Friday, January 18, 2013

Prattville Dragoons Camp Meeting - Battle of Okolona

Dr. Brandon Beck provided a wonderful account of the Battle of Okolona at the Prattville Dragoons camp meeting on Thursday January 10th based on his book of this historical battle.  Dr. Beck began his presentation with an explanation of the Mississippi prairie in which Okolona was situated and the importance of this fertile region as the breadbasket of the Confederacy.  Railroads which ran from Memphis to Mobile, Vicksburg to Meridian though the Mississippi prairie, played a vital role in the commerce of the region and brought focus to the wartime strategic importance of this area. General Forrest with 3300 men defeated Union Gen. Smith who commanded a force of 7500 cavalry, the largest raiding force yet assembled in the War Between the States.  The men serving under Forrest had actually only been in his command for a few months having been recruited by him from western Tennessee and trained in the central Mississippi area around Como immediately prior to the battle.  Smith was to move south along the railroad from Memphis and Corinth Mississippi to join forces with General Sherman who drove from Vicksburg thru Jackson to Meridian with 20,000 infantry and artillery. The plan was then to move this combined force to Selma 130 miles eastward and then to Mobile early the following year of 1864. Gen. Smith was delayed and then routed by Forrest, delaying Sherman's march of destruction across the South.  The year of 1864 was the worst period of the War (despite 8 of the 10 bloodiest battles occurring outside that timeframe) for four reasons, 1) there was intense fighting and once the big armies engaged, they locked to the end, 2) there was extensive fighting throughout the entire theatre, throughout the Confederacy, even Florida saw it's bloodiest clash with the Battle of Olustee, 3) there was desperate fighting with Lincoln facing reelection, and 4) it was the first year the federal government implemented a sustained plan to attack and burn the civilian infrastructure and populace and Mississippi was the first.  In the middle of 1863 General Robert E. Lee appointed General Stephen Dill Lee to command Confederate forces in the Mississippi prairie region. He set about equipping his army but he needed an executive officer to elevate civilian morale and he found one in Gen. Forrest who had just fought under Bragg at Chickamauga but had found himself in disfavor with his commanding officer. Bragg released Forrest to Lee and replaced him with General Wheeler.  Gen. Smith was to move south down the railroad and lay a swath of destruction along the way as ordered by Sherman and he burned crops and farms in Okolona and then razed the town of Egypt including burning civilians to death before encountering Forrest's troops at West Point.  This was the second Union raid against which Forrest had defended following a pursuit of General Streight across northern Georgia to Rome in 1862.  Following skirmishes with Forrest's troops around West Point, Smith decided to retreat north on Feb 20th and Forrest sought to annihilate the Union raiding force saying in a message to his second in command, "I think they are badly scared. I will stay on them as long as I feel I can do any good."  When Smith reached Okolona he saw a single file line of cavalry led by Major Barteau (one of the officers under Forrest's command) along the railroad track.  Forrest soon arrived and crossed Barteau's line receiving a salute from the troops and then turned and charged into Smith's forces sending the Union troops into disarray and retreat. Gen. Smith lost 400 men and 6 artillery and Forrest lost approximately 80 men in the Battle of Okolona.  Important notes regarding the battle were Forrest's unrelenting pressure, the psychological impact Forrest's actions had on his troops and the enemy, the psychological impact the destruction of the prairie had on the Confederate troops, Forrest turned over the pursuit of Smith's forces to state guard troops, and much of the site of the Battle of Okolona has been preserved due to preservation efforts.  The year of 1864 was the greatest year of Forrest's command starting with the victory at the Battle of Okolona and including the Battle of Fort Pillow and his greatest victory, that at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads and eventually taking command of the cavalry of the Army of Tennessee. 

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