The travelers, continuing on their quest for Civil War lore in October 1995, drove 10 miles west on Route 96 from Franklin, Tenn., to the Natchez Trace — having clocked 1,750 miles on the odometer since this journey began. The Trace, an old Indian trail with many historic and picturesque sites along the route, runs 444 miles from near Nashville, Tenn., to Natchez, Miss.
Driving down the Trace 160 miles to Tupelo, Miss., we found barely an acre of ground designated as the Tupelo National Battlefield, right in the center of town. The Battle of Tupelo (also known as Harrisburg) occurred there on July 14 and 15, 1864, and pitted a detached force of Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army under Brig. Gen. Andrew Jackson Smith against Confederates led by Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee and Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who were attempting to interdict Sherman’s supply lines.
The Rebel forces attacked on July 14, after the Yankees occupied an area near Tupelo, but were driven off with considerable losses. Low on ammunition, Smith began to withdraw the next day.
Again a force under Forrest attacked but was repulsed. Smith’s objective had been to keep the rail supply lines open to Sherman’s army marching on Atlanta, and to destroy Forrest and his cavalry. Although successful regarding the former, he was unable to overtake the illusive Forrest.
The Tupelo National Battlefield comprises a display board depicting the battle, a memorial stone for the Confederate dead, two cannons and a monument with the inscription: “In memory of the men of the Federal and Confederate armies who took part in the Battle of Tupelo or Harrisburg, July 14-15, 1864, which resulted in a Federal victory under Major General Andrew J. Smith.”
The small site was at the intersection of a busy road and a residential street that limits ability to relate to the important events that took place there.
Stopping at a nearby grocery, we chatted with an attendant with a pronounced Southern accent. Apparently not having ventured very far beyond the Tupelo environs, she was taken by the fact we had driven all the way from Silver Spring, Md., to visit her hometown.
We moved on about 15 miles northwest of Tupelo to Brices Cross Roads near Baldwyn, the scene of a battle on June 10, 1864, involving about 8,000 Union troops under the ill-starred Brig. Gen. Samuel Davis Sturgis. The Yankees had moved down from Memphis, Tenn., with orders to confront the omnipresent Nathan Bedford Forrest.
When Forrest learned of Sturgis’ activities, he brought a force of 3,500 northward. The confrontation took place at Brices Cross Roads, with Forrest leading a successful attack with his smaller force that caused Sturgis to begin withdrawing across a bridge at Tishomingo Creek.
The Union troops had trouble getting across the bridge, which led to panic and a complete rout. A military board investigated the disaster and relieved Sturgis of command assignments for the remainder of the war.
As at Tupelo, Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield was limited to a 1-acre plot with a monument and display board. However, since the battlefield was in a mostly open rural area, it was easier to conceptualize the events that took place.
An adjacent public cemetery with a section dedicated to about 100 Confederate graves lends an additional sense of realism. Built in more recent years, the Brice’s Crossroads Visitors & Interpretive Center adds to the information and enjoyment of visitors to the battlefield.
The approaches to Brices Cross Roads down Baldwyn Road (Route 370) have stone markers that describe the battle as it unfolded, including Forrest’s movements and initial contacts with Union forward elements. A marker also identifies the location of the no-longer-existent Brice family home that was damaged during the battle and served as a hospital for the wounded of both sides.
Leaving Baldwyn, we drove back to the Natchez Trace. A stop at the Information Center bookstore and gift shop resulted in the purchase of “The Battle of Brice’s Crossroads” by Claude Gentry.
This story will continue with a visit to Vicksburg, Miss. It was there that Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, reminiscent of Fort Donelson, Tenn., in February 1862, held a 20,000-man Confederate army under siege, and demanded their surrender.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War;” signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.