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Forrest's defeat of Sturgis at Brice's cross-roads (June 10th, 1864).

by E. Hunn Hanson, Adjutant, 4TH Missouri cavalry, U. S. V., A. D. C. Waring's Brigade.
In May, 1864, in order to protect his long line of communication, General Sherman ordered an expedition from Memphis to defeat Forrest's cavalry, then in northern Mississippi, and thereby prevent its descent upon his line of advance. Accordingly, on the 1st of June, a small but well-organized force began its march from White's Station, near Memphis. On the following day General Samuel D. Sturgis was placed in command. Some weeks earlier he had commanded an expedition sent out from Memphis to intercept Forrest on his march southward after his capture of Fort Pillow and the massacre of its garrison, but had been unable to do so. On the 8th of June, before [420] the enemy had been met, Sturgis, although he had supplies sufficient for eleven days, desired to give up the expedition, but was dissuaded.

The cavalry was commanded by General B. H. Grierson, and consisted of two brigades: Waring's, 1600 men, two rifled guns, and four small howitzers, and Winslow's, 1800 men and a light battery. There were three brigades of infantry, two white and one colored. In all, over five thousand men with two 6-gun batteries. The whole, as a division, was commanded by Colonel W. L. McMillen.

The expedition had a new and complete supply train with eighteen days rations. Adding regimental wagons, there were in all 250, exclusive of ambulances and medical wagons.

June 8th the command reached Ripley, about eighty miles from its starting-point, and on the following night it encamped at Stubb's Farm, fourteen miles south from Ripley.

At 5 o'clock on the morning of June 10th Waring's brigade, in advance, moved southward in the direction of Brice's plantation, followed by Winslow's brigade, the infantry, and the train, the latter guarded by the brigade of colored troops. The advance found the fences down, as if for an engagement, and two small bridges over the road taken up. About half-past 9 o'clock it reached Brice's Cross-roads, about eleven miles from Stubb's Farm. [See map, p. 414.]

The road on which the command was marching ran nearly north and south, and about a mile and a half north of the cross-roads it passed through a wooded bottom and over a swampy piece of ground and took somewhat the character of a causeway, in length nearly three-quarters of a mile. After passing this, and for about a third of a mile, the ground rose somewhat, so that at the cross-roads it was perhaps twenty feet above the causeway. At Brice's house a road crossed at right angles. Waring's brigade was halted at the cross-roads and a squadron sent forward on the direct road southward, and one each on the roads to the west and to the east; the latter led in the direction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, distant about six miles, at which point was Guntown — a station and small village. The last-mentioned squadron, after going about a mile, commenced to skirmish with a small mounted force, some of which dismounted and occupied a house by the roadside, and stopped the advancing squadron by their fire.

From the southern end of the causeway to the cross-roads, and for about a third of a mile, the land had been cleared, at the cross-roads in each direction, and for nearly a mile there was standing timber and brush, to the east and south of which there were open fields. Waring's brigade was moved on the road to the east and deployed in line, dismounted, at the edge of the timber and on both sides of the road. The rifled guns and howitzers were placed in position on the road, along the fence of which, and in advance of the guns, a detachment of about one hundred men with revolving rifles were placed as skirmishers. On the right of Waring's brigade, in line, dismounted, with its right somewhat refused, Winslow's brigade took position covering the road which ran from the crossroads to the south. Soon after these lines were formed the enemy moved from the cover of a wood to the east and south of the open fields, and a third of a mile away, in two lines of skirmishers, followed by a line of battle with some troops massed upon the left flank. The enemy's right rested near the road on which were the guns and the skirmishers of Waring's brigade, and the enemy's left was in front of the left and center of Winslow's line. In other words, the line of the enemy was somewhat shorter than that of the cavalry in position. The enemy in view did not exceed 2500 men. They advanced until the right of their line came under the rapid and flanking fire at short range of the skirmishers with revolving rifles, when it wavered and halted, and with but little disorder the entire force fell back to the wood.

No effort was made to follow and turn the retreat into rout, and none to throw troops upon either flank, the right flank being vulnerable from Waring's brigade and the left from Winslow's. A skirmish fire was kept up at long range, and a small force, less than three hundred, moved against the extreme left of Waring's brigade, but was easily repulsed.

