wilderness and Valley Campaigns. In October, 1864, he was sent by Grant to head Sherman’s cavalry with the prediction that he would, by his personal activity, increase the effect of that arm by ‘fifty per cent.”
Gathered around Eastport and participating in Wilson’s Cavalry Raid were three Divisions of cavalry. The third division was commanded by General Edwin M. McCook of the fighting McCooks, who had originally entered the war with the fourth Indiana Cavalry. In his Division was one Brigade under John T. Croxton, originally from Lexington, Kentucky, who had fought with the Army of the Cumberland and had distinguished himself with Thomas at Chickamauga, and another under O. H. Lagrange of the First Wisconsin Cavalry. The first division was headed by General Upton of the West Point Class of 1861. His brigade commanders were Alexander, from Kentucky, and Winslow of the Fourth Iowa Cavalry. The second Division was headed by Eli Long, another Kentuckian. His Brigadiers were Minty of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry, an Irishman who was the son of a British officer, and A. 0. Miller, originally a doctor who had entered the army in Indiana.
A review of activities in the West shows that Wilson’s Cavalry Paid was a continuation of a long struggle between Wilson and Forrest. Following the fall of Atlanta in September, 1864, both Thomas and Schofield had been sent back to Nashville to protect Sherman’s line of supply, then established at Johnsonville on the Tennessee River, as well as by rail with Louisville. In October, as previously related, Wilson was sent by Sherman to take care of cavalry at Nashville.
Hood left Sherman at Atlanta and began his march on Nashville, hoping to force Sherman to retreat. In late October and early November, Forrest attached part of Sherman’s base of supply at Johnsonville and destroyed vast quantities of stores and munitions. However, Sherman left on his march to the sea in November, leaving Forrest to combine with Hood and face Thomas and Schofield at Nashville.
Forrest joined Hood at Florence, Alabama, and led the northern advance, driving Federal Cavalry under Wilson and infantry through Mt. Pleasant, Spring Hill and Thompson’s Station until Confederate forces were checked at the bloody battle of Franklin on November 30. Although knowing Hood’s army was broken at Franklin, Forrest pushed on to Nashville until even Grant feared that this cavalry force would Rank Thomas at Nashville.
On December 16th, Thomas finally moved out of Nashville and almost completely destroyed Hood. In the long retreat, Forrest as the rear guard continuously skirmished with Wilson who was moving heaven and earth to cut off the confederate forces before they could cross the Tennessee. When the Tennessee was finally reached on December 27, the remnants of the Confederate forces retreated South while Wilson’s exhausted cavalry, reduced from 10,00 to 7,000 watched them disappear in the distance.
The months of January and February were largely spent by both Forrest and Wilson in resting, reorganizing and refitting their forces; Forrest at Corinth, Mississippi, and Wilson in cantonments at Gravelly Springs and Waterloo on the Tennessee outside of Eastport, Mississippi. On March 1st, Forrest moved his command to West Point, Mississippi.
This was the background then for Wilson’s Cavalry Raid. The force finally leaving under Wilson’s command for his Cavalry Raid, on March 22, 1865, consisted of 12,500 mounted troopers armed with the Spencer repeating carbine, the weapon he preferred for cavalry operations. Also included were 1,500 dismounted troops to guard the wagon train of 250 wagons and one light pontoon train of fifty mule teams and one battery of horse artillery. Wilson considered this the best equipped and organized cavalry force of the war. The force moved from the vicinity of Eastport using three separate routes designed to disguise their true objective as much as possible, with directions to rendezvous at Jasper, about 60 miles south.
The leading column, Upton’s Division, reached Jasper on March 27th, to receive the information from spies and scouts that Chalmers’ Division of Forrest’s Cavalry was to move toward Selma by a route through Tuscaloosa, about 40-50 miles further south. In order to travel as rapidly as possible before Forrest could concentrate his forces, Wilson directed that the wagon train be left south of Jasper in the mountainous but easily defended region between the Locust and Mulberry forks of the Black Warrior River, along with the 1500 dismounted troops. The main force hurried on, after perilously, fording both of these streams which were rapidly rising, until they reached Elyton, a “poor and insignificant village” to become Birmingham, Alabama, six years later.
