The Battle of Brice's Crossroads was fought on June 10, 1864, near Baldwyn in Lee County, Mississippi, during the American Civil War. It pitted a 4,787-man contingent led by Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest against an 8,100-strong Union force led by Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis. The battle ended in a rout of the Union forces and cemented Forrest's reputation as one of the great cavalrymen.
The battle remains a textbook example of an outnumbered force prevailing through better tactics, terrain mastery, and aggressive offensive action. Despite this, the Confederates gained little through the victory other than temporarily keeping the Union out of Alabama and Mississippi.
Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had long known that his fragile supply and communication lines through Tennessee were in serious jeopardy because of depredations by Forrest's cavalry raids. To effect a halt to Forrest's activities, he ordered Gen. Sturgis to conduct a penetration into northern Mississippi and Alabama with a force of around 8,500 troops to destroy Forrest and his command. Sturgis, after some doubts and trepidation, departed Memphis on June 1. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, alerted of Sturgis's movement, warned Forrest. Lee had also planned a rendezvous at Okolona, Mississippi, with Forrest and his own troops but told Forrest to do as he saw fit. Already in transit to Tennessee, Forrest moved his cavalry (less one division) toward Sturgis, but remained unsure of Union intentions.
Forrest soon surmised, correctly, that the Union had actually targeted Tupelo, Mississippi, located in Lee County, about 15 miles (24 km) south of Brice's Crossroads. Although badly outnumbered, he decided to repulse Sturgis instead of waiting for Lee, and selected an area to attack ahead on Sturgis's projected path. He chose Brice's Crossroads, in what is now Lee County, which featured four muddy roads, heavily wooded areas, and the natural boundary of Tishomingo Creek, which had only one bridge going east to west. Forrest, seeing that the Union cavalry moved three hours ahead of its own infantry, devised a plan that called for an attack on the Union cavalry first, with the idea of forcing the enemy infantry to hurry to assist them. Their infantry would be too tired to offer real help and the Confederates planned to push the entire Union force against the creek to the west. Forrest dispatched most of his men to two nearby towns to wait.
At 9:45 a.m. on June 10, a brigade of Benjamin H. Grierson's Union cavalry division reached Brice's Crossroads and the battle started at 10:30 a.m. when the Confederates performed a stalling operation with a brigade of their own. Forrest then ordered the rest of his cavalry to converge around the crossroads. The remainder of the Union cavalry arrived in support, but a strong Confederate assault soon pushed them back at 11:30 a.m., when the balance of Forrest's cavalry arrived on the scene. Grierson called for infantry support and Sturgis obliged. The line held until 1:30 p.m. when the first regiments of Federal infantry arrived.
The Union line, initially bolstered by the infantry, briefly seized the momentum and attacked the Confederate left flank, but Forrest launched an attack from his extreme right and left wings, before the rest of the federal infantry could take to the field. In this phase of the battle, Forrest commanded his artillery to unlimber, unprotected, only yards from the Federal position, and to shell the Union line with grapeshot. The massive damage caused Sturgis to re-order the line in a tighter semicircle around the crossroads, facing east.
At 3:30, the Confederates in the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry assaulted the bridge across the Tishomingo. Although the attack failed, it caused severe confusion among the Federal troops and Sturgis ordered a general retreat. With the Tennesseans still pressing, the retreat bottlenecked at the bridge and a panicked rout developed instead. The ensuing wild flight and pursuit back to Memphis carried across six counties before the exhausted Confederates retired.
The Confederates suffered 492 casualties to the Union's 2,164 (including 1,500 prisoners). Forrest captured huge supplies of arms, artillery, and ammunition as well as plenty of stores. Sturgis suffered demotion and exile to the far West. After the battle, the Union Army again accused Forrest of massacring black soldiers. However, historians believe that charge unwarranted, because later prisoner exchanges undermined the Union claim of disproportionate death.
- One 3-inch steel gun, rifled
- Three 6-pounder James bronze guns, rifled
- Two 3.8-inch James bronze guns, rifled
- Five 6-pounder bronze guns
- Two 12-pounder bronze howitzers
- Three 12-pounder Napoleon bronze guns
Factors leading to the Union loss
In correspondence with General Sturgis, Colonel Alex Wilkin, commander of the 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment gave several reasons for the loss of the battle. He stated that General Sturgis, knowing that his men were under-supplied, having been on less than half rations, had been hesitant to advance on the enemy, but had done so against his better judgment because he had been ordered to do so. When the cavalry had engaged the enemy, many of the infantry had been ordered to advance double-time to support the cavalry, and in their weakened condition, many had fallen out in the advance. Those who did arrive were exhausted at the beginning of the battle, while the Confederates were fresh, and well fed owing to a large supply in their rear.
The roads were also wet due to a recent rain storm, that slowed the advance of the supply wagons and ammunition train, and several men were employed to try to make the roads passable. Additionally, the horses pulling the trains were poorly fed because there was little in the way of forage for them to eat along the way. This accounted for Forrest's capture of the artillery and supplies.
Intelligence had entirely favored the South, because the Confederates had been constantly fed information about the position and strength of the Union army from civilians in the area, while Sturgis had received no such intelligence. Because of this information, the South had been able meet the Union Army at a place where they could ambush Sturgis and make retreat as difficult as possible (Tishomingo Creek was in their rear with only a single bridge as a crossing point.) This place was close to the Confederate supply depot, and very far from the Union's.
When the retreat had occurred, with food and supplies exhausted, many of the Union soldiers were unable to retreat with the rest because of fatigue. This was much of the reason why so many Union soldiers were captured during the battle.
Finally, Wilkin stated that the rumors that Sturgis had been intoxicated during the battle were entirely false.
The battle is commemorated at Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site, established in 1929. The National Park Service erected and maintains monuments and interpretive panels on a small 1-acre (4,000 m2) plot at the crossroads. This is the spot where the Brice family house once stood. The Brice's Crossroads Museum is in Baldwyn, Mississippi, just over a mile from the battlefield. Brice's Crossroads is considered one of the most beautifully preserved battlefields of the Civil War.
In 1994 concerned local citizens formed the Brice's Crossroads National Battlefield Commission, Inc., to protect and preserve additional battlefield land. With assistance from the Civil War Preservation Trust (formerly the APCWS and the Civil War Trust), and the support of Federal, State, and local governments, the BCNBC, Inc. has purchased for preservation over 800 acres (3.2 km2) of the original battlefield. Much of the land purchased came from the Agnew Family in Tupelo who still owns some of the battlefield property.
The modern Bethany Presbyterian Church sits on the southeast side of the crossroads. At the time of the battle this congregation's meeting house was located further south along the Baldwyn Road. However, the Bethany Cemetery adjacent to the Park Service monument site predates the Civil War. Many of the area's earliest settlers are buried here. The graves of more than 90 Confederate soldiers killed in the battle are also located in this cemetery. Union dead from the battle were buried in common graves on the battlefield, but were later reinterred in the National Cemetery at Memphis, Tennessee.
The roads that form Brice's Crossroads lead to Baldwyn, Tupelo, Ripley, and Pontotoc, Mississippi. Tupelo is the county seat for historic Lee County, Mississippi. The roads, paved today, are still a major route into Lee, Prentiss, and Union counties, with thousands of cars traveling through the national battlefield to reach other destinations.
- National Park Service battle description
- U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901.