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The Sooy Smith expedition (February, 1864).

by George E. Waring, Jr., Colonel, 4TH Missouri cavalry, U. S. V., commanding Brigade.
In January, 1864, General Sherman arranged for an expedition from Vicksburg to Meridian with 20,000 infantry, under his own command, and a cooperating cavalry expedition, 7000 mounted men and 20 pieces of artillery, under the command of General W. Sooy Smith, chief-of-cavalry on General Grant's staff. This cavalry force was ordered to start from Collierville, east of Memphis, on the 1st of February, and to join Sherman at Meridian as near the 10th as possible, destroying public property and supplies and the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, from Okolona south. [See map, p. 348.] Sherman's orders to Smith were, “Attack any force of cavalry you may meet and follow them south. . . . Do not let the enemy draw you into minor affairs, but look solely to the greater object — to destroy his communications from Okolona to Meridian and then east toward Selma.” Reference was made to previous verbal instructions covering all points.

Sherman left Vicksburg with his force February 3d, reached Meridian on the 14th, remained there until the 20th, and in Canton until the 28th, hoping to receive word of Smith's whereabouts. None coming, he then returned to Vicksburg.

Smith's command comprised three brigades of cavalry: First, Waring's; Second, Hepburn's; Third, McCrillis's; and a battalion of the 4th [417] (regular) Cavalry, commanded by Captain Bowman. The main command was ready to start at the appointed time. The First Brigade had left Union City, Tenn., January 22d, but was prevented from reaching Collierville until February 8th by the flooded condition of the difficult country, with its broad swamps and overflowing rivers.1 Three days were occupied in arranging a pack-train, which might have been made ready in advance, and on the 11th the command continued its march.

The heavy rains had made the country nearly impassable, and Okolona was not reached until the 18th. Here we entered the beautiful prairie region of eastern Mississippi. A finer country for cavalry is nowhere to be found.

There was a little skirmishing, but no material opposition, until we reached West Point, thirty miles south of Okolona, on the afternoon of the 20th. Here we were confronted by Forrest's command, in a position of considerable strength, protected by swamps and rivers. On the morning of the 21st, without an engagement worthy of the name, we were ordered to return to Okolona. As we fully believed at that time, and as the publication of General Forrest's report shows, we could have proceeded on our way, driving him before us; there was, however, much to be said in favor of drawing him out on to the prairie for an engagement in the open country. But it soon became evident that we were not to “retire,” but to “retreat.” Forrest had only his “escort and a portion of Faulkner's regiment.” With this force he drove our seven thousand men without difficulty, the First and Third brigades receiving constant orders from Smith to hasten on and give the road to the Second Brigade for its retreat. It was an unwilling retreat, and but for its orders, the command could easily have held its position at any moment. We proceeded in this manner to the camp of the division about three miles south of Okolona.

At 5 A. M. on the 22d the First Brigade was ordered to form line and prepare for a fight. It formed in the open country, with the enemy in sight, about a mile away across the prairie. Later we were ordered to take up our line of march on the road for Memphis. As we passed to the left of Okolona, one regiment, the 7th Indiana, was ordered to fall out and support the 4th Regulars, which had been stationed at the edge of the town to watch the movements of the enemy. The Third Brigade had the rear of the column. Before it had passed, the regulars and the 7th Indiana were engaged, and this brigade was ordered to the attack. It soon broke in disgraceful flight and confusion, abandoning five guns of its battery without firing a shot. Nothing can be said in excuse of its behavior, but the explanation of it is not far to seek. It had taken part in the hurried retreat of the day before, and, having seen no cause for it, imagined itself in the toils of an overwhelming enemy. It had lost all confidence in the commanding general, and its discipline dissolved. After entering the wooded country, the checking of the enemy's advance became easier. No attempt was made to stop him or to defeat him, only to hold him back by maintaining temporary lines, formed by the leading brigade, until the others could pass through. In this manner we retreated nine miles between 11 A. M. and 5 P. M.

At 5 o'clock, without orders, portions of the First and Second brigades formed in order of battle on open, gently sloping ground, determined to end the pursuit. Until this time Smith had been in advance. By design or by accident, he now came on the field. The feeling that had governed him for two days, and caused him to abandon such an opportunity as no antagonist of Forrest ever had before, was gone. In the actual presence of the first real personal danger that he had encountered, he became brave and cool.

