72nd Ohio at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads June 10, 1864

    The Battle of Brice's Crossroads was fought on June 10, 1864 and proved to be one of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest's signature victories. A Union expedition of roughly 10,000 men under the command of Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis set out from Memphis, Tennessee with the aim to occupy Forrest's attention and keep him away from raiding Union supply lines in Tennessee that were supporting Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's drive into Georgia. The expedition marched across northern Mississippi and on the morning of June 10th, Union cavalry clashed with Forrest's command at Brice's Crossroads near Baldwyn, Mississippi. 

    The Federal cavalry commander, Gen. Benjamin Grierson, aimed to develop the Confederate force then fall back to a line that Gen. Sturgis would form with the supporting infantry, the idea being to preserve the infantry and let Forrest attack an entrenched force. Command confusion (or Sturgis' ambition to score a quick and easy victory) made that plan go awry; Sturgis raced his infantry regiments forward for five miles in 90+ degree heat to the battlefield. The regiments arrived on the field strung out with exhausted men lining the roads for miles behind them; one veteran remembered that he regiment had all of 7 men when they arrived on the field. As the Union cavalry had been engaged for hours and were running low on ammunition, they started asking to be relieved from the front line. Sturgis and his infantry commander Col. William Linn McMillen slowly moved the infantry into line, but the men were in awful condition for a fight. Forrest's perceived this transition of the lines and his directed a concerted push against this shaky line- it cracked quickly. All the while, the ammunition and provision wagon train had arrived and was placed just in the rear astride the only retreat route (a pungeon bridge over Tishomingo Creek). Once Confederate shells started to land amongst the wagons, a panic ensued and the bridge was soon blocked by wrecked wagons; the retreating Union infantry took panic and the result was a disaster.

    The 72nd Ohio formed part of the rear guard during this engagement and the regiment suffered 64% casualties during the retreat to Memphis; nearly all of which were men captured along the way by Forrest's command. The veterans of the 72nd never forgave Gen. Sturgis for the defeat (Sturgis reportedly left the infantry to shift for themselves during the retreat and high-tailed it back to Memphis with his cavalry escort).

    The following letter from Second Lieutenant Rollin Edgerton of Co. E, 72nd Ohio proved to be the best contemporary account I've yet found of the battle and retreat from a 72nd Ohio participant. A more complete accounting of this battle can be found in my book Sherman's Praetorian Guard: Civil War Letters of John McIntyre Lemmon, 72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry available here

Second Lieutenant Rollin A. Edgerton, Co. E, 72nd O.V.V.I.

Memphis, Tennessee
June 13, 1864

Messrs. Canfield & Bro., my dear friends,
    On the first day of this month we left here with two brigades of infantry, five regiments each, one brigade of colored infantry (two regiments), and two brigades of cavalry, 12 guns with the infantry and eight howitzers with the cavalry, nearly 12,000 men in all, about 10,000 fighting men, 240 teams with 16 days’ rations and plenty of ammunition. Object of the expedition was to cut the railroad at some point south of Corinth, to prevent the enemy from running troops up to the Tennessee and troubling Sherman. The 72nd Ohio left with 396 men. We made about 12 miles per day for ten days, during which it rained every day. On the 10th our cavalry came upon the enemy in force near Guntown, a small place near the railroad some 40 miles south of Corinth. This day it was our turn to go in the rear of the brigade. The cavalry engaged the enemy some five miles ahead of us and were being roughly handled when word was sent back to us to come up as rapidly as possible.

    The day being warm, many of the men were overcome with heat and compelled to lie down. The first brigade came up and was pushed into battle in the center, which the Rebels had already broken, and our brigade as fast the regiments came up. The 72nd being the last one were held a short distance in the rear to support a battery which commanded an open field where the enemy were preparing to flank us. Companies A, C, D, H, and K of the 72nd were deployed as skirmishers through the field.  At this time the fire of musketry and artillery was very heavy. It soon became evident that the enemy vastly outnumbered us, for they not only had men enough to oppose our single line with two, but some to spare to flank us on both flