Events Leading to the Battle of Okolona
Following the Federal breakout from Chattanooga in November 1863, Major General William T. Sherman returned to Vicksburg, Mississippi, with his Army of the Tennessee to attend to some unfinished business. With the approval of Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman intended to launch a brief campaign to destroy Southern infrastructure in the area, freeing up troops to move east to take part in his upcoming Atlanta Campaign.
Sherman’s primary target was Meridian, Mississippi, about 150 miles east of Vicksburg. Located at the juncture of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad with the Southern Railroad, Meridian was the largest remaining Confederate railroad center in the state. On February 3, 1864, Major General James B. McPherson’s 17th Army Corps and Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut’s 16th Army Corps departed from Vicksburg in two columns under Sherman’s command. Roughly 5,000 cavalry troopers and artillerists accompanied Sherman’s 20,000 infantrymen. (Special Field Orders, No. 11, Department of the Tennessee).
To augment his main force, Sherman ordered Brigadier General William Sooy Smith to lead a cavalry force of 7,000 troopers south from Memphis, Tennessee, on February 1, and rendezvous with him at Meridian on February 10. (Message from W.T. Sherman to William Sooy Smith).
Sherman’s army entered Meridian on February 14 and spent the next five days laying waste to the railroad center and the surrounding area as he waited in vain for Smith’s arrival. As events unfolded, Smith never reached Meridian.
For inexplicable reasons, Smith delayed his departure from Memphis until February 11, 1864, ten days beyond the date Sherman specified in his orders. Slowed by muddy roads, it took Smith’s troopers five days to travel roughly 100 miles and cross the Little Tallahatchie River at New Albany in northern Mississippi.
February 20, 1864
By February 20, ten days after his appointed rendezvous with Sherman, Smith skirmished with lead elements of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry between Prairie Station and West Point, over ninety miles from Meridian. After driving the Rebels back, Smith concentrated his troopers and struck out for West Point on the morning of February 21.
February 21, 1864
Shortly before dawn, a Confederate cavalry brigade commanded by Colonel Jeffrey Forrest — General Forrest’s younger brother — engaged Smith’s troopers, forcing them to withdraw to a swampy area west of the Tombigbee River. Feeling trapped, Smith ordered a retreat even though the Yankees outnumbered the Rebels nearly three to one. The two sides skirmished for the rest of the day as Smith fell back nearly fifteen miles toward Okolona.
February 22, 1864 — Clash at Okolona
On February 22, General Forrest launched a full-scale attack against Smith’s soldiers south of Okolona. Fighting dismounted, behind barricades, the horse-soldiers stood fast until reinforcements bolstered Forrest’s assault. Eventually, the Union lines broke and Smith’s soldiers once again retreated.
During a second onslaught, a gunshot to the neck mortally wounded Colonel Forrest. Distraught over the death of his brother, General Forrest led a wild charge that overwhelmed the Federals. Eyewitness accounts claim that Forrest exacted revenge for his brother’s death by personally killing three Yankees while having two horses shot beneath him.
By the day’s end, the last fighting took place between Okolona and Pontotoc, about thirty miles to the north. As the Yankees continued to retreat, Forrest called off his pursuit because his men ran low on ammunition.
Outcome of the Battle of Okolona
For the next few days, Mississippi militiamen harassed Smith’s disheartened troopers as they backtracked toward Tennessee until reaching the state line on February 26. The debacle ended when they arrived at Memphis the next day.
After the resounding Confederate victory, Forrest reported 110 Confederate casualties (25 killed, 75 wounded, and 10 missing or captured) during the Battle of Okolona. Smith suffered 388 casualties (54 killed, 179 wounded, and 155 missing or captured).
Although Sherman’s Meridian Campaign was an overall success, Smith’s expedition was an undeniable debacle. His failure to join Sherman at Meridian by the appointed date may have denied Sherman the opportunity to continue his expedition farther into Mississippi, and possibly Alabama, destroying even more Confederate infrastructure before returning to Vicksburg. On July 15, 1864, a beleaguered Smith resigned his commission, citing health reasons.
Significance of the Battle of Okolona
The Battle of Okolona was significant because the outcome allowed Forrest to continue his successful raids in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama throughout 1864. This prompted General Sherman to declare “that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the federal treasury.”