One of the biggest threats to General Sherman’s forces attacking Atlanta came from the Confederate cavalry that threatened his very lengthy supply lines. One of the most effective of those cavalry forces was the one commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest. In June 1864, Sherman had ordered an expedition sent from Memphis to defeat Forrest, but that first force had been defeated at Brice’s Crossroads on 10 June 1864.
A second much larger expedition was dispatched under General A. J. Smith in an attempt to reverse that defeat. This force, of some 14,000 men, set off into Mississippi, on 5 July 1864. Forrest was in the area with 6,000 men, having been reinforced since Brice’s Crossroads. However, he was not the senior Confederate officer in the area. That honour fell to Stephen D. Lee, who brought 2,000 extra troops, bringing the Confederate strength up to 8,000 men.
On 13 July, Smith was at Pontotoc, Mississippi, 19 miles west of Tupelo. That day he stopped his move south, and turned east, with the intention of cutting the railroad at Tupelo. Forrest was soon in pursuit, catching the Union force six miles short of Tupelo. After repelling Confederate attacks on his rearguard, Smith camped at Harrisburg, one mile from Tupelo.
The next morning, Smith formed his infantry into a defensive line, hoping that Forrest would attempt to attack it. At the same time, Grierson’s Union cavalry was sent to Tupelo to destroy the railroad. Sure enough, Lee ordered an attack, which was launched at six in the morning. Unfortunately for Lee and Forrest, Smith’s men were already in position, and the attack was repelled with heavy losses. The fighting continued across the morning, as Lee and Forrest attempted to find a weak point in the Union line, but without success.
Despite their repulse in the morning, the Confederates were not finished. Late that evening (about nine in the evening), Forrest launched an attack on the Union left, where it was repulsed by a force that included Colonel Edward Bouton’s brigade of troops from the USCT (United States Colored Troops). This attack was also repulsed. A final attack was launched the next morning, and once again defeated. It was during this final attack that Forrest was wounded.
Smith had already decided that it was time to return to Memphis. His ammunition and supplies were low, and with the railway at Tupelo now broken, he felt he could do no more. Even this movement helped protect Sherman’s supply lines, as Forrest’s cavalry followed the retreating Union forces for some time.
As often towards the end of the war, several different figures can be found for Forrest and Lee’s losses during the fighting. Forrest’s official report gave losses of 153 killed, 794 wounded and 49 missing, for a total of 996. At least one Union writer later reported at least 350 dead. A figure of 210 dead and 1116 wounded, for a total loss of 1,326 seems to be more accepted. Union losses were much lower, at 82 dead out of a total of 650 casualties. One of the Confederate wounded was Forrest, shot in the foot during the fighting.
Forrest’s wound was clearly not all that serious. His raids continued across the summer and autumn of 1864, and included one raid into Memphis that August that actually reached the Union headquarters in the city! Nevertheless, as one of only two defeats inflicted on Forrest during the war, the battle of Tupelo came at the right time to increase Union confidence in their ability to repel attacks on their supply lines.