By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved
On March 22, 1865, 13,480 Yankee cavalry in three divisions left their camps at Eastport, Alabama on the south shore of the Tennessee River for the biggest raid of the Civil War. Armed with Spencer carbines whose purchase for the expedition was arranged by its commander James H. Wilson, this corps would have devastating firepower as it aimed at the destruction of the South’s remaining war manufacturing centers in the deep South of the states of Alabama and Georgia. Wilson had successfully argued with George Thomas for this campaign in the waning weeks of the Civil War.
Wilson spent the early part of the war in the East, including serving on George McClellan’s staff at South Mountain and Antietam. He then went West and served as a staff officer for U.S. Grant in the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns. Wilson became the youngest Union brigadier general. He was next assigned to the War Department as head of the Cavalry Bureau. In Spring, 1864, he took the field as commander of the Third Division of Phil Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. His performance in the Wilderness and his Ream’s Station raid south of Petersburg in June, 1864 were not auspicious but Grant sent him back West in October, 1864 and he commanded ably at the battles of Franklin and Nashville in the destruction of Hood’s Army of Tennessee.
Originally scheduled to depart on March 5, Wilson’s army was delayed by heavy rains. It also was without its fourth division for lack of enough horses. Wilson’s cavalry consisted of 23 regiments, including the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Ohio. Notable among its commanders were First Division commander Edward McCook, one of the many Fighting McCooks of Ohio, Fourth Division Commander Emory Upton, best known for his assault at Spotsylvania, and Fred Benteen, commander of the 10th Missouri, best known for his role in the defeat of the 7th Cavalry at the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
Opposed to this huge Union cavalry force were the small, scattered Confederate forces in Mississippi and Alabama under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the “Wizard of the Saddle” and the nemesis of William Tecumseh Sherman and other Union commanders.
As Wilson pushed through Northern Alabama without resistance, Forrest desperately tried to concentrate what few forces were available while the Confederacy also attempted to defend the port of Mobile against the attack of Edward R.S. Canby, who had been reinforced by another of Wilson’s cavalry divisions.
On April 1, 1865, Wilson’s army was met by Forrest at the village of Ebenezer Church, north of Selma, the first target of Wilson’s raid. Forrest, without two of his forces, could not hold back the flood of charging Union cavalry. Wounded by a Union officer, Forrest personally killed a Yankee for the last time.
Selma, Alabama was a center of Alabama’s iron works region and produced a wide variety of weapons for the Confederate armies and navy, along with food from Alabama’s agricultural black belt. It was lightly defended with extensive but some unfinished defensive works. On April 2, the wounded Forrest conferred with Richard Taylor, the department commander, as he prepared to entrain for Mississippi. To defend the city, Forrest had only a few thousand troops and those civilians that he gathered in the city. Against them was arrayed Wilson’s army (but without John Croxton’s brigade detached to destroy the facilities at Tuscaloosa, which became “lost” and did not rejoin Wilson until April 29).
Late on April 2, Wilson launched his attack and overwhelmed the undermanned Confederate defenses. 2,700 Confederates were captured . Wilson’s casualties were 46 killed, including the commander of the 4th Ohio, and 300 wounded, including the commander of the Second Division. Forrest escaped but only a few days later he met Wilson, ostensibly to discuss a prisoner exchange (but Wilson was attempting to determine the whereabouts of Croxton’s “lost” force). Wilson wrote in his diary: “Forrest did not impress me as I expected-neither as large, dignified nor striking as I expected-seemed embarrassed”. Forrest told Wilson: “Well, General, you have beaten me badly, and for the first time I am compelled to make such an acknowledgment”. Forrest’s attempt to defend Selma was his last Civil War battle.
Wilson’s men followed their victory with the destruction of the Confederacy’s war plants (as they had previously done enroute to the city). Wilson’s army then headed east to capture Montgomery, the original capital of the Confederacy, which surrendered without a fight on April 10. Wilson then headed for the rail center of West Point, Georgia, which was captured on April 16 and hundreds of locomotives and rail cars were destroyed. That same night, Wilson’s troops also successfully routed the defenders of Columbus, Georgia in the last battle of the Civil War east of the Mississippi (and a week after Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia). Like Selma, Columbus was a major war manufacturing center. While his army again wrecked Confederate plants, Wilson stayed in the home of an avowed opponent of secession.
The next night, Wilson’s army headed for Macon, the state’s new capital following Sherman’s capture of Milledgeville on his March to the Sea. Its commander, having learned of the Sherman-Johnson truce in North Carolina, surrendered on April 20 along with four other Confederate generals.
This effectively ended Wilson’s Raid. Over the course of two months, his corps had killed and wounded over 1,000 enemy soldiers and captured 6,820 Confederates, while losing 99 killed and 598 wounded. His troops seized 288 artillery pieces and almost one hundred thousand stand of arms. His path of industrial destruction included seven wrecked iron works, seven foundries, seven machine shops, two rolling mills, five collieries, thirteen factories, four niter works, three arsenals, one naval yard,and one powder magazine. They also destroyed five steamboats and the railroad stock plus many miles of tracks. And they destroyed huge amounts of military supplies.
Wilson’s troops capped this saga with the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his fleeing refugee party on May 10 and then Andersonville prison camp commander Henry Wirz. Following the Civil War, Wilson served in the Corps of Engineers until 1870. He later served in Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Spanish American War and in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1901.
In 2000, a monument of Nathan Bedford Forrest honoring his 1865 defense of the city was unveiled by the Friends of Forrest at a Civil War museum in Selma. After many protests, the monument was moved to a cemetery. On March 12, 2012, the head of Forrest was stolen and never recovered. In May, 2015, the Friends of Forrest and the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a new bust of Forrest. After a dispute over restoring the monument, the Selma City Council by a vote of 5-3 had deeded an acre in the cemetery to the Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as settling a lawsuit over the delay in permitting construction of the new monument.
James Pickett Jones. Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson’s Raid through Alabama and Georgia. 1976.