Meanwhile, Forrest had been realigning his forces to most effectively meet Federal advances which were expected from a number of directions. On March 23, before understanding the nature of Wilson’s move, he dispatched Buford’s Division with directions to move south of Selma to provide against forces coming up from Mobile. Shortly thereafter, he made provisions for Wilson’s movement, but obviously misjudged the significance and rapidity with which Wilson was traveling, believing it to be only a minor raid. On March 25 and 26, elements of Chalmers Division, previously advanced to the east at Pickensville, Alabama, were directed to move to Selma. Jackson’s Division was to be reviewed by Forrest and Taylor at West Point on the 26th, afterward to move to Selma by way of Tuscaloosa — except for Crossland’s Brigade which with his personal escort company of Colonel McCulloch and about 75 troops from the 2nd Missouri and about 200 well mounted cavalrymen from one of the regular brigades. Three days later he was nine miles from Montevallo and finally becoming aware of the strength and speed of Wilson’s force.
However, this realization was much too late, and the man who was accustomed to getting there first with the most and who had frequently won against much stronger forces for this reason was to be involved in a two day running fight with three major encounters in which he was already too late and was to be at the point of battle in each case with inferior forces.
Leaving Forrest on the road to Montevallo on the 31st, we retrace Wilson’s movements of the day before. Having gathered all his forces at Elyton, he dispatched Croxton’s Brigade (about 1500 men) of McCook’s Division to Tuscaloosa to prevent a flanking movement of the Confederate troops known to be moving through that point to Selma. Continuing this march on the 31st, Croxton fell onto the rear of W. H. Jackson’s Division of Forrest’s cavalry travelling south from Tuscaloosa, accidentally placing himself between the troops and the following battery of artillery and supply train. Not realizing this, however, when pressed by the Confederate troops, Croxton broke contact, moved north to recross the swollen Warrior River and approached Tuscaloosa from the north, surprising the militia who were expecting an attack from the East and capturing the city. After destroying military supplies and installations in Tuscaloosa, and becoming convinced after an encounter with part of Chalmers Division that the Confederate forces interposed between himself and Wilson’s main force were much larger than his own, Croxton turned north, made a wide swing toward the East and was to take no further action in the raid until he rejoined Wilson at Macon, Georgia, April 29th, almost one month later.
Meanwhile, Wilson with the bulk of his force, including almost 9,000 men and twelve field guns, moved south from Elyton with Upton’s leading Division capturing a bridge at Hillsboro allowing them to cross the rain swollen Cahaba. Continuing south, they approached Montevallo on the afternoon of the 30th with Upton’s Division leading and driving in Confederate pickets.
On the afternoon of the 31st, a sharp engagement was fought at Montevallo between the Confederate forces — including Roddey’s Division, the Militia under Dan Adams and Crossland’s Brigade — totaling apparently about 2,500 men, and the entire federal force. The Confederates were met and driven back in disorder to a creek some five miles south of Montevallo, where they again made a stand and after a short fight at close quarters were driven from their position again, Forrest, meanwhile, arrived on the scene with his escort of about 275 men, actually entering the road south from Montevallo after the Confederates had retreated and on the heels of the pursuing Federal forces. As was his custom, he led his men into the confusion, hoping to benefit from the surprise, and drove the Federals at this point from the scene.
Learning from prisoners the state of affairs, Forrest at this point formulated plans for effecting his favorite tactic. Orders were drawn to W. H. Jackson’s Division, at this time widely spread out with his main force between Tuscaloosa and the Cahaba River crossing about 50 miles south at Centerville (and unknown to Forrest badly confused by Croxton’s movements on his rear) to fall in behind Wilson and to follow him down the railroad to Selma, avoiding engagement until Forrest could check his frontal movement. This check would be by Forrest and the troops from Montevallo in combination with Chalmer’s Division who had been ordered to meet him in front of Selma at Ebenezer Church, or failing all else, to stop Wilson at Selma where all of his Divisions — Chalmers, Roddey, Buford and the Militia could be used as well as Jackson.
Forrest skirted the Federal forces and rejoined his disordered command that evening at Randolph, about 20 miles south of Montevallo. The next day, the Federal forces outside of Randolph captured a courier carrying Forrest’s orders of the previous evening to Jackson. As Lee’s dispatch in the Maryland campaign, found in the roadway by McClellan, told of the Confederate General’s intentions, so these communications told Wilson exactly what Forrest planned. Had Forrest’s plan matured as planned, it is entirely possible that his force numbering about 7,000, would have fought with Wilson’s forces, also numbering about 7,000 – 9,000, one of the major cavalry battles of the war. However, the euphemism regarding time and tide was to prove never more true.
Wilson, having learned of Forrest’s plan, dispatched the remainder of McCook’s Division to secure the bridge at Centerville and prevent the joining of Jackson’s Division. Meanwhile, he redoubled his efforts to drive the Confederate commander before Forrest could concentrate his Forces.
