The Confederate Victory at Brices Cross Roads Did Little to Help the Confederate Cause
Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site celebrates its 80th birthday today, February 21. The battle fought there in June 1864 yielded a Confederate victory that was tactically brilliant but strategically wanting.
The Battle of Brices Cross Roads was fought on June 10, 1864, near Baldwin, Mississippi. The strategic factors that brought the opposing forces together at this particular place and time are fairly straightforward. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had been ordered to take Atlanta, was keenly aware that battle-hardened Confederate cavalry under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest were favorably positioned to raid the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, a vital link in his army’s logistical lifeline. Deeply concerned about his vulnerable supply line, Sherman dispatched an army under the command of General Samuel D. Sturgis to march into northern Mississippi and Alabama, draw Forrest into battle, and keep him busy with activities that didn’t involve disrupting the movement of Union troops and supplies on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.
Sturgis headed off toward Tupelo, Mississippi with about 8,100 troops. Forrest took the bait. Devising a brilliant battle plan, he forced Sturgis into battle at Tishomingo Creek under conditions that greatly favored the Confederate attackers. When the smoke cleared, Forrest’s cavalry, which numbered only 4,787 troops, had defeated a Union force nearly twice its size. In the aftermath of the battle, Forrest’s cavalrymen chased the routed Union troops northward through a half-dozen counties until they were too spent to continue the pursuit.
Forrest had won the battle, demonstrating his exceptional prowess as a cavalry commander. But he had done so at a strategic cost that clearly wasn’t worth it. For a map showing Union and Confederate positions, plus the route of the Union retreat, visit this site.
Following the battle, Sturgis was demoted and reassigned to an obscure post in the frontier west. He was supposed to keep Forrest busy, not get outwitted and whipped.
As bad as it was, the Union defeat could have been even worse. Having been completely outflanked, Sturgis’ army was at risk of being captured en masse. That might very well have happened had it not been for the spirited defense put up by a United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) brigade. As it was, some 1,500 of Sturgis’ men were taken captive.
Unfortunately, the price of this narrow escape was paid in blood. U.S.C.T soldiers accounted for a high proportion of the more than 400 Union wounded and about half of the 223 Union fatalities.
Although Forrest was later accused of massacring colored Union prisoners, official prisoner exchange records and related documents suggest that no systematic slaughter of colored captives took place.
Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service on August 10, 1933. Now administered by Natchez Trace Parkway, it is still the only NPS unit designated “National Battlefield Site.”
Many visitors are surprised to find that the park consists of just one acre – the place where the Brice family’s house stood -- and has no rangers assigned to it. The site does have a visitor center with a nice collection of battle artifacts operated by the Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Commission, an NGO established in 1994. The site also has two monuments (one erected shortly after the site’s 1929 authorization and another erected in 2005) and two interpretive signs providing information about the battle.
Some visitors, especially Civil War buffs, will want to explore the battlefield extending northward beyond the park’s borders. That’s still possible, thank goodness, and it’s highly recommended. With the assistance of the federal, state, and local governments as well as the Civil War Preservation Trust, the Battlefield Commission purchased a significant portion of the battlefield -- more than 800 acres in all – and is taking good care of it.
Two interpretive trails leading through the left and rights sides of the Confederate position are available for self-guided tours. Ranger-led battlefield tours are offered through the Natchez Trace Parkway summer program series.
Postscript: An oddity of this battle is that a few of the victorious rebels were colored troops fighting for the Confederacy. One of them was freedman Louis Napoleon Nelson, a 7th Tennessee Cavalry private who also fought on the rebel side at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Lookout Mountain. Nelson survived the war.