An officer who rode with the squadron sent eastward on the Guntown road had remarked as it emerged from the timber, and about a mile to the northward, a road which seemed to lead to the right and rear of the enemy's position. This fact was brought to Colonel Waring's notice, who directed that it be reported to Grierson. This was done by the officer in question, and half an hour later, and before noon, to Grierson's adjutant-general. To neither did it seem of moment, and no action was taken with regard to it.

While the engagement described was in progress General Grierson sent word of it to General Sturgis, who was with the infantry five miles north of the cross-roads, stopped by a very bad piece of wet and sunken road, and by officer and orderly again and again urged that the infantry be hurried forward. A ride of half an hour would have brought an aide or the general commanding himself on the field, and would have enabled him to judge if it were expedient or otherwise to give battle where the cavalry was, or to select a position where the infantry was and direct the cavalry to fall back to that. This course was not taken, but, yielding to the representations and urgency of Grierson, Sturgis ordered the infantry forward as fast as was practicable, and, riding in advance of them, arrived at the cross-roads less than half an hour before the head of the column appeared. In the meantime, and about the time that General Sturgis arrived at the cross-roads, the enemy, disposed as before, again marched upon the cavalry; again their line wavered, but by the exertion of their officers the men moved forward with spirit and resolution. When near, and within from fifty to seventy-five paces of the edge of the wood, along which Waring's brigade was, the center of that command slowly gave way. As a result, the entire brigade fell back. This uncovered Winslow's left flank and caused his brigade also to fall back. A line was hastily formed about half-way between that first taken up and the [421] cross-roads. With a knowledge of this it was even then possible to have halted the infantry on the north side of the causeway and there to have formed line of battle. It is true the position was far from good, but it was incomparably better than that taken. About 2 o'clock, or a little later, and after the cavalry had retreated from its first position, the head of the column appeared at the cross-roads, the Second Brigade in advance. The day was very sultry and hot; the men had for five miles been hurried forward. Some had fallen exhausted and all were distressed by the march. In this condition, and under a skirmish fire from the successful enemy, the Second Brigade of infantry, followed by the First, was placed on the cramped line to which the cavalry had retreated, and the section of a battery was unlimbered and sent into action on the ground to the north of the cross-roads. The cavalry, partly by order and partly without, withdrew. Some of it was placed on the right flank of the infantry, and much of it was held as a reserve on the field near where the battery was in action, but to the westward of the road. Each flank of the infantry line was unprotected, and first the right was seriously threatened and then the left. With these difficulties, and those before mentioned, the infantry struggled for nearly three hours. During this time the train had come on the causeway, preceded by the artillery and a number of ambulances; so far as was possible some of these were parked on the field near the cross-roads before mentioned as that to which the greater part of the cavalry had gone. About 5 o'clock the efforts of the enemy on the left of the line succeeded, and it yielded to a flanking fire and retreated the very short distance between it and the cross-roads; about the same time the right of the line was enveloped by the enemy's skirmishers, and their artillery got with precision the range of the cross-roads. At first sullenly, and then rapidly, the whole line fell back to the cross-roads, and with cavalry, ambulances, artillery, and wagons of the train began a disordered retreat along the causeway. The enemy followed with eagerness, and utter disorganization succeeded disorder as piece after piece of artillery became the spoil of the fast-pursuing enemy, some of which was turned upon the huddled mass of fleeing men.

Sturgis and McMillen made strenuous efforts to form a line some two miles northward of the lost field with the colored brigade and a part of the troops that had been longer in action. This line stayed the pursuit for but a space and then became a part of the retreating force. Through the hours of the late afternoon and all through the night the beaten men kept on their way, reaching Ripley, 24 miles from the field, by early morning of June 11th. During the retreat the enemy had captured 14 pieces of artillery, the entire train of 250 wagons, with 10 days rations and a large supply of ammunition, and over 1500 prisoners.

At Ripley an attempt was made to form the command gathered there into companies and regiments, but the enemy appeared on two sides and were checked only until the retreat could be resumed. It continued via Collierville to Memphis. The bitter humiliation of this disaster rankles after a quarter of a century.

Our loss in killed and wounded was 23 officers and 594 men. The captured or missing amounted to 52 officers and 1571 men, making a total loss of 2240. The enemy may have numbered more than 3500 or 4000, but it must be reluctantly confessed that not more than this number is believed to have been in action. If there was, during the war, another engagement like this, it is not known to the writer; and in its immediate results there was no success among the many won by Forrest comparable to that of Guntown.

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