The enemy was approaching rapidly and swarming toward both our flanks. Our little battery was doing good service, and an attempt was made to deploy and fight on foot. It soon became obvious that this would be futile, and the 4th Missouri Cavalry was speedily mounted and formed for a charge. The charge was made in good order, and with great moral effect, in spite of a high stake-and-rider fence, which made it impossible to reach the main body of the enemy. It, however, drove back his straggling advance and sent them over the fence in such panic as to turn back the main line. The fence in their front, and the heavy firing at close range, broke the charging line, which turned and fled. It was rallied and formed by its own officers before its starting-point was reached, wheeling into line in good order, ready for a second charge. This stopped the pursuit, and we gradually got on to the road in marching order and went finally on our way.

In his preliminary report, written that night, Forrest said the battle was ended by a cavalry charge of the enemy which was repulsed. In his final report, written March 8th, he says:

As we moved up, the whole force2 charged down at a gallop, and I am proud to say that my men did not disappoint me. Standing firm, they repulsed the grandest cavalry charge I ever witnessed.

The 2d and 7th Tennessee drove back the advance line, and as it wheeled in retreat poured upon them a destructive fire. Each successive line of the enemy shared the same fate and fled the field in dismay and confusion, losing another piece of artillery and leaving it strewn with dead and wounded men and horses. . . .

Forrest estimates our loss in the whole engagement, killed, wounded, and missing, at 800,3 with six pieces of artillery and 33 stand of colors, and says: “My force in the fight did not exceed 2500 men, while that of the enemy was 27 regiments of cavalry and infantry, estimated at 7000 strong.” [418]

The retreat to Memphis was a weary, disheartened, almost panic-stricken flight, in the greatest disorder and confusion, through a most difficult country. The First Brigade reached its camping-ground, outside the city, five days after the engagement, with the loss of all of its heart and spirit and of over 1500 fine cavalry horses.

The expedition filled every man connected with it with burning shame. It gave Forrest the most glorious achievement of his career.4

1 Sherman says that Smith, under his orders, was not justified in waiting for the First Brigade, as he had a sufficient force without it.--G. E. W.

In a letter to General Sherman, dated July 9th, 1875, General Smith says, referring to Waring's brigade, “I asked you if I should wait its arrival, and you answered, ‘Certainly; if you go without it, you will be too weak, and I want you strong enough to go where you please.’ ”--editors.

2 It was not the “whole force” that charged, only the 4th Missouri Cavalry, less than 600 strong.--G. E. W.

3 The official list of the Union loss was: killed, 47; wounded, 152; missing, 120,--total, 319.--editors.

4 General Sherman in his report said: “I inclose herewith my instructions to General Smith, with a copy of his report, and must say it is unsatisfactory. The delay in his start to the 11th of February, when his orders contemplated his being at Meridian on the 10th, and when he knew I was marching from Vicksburg, is unpardonable, and the mode and manner of his return to Memphis was not what I expected from the intended bold cavalry movement.” In his “Memoirs,” Sherman says Smith “has appealed to me to relieve him of that censure, but I could not do it, because it would falsify history.”--G. E. W.

In a letter to General Sherman dated July 14th, 1875 [see Sherman's Memoirs, Vol. I., Appendix, p. 455], General Smith says of the delay: “In the conversation that occurred between us at Nashville [after the campaign ended], while all the orders, written and verbal, were still fresh in your memory, you did not censure me for waiting for Waring, but for allowing myself to be encumbered with fugitive negroes to such an extent that my command was measurably unfit for active movement or easy handling, and for turning back from West Point, instead of pressing on toward Meridian. Invitations had been industriously circulated, by printed circulars and otherwise, to the negroes to come into our lines, and to seek our protection wherever they could find it, and I considered ourselves pledged to receive and protect them.” In a letter of July 9th, 1.875 [Sherman, Vol. I., Appendix, p. 453], General Smith says: “To have attempted to penetrate farther into the enemy's country, with the cavalry of Polk's army coming up to reinforce Forrest, would have insured the destruction of my entire command, situated as it was.” The “Cavalry of Polk's Army” refers to the command of General S. D. Lee which joined Forrest within a day or two after Smith began his retreat.--editors.

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W. Sooy Smith (13)
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