Leaving Randolph, Wilson split his forces, Upton moving two miles eastward and continuing south on a road parallel to Long’s Division which continued on the main road. Forrest, meanwhile, reached Ebenezer Church about six miles north of Plantersville, only to find a note from Chalmers indicating that he had encountered unexpected difficulties (probably McCook’s burning of the Centerville bridge) and he would not be able to unite with him as ordered at Ebenezer Church. While Forrest was furious, he directed Chalmers that under no circumstances was he to fail to unite with him at Plantersville or in front of Selma, and proceeded to fortify the ground strongly at Ebenezer Church. With his right and center resting on and being behind creeks, and his left on a high ridge, with four field guns sweeping the Randolph road being followed by Long and two guns on the road to the east being used by Upton, Forrest prepared for a delaying action. Forrest had in total about 2,000 – 3,000 men in strongly entrenched positions while Wilson had about 4,000 in Upton’s Division and 5,000 in Long’s.
The engagement was opened by Long’s Division (primarily the Seventy Second Indiana Mounted Cavalry) attacking the Confederate left, breaking the line and throwing the Confederates back. This was followed by a mounted attack of the Saber Battalion of the Seventeenth Indiana Mounted Infantry. Forrest ordered his men to reserve their fire until the Federals were within one hundred yards of their position. They were then to draw their revolvers and with one in each hand to ride in among their assailants and use their weapons at close quarters. Following was a fierce hand to hand fight of sabers versus revolvers.
Captain Taylor of the Seventeenth Indiana recognized Forrest, made for him and assailed him so fiercely with a shower of saber strokes aimed at his head and shoulders that for a moment it appeared he would kill Forrest. However, the Confederate leader managed to spur away sufficiently to turn and shoot him from the saddle. Speaking of it a few days later with his arm still in a sling, Forrest commented, “If that boy had known enough to give me the point of his saber instead of its edge, I should not have been here to tell you about it.”
Upton, upon encountering the right of Forrest’s line on the other road, threw forward a strong dismounted skirmish line. When these troops were engaged her ordered a flank attack by Alexander with two mounted regiments from the left of his line. These troops are reported to have struck the inexperienced militia, who broke and ran from the field in disorder, forcing the entire Confederate line to withdraw, losing three guns and several hundred prisoners. A desperate running fight was continued to Plantersville that night, 20 miles north of Selma, where only Armstrong’s brigade of Chalmer’s Division finally joined Forrest.
The next morning Forrest continued on to Selma, reporting to General Taylor the Departmental commander who had come to prepare it for defense, and suggesting to Taylor that he return to Headquarters at Meridian, Mississippi before the Federal attack.
Forrest, left in command, determined to make the best possible defense, about 8,000 people was surrounded by a well-constructed, bastioned line of earthworks and stockades, extending in a complete semi-circle about three miles — from the river bank above the town to the river bank below the town, with an inner line not yet complete covering the principle roads from the city to the surrounding country. The city was surrounded by cultivated land swept by thirty-two guns in position behind heavy parapets. The stockades were about five feet high and firmly planted in the ground with their tops sharpened.
Forrest ordered that every male citizen of the town “must go into the works in into the river.” However, even then the line was thin, with an interval of six to ten feet between the men as they stood behind the works. Armstrong’s Brigade of Chalmers’ Division (the remainder of which had not even yet arrived) composed of 1432 men, were stationed on the left of the Confederate position. Roddey’s Division was placed on the extreme right, while the Militia numbering about 2,000 filled in the center between these two commands. In the rear of the Militia was stationed Forrest with his escort and the Kentuckians. The total Confederate force appears to have numbered 5,000 – 6,000 men compared to Wilson’s 9,000 men. However, these odds would not appear unreasonable considering the strong defensive position.
Wilson, meanwhile, had captured an English Civil Engineer who had been employed on the fortifications at Selma, and hence learned of the strong defensive fortifications. Proceeding toward Selma early on the morning of April 2nd, Wilson reviewed with his officers plans for the attack. Upton, who had some experience in this type of battle at Mare’s Hill and the dead angle at Spotsylvania, was to approach and attack on the Federal left, working through a swamp and creek bottom not covered by earthworks. Long’s Division, heavier by two regiments, was to follow the right hand road, parallel to the other, to the main entrance of the city, while Wilson with the Fourth Regular Cavalry would develop the center.n
As the Federals approached the city, Long turned to the right and crossed over to the Summerfield Road. He posted a strong regiment at the creek to his right rear to look out for Jackson’s and Chalmers’ forces and to protect the horses and pack train. A dismounted line of 1500 men was formed behind a low ridge, concealing it from the Confederate force of about equal number in the works.
