Sunday, June 23, 2013

General Sooy Smith's attempt to destroy Forrest


On page 257 of That Devil Forrest, Life of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Wyeth writes, "When it was known that Forrest was to command the cavalry in the new department, Generals Grant and Sherman had put their heads together to find a cavalry leader of ability sufficient to cope with so formidable an adversary. General Grant's selection fell upon General William Sooy Smith, and on the 11th of November he was made chief of Cavalry for the military division of Mississippi. General Sherman did not altogether approve the selection. The blunt soldier wrote to his superior on December 19th: 'I deem General William Sooy Smith too mistrustful of himself for a leader against Forrest. Mower is a better man for the duty.' . . ."

Beginning on page 276 we see what happens when Sooy Smith caught up to Forrest: ". . . General William Sooy Smith found himself in great perplexity, and it is not improbable that the fact that he was now at last face to face with the redoubtable Forrest had something to do with his state of mind. The man whom he had, as he expressed himself, been anxiously looking for and ready to 'pitch into wherever he found him' was at last directly across his path. Although he had accomplished considerably more than half of the distance from Memphis to Meridian, and General Sherman was still within reach of him, he hesitated and was lost. Three or four days of energetic marching would have brought him to Sherman's camp, between Meridian and Canton.

"In this hope Sherman's army lingered in the neighborhood until the 6th of March. Smith says he made a careful reconnaissance of the Sakatonchee swamp and the crossings of the various streams in that neighborhood, and they were all found strongly held by the enemy. Exaggerated statements of the strength of Forrest's command had been brought to him [Forrest had about 2,000 troops to Smith's 10,000 at the time], and for this the Confederate leader was of course responsible. . . ."

"General Forrest had been directed by his superiors, Generals Polk and S. D. Lee, to retire in front of Smith's advance, in order to draw him as far as possible from his base at Memphis, and then turn upon him and endeavor to destroy him. . . . "

"[Smith] however, had no intention of attempting to cross this Rubicon." After a small skirmish, Smith retreats, and Forrest chases after him. "Captain Tyler was vigorously pursuing the retiring Federals. He says: 'General Forrest in person gave me my orders to push forward and ascertain quickly what direction the enemy had taken. I followed at a stiff pace, but did not come upon them until I reached West Point. Their Rear-guard was passing through this town, when I charged them with my two companies, driving them without serious resistance through the village, capturing and killing several. . . I learned that the entire Federal force had gone northward . . . and were evidently in rapid retreat. . . ."

"From the Union reports it is evident that they had considerable difficulty in getting away fast enough to save themselves. . . The confusion into which this division of General Grierson's cavalry was thrown was complete, and the relentless pursuit and vigorous pressure which Forrest brought to bear upon them soon developed their flight into a hopeless stampede. Officers as well as men stood not 'upon the order of their going,' but went as best they could. Along the road and through the woods or fields on either hand, paying slight heed to commands from any source, the crowds of panic-stricken soldiers rushed and crowded until the way was choked with the surging mass of men and animals. . . ."

"Colonel Joseph Karge of the Second New Jersey Cavalry bears testimony to the dilapidated condition of the Federal command as it journeyed toward Memphis: 'the regiment lost by death on the march and in camp the majority of its horses, and of the remaining one hundred and sixty-one only fifty-five can be called serviceable.'

"Lieutenant Curtis, whose battery, with the exception of a single piece, was captured in the stampede, reports: 'I then proceeded to gather up my company with my single gun. I lost thirty horses during the march.'

"In his official report, General Forrest says of the last resistance offered on this day: 'They made a last final effort to check pursuit; from their preparations, numbers, and advantageous position no doubt indulging the hope of success. . . My ammunition was nearly exhausted, and I knew that if we faltered they in turn would become the attacking party, and disaster might follow. Many of my men were broken down and exhausted with climbing the hills on foot and fighting almost constantly for the last nine miles. I determined, therefore, to rely upon the bravery and courage of the few men I had, and advanced to the attack. As we moved up, the whole force charged down at a gallop, and I am proud to say that my men did not disappoint me. Standing firm, they repulsed one of the grandest cavalry charges I had ever witnessed. The Second and Seventh Tennessee drove back the advancing line, whose head wheeled into retreat, pouring a destructive fire on each successive line of the enemy, who soon fled the field in dismay and confusion, losing an entire battery of artillery, and leaving the field strewn with dead and wounded men and horses. . . ."

On page 295, Wyeth quotes from Sherman's Memoirs: General Smith was ordered to move from Memphis straight for Meridian, Mississippi, and to start from there the 1st of February. I explained to him personally the nature of Forrest as a man, and his peculiar force; told him that in his route he was sure to encounter him; that he always attacked with vehemence, for which he must be prepared, and that were he repelled at a first attack, he must in turn assume a most determined offensive, overwhelm him, and utterly destroy his whole force. He knew that Forrest could not have more than four thousand cavalry, and my own movements would give employment to every other man in the rebel army not immediately present with him, so that General Smith might safely act on this hypothesis. I wanted to destroy General Forrest, who was constantly threatening Memphis and the river above, as well as our route to supplies in middle Tennessee. In this we failed utterly, because General Smith, when he did start, allowed General Forest to head him off and to defeat him with an inferior force near West Point, below Okolna.

"Of course I did not, and could not, approve of his conduct. I had set so much store on his part of the project that I was disappointed, and so reported officially to General Grant. General Smith never regained my confidence as a soldier, though I still regard him as a most accomplished gentleman and a skillful engineer. Since the close of the war he has appealed to me to relieve him of that censure, but I could not do it, because it would falsify history."

Comment: Wyeth was born in Alabama in 1845 and enlisted as a private in the Confederate cavalry and rode with General Joseph Wheeler. He was captured two weeks after Chickamauga and suffered considerably from the time he spent in Federal prison. After the war he became a surgeon.

Albert Castel wrote in 1989 a foreword to the edition I have, and in it he refers to a few flaws but writes "Taken as a whole, it remains a superb work of history and biography. That is why during the ninety years since its original publication it has been reissued at least four times . . . and why it continues to be included on all lists entitled 'One Hundred Best Civil War Books.' That is why, too, of all the books about Forrest there is only one that bears comparison with it, and that is Robert Selph Henry's First with the Most, Forrest, published in 1944. Henry was an excellent historian and writer, he had access to sources unavailable to Wyeth, he was able to approach Forrest and the Civil War from a longer perspective, and his interpretations are more objective and sophisticated. Yet factually he presents little of substance that cannot be found in Wyeth's work, from which he drew heavily . . ."

If I have included enough of Wyeth's narration above, one can perhaps see the powerful dread many Federal officers and soldiers felt when they came up against Forrest. Not that Sherman ever felt this dread, as seen from the fact that he refused to clear Sooy Smith's record from having felt it.

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