Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, DC, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions: Grant would travel with Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
Stalemate in the East
The Union Army of the Potomac relentlessly engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia throughout the spring of 1864. By June, Grant forced Lee to retreat to the Richmond-Petersburg area. Thereafter, both armies entrenched, and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months.
Federal Success in the West
Meanwhile, in the West, Sherman captured Atlanta in early September 1864. Before embarking on his March to the Sea, Sherman sent Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, in pursuit of Lieutenant General John Bell Hood, whose Army of Tennessee was threatening Tennessee after evacuating Atlanta. After subduing Hood’s army at the Battle of Nashville (December 15, 1864-December 16, 1864), Thomas faced little organized resistance in the West. Upon Thomas’s recommendation, Grant authorized the formation of a new cavalry force to invade the Deep South.
Wilson Invades the Deep South
In the spring of 1865, Union Major General James H. Wilson assembled over 13,000 cavalrymen at Gravelly Springs, Alabama, on the Tennessee River, and began training. The federal force comprised three divisions commanded by Brigadier General Edward M. McCook, Brigadier General Eli Long, and Major General Emory Upton. Well-armed with Spencer repeating carbines, Wilson’s cavalry crossed the Tennessee River on March 22, 1865, targeting coal mines, ironworks, mills, munitions manufacturers, and anything else that could aid the Confederate cause.
Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who commanded roughly 2,500 regulars from the Cavalry Corps of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana opposed Wilson opposed. Boosted by poorly trained and ill-equipped state militia, which included old men and boys spread across the region, Forrest commanded fewer than 5,000 soldiers at the height of the operation. Outnumbered and outgunned, Forrest’s soldiers offered little resistance to Wilson’s cavalry as it moved in blitzkrieg-fashion into Alabama.
Wilson Meets Little Resistance
Wilson easily rolled through northern and central Alabama, destroying ironworks at Elyton, Brierfield, Tannehill, and Montevallo. His progress was nearly uncontested until Forrest mounted a spirited but futile stand at Ebenezer Church, roughly twenty miles from Selma on April 1. Following a decisive Union victory, Forrest fell back to the earthworks and defenses that ringed Selma.
April 2, 1865: Clash at Selma, Alabama
Wilson Forced to Attack
On April 2, Wilson’s cavalry advanced toward Selma in two columns, reaching the outer ring of Confederate defenses at about 2 p.m. Wilson planned to infiltrate the Rebel lines under the cover of darkness that night, but scattered elements of Forrest’s command threatened the Union rear, prompting Long to launch an assault against the Confederate front at 5 p.m.
The Southerners offered stiff resistance but could not withstand the Yankee onslaught. The Federals breached the Confederate line where it intersected the Summerfield Road. Soon after a second breakthrough occurred, the Rebels withdrew into the city. Wilson kept up the pressure, leading a charge against the inner defensive ring. Despite blistering fire from the defenders, the Yankees proved unstoppable.
By 7 p.m. on April 2, Forrest began withdrawing his command from Selma. Coincidentally, roughly 700 miles to the northeast, Robert E. Lee began evacuating Richmond and Petersburg the same night.
What happened after the Federals took possession of Selma remains controversial. There is little doubt that Wilson’s men destroyed the city’s arsenal, foundries, and ironworks, as their mission mandated. However, a fire destroyed much of the city. Some sources claim that the fleeing Confederates inferno by setting fire to the city’s cotton stores to keep them from falling into enemy hands. Other sources maintain that the Yankees looted and then burned Selma. The truth may never be known.
The Battle of Selma was a resounding federal victory. The Union suffered only 319 casualties (forty-two killed, 270 wounded, and seven missing), compared with 2,700 for the Confederates. Amazingly, considering the intensity of the fighting, the Rebel losses included fewer than fifty killed.
Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House diminished the significance of the Battle of Selma. Wilson’s victory deprived the South of one of its few manufacturing centers, but in effect, the war was nearly over when Selma fell.