Upton, meanwhile, had dismounted a line on the left with a mounted brigade in support. The signal for the advance was to be a single shot from one of the Federal guns in the rear. However, this arrangement was interfered with by a movement against Long’s rear by a part of Chalmers’ Division of Forrest’s Cavalry which was finally closing up. However, a second regiment was dispatched as reinforcement and as the position was a good one for defense, Long concluded that it could be held until the battle in front should be won.
Long, realizing that with the additional factor of the force in his rear, time was of the essence, ordered the attack on the right. The Federals advanced, meeting a storm of shot and shell from twenty guns sweeping the front as well as fire from Armstrong’s Brigade behind the parapets. However, the Federal charge carried the Confederate line, despite the loss of 270 wounded, 38 men and 4 leading officers killed out of the attacking force of 1500. Upton, hearing the noise on the right, made his way through the brush and across the swamp, to again strike a portion of the line covered by Militia which he easily carried with negligible loss.
Wilson, meanwhile, had moved to the left of Long’s line and led a charge of the Fourth Regulars through the first line of defense where his horse was shot from under him. During this initial fighting, Forrest had attempted to stem the tide until Roddey and Arrnstrong could be united at the second line of defense.
However, on reaching this line, Wilson now remounted, continued the frontal attack while both Upton and Long flanked the defenders. Seeing further resistance now hopeless, Forrest ordered the dismounted men to secure their horses and escape as best they could.
Forrest, with the remnants of Roddey’s men, moved out of Selma on the Burnsville road, again being compelled to fight their way through, with Forrest personally engaging in a hand to hand encounter. Armstrong, moving out and toward the west where all of Forrest’s men had been ordered to assemble if the defense was unsuccessful, also was forced to cut his way out with but little loss. Don Adams crossed the river immediately behind the city, as did many of the other troops.
So ended the battle of Selma. It was not until later that Wilson learned that on this same day, at the other end of the supply line, Richmond had been evacuated by Confederate Forces, and these simultaneous events were practically the end of the war for the Confederacy.
While Confederate losses in killed and wounded at Selma were probably less than the equivalent Federal figures, the total losses were irreparable. Captured were 2,700 prisoners (with 150 officers), 2,000 horses, 32 guns in position on the defenses, 44 siege and seacoast guns, 26 field guns. 66,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, large quantities of cartridges and fourteen thousand pounds of gunpowder. Destroyed was the Selma arsenal, covering about 20 acres with twenty-four buildings filled with machinery and munitions, a foundry for casting naval and military guns, three iron plants, niter works and two magazines, besides many storehouses filled with quartermaster’s and commissary’s supplies.
As an anti-climax, we might review events subsequent to the fall of Selma. Continuing Sherman’s strategic concept, Wilson turned east and on April 12, the city of Montgomery, the original capital of the Confederacy, was surrendered by the demoralized citizens. Following this; Columbus, Georgia fell on April 16. Forrest, meanwhile, had gathered the remainder of his troops west of the Cahaba. Forrest surrendered the remnants of his forces on May 4th, to Canby who had occupied Mobile. It’s ironic that the last act of significance in Wilson’s Cavalry Raid was his capture of Jefferson Davis fleeing south at Irwinsville, Georgia, on May 1st.
In assessing the results of Wilson’s Cavalry Raid, the contribution to Sherman’s strategy is clearly apparent. Although the loss of supplies was important, perhaps of more importance were the larger strategic ends viewed by Sherman, the loss of territory whose importance can only be described in terms of “what might have been” for the Confederacy had Selma not fallen, and also the effect on the entire Confederacy of seeing this deep penetration and control of its territory.
In conclusion, while this action between total forces of only 10,000 – 12,000 men on each side hardly compares to Sherman’s march with an army of 65,000 men through Georgia and the Carolinas, in conception, intent and result it may truly be referred to as Sherman’s second march.
1. Official Records
War of the Rebellion
U.S. War Department
Government Printing Office
1880 – 1901
2. Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman
Written by Himself
D. Appleton and Company
New York, 1886
(Reissued, Indiana U.)
3. Under The Old Flag
James Harrison Wilson
D. Appleton and Company
New York, 1912
4.Life Of General Nathan Bedford Forrest
John A. Wyeth
Harper and Brothers
New York, 1899
5. Sherrnan, Fighting Prophet
Harcourt, Brace and Company
New York, 1932
6. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War
Edited by Johnson and Buel
The Century Company
New York, 1887-88
7. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant
Charles L. Webster and Company
New York, 1885
8. The Civl War
Newman and Long
Grossett and Dunlap, Inc.
New York, 1956
9. Rock of Chickamauga:
The Life of General George H. Thomas
Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1948
10. Destruction and Reconstruction
D. Appleton & Company
New York, 1879
© 1998 and 2004 The Cincinnati Civil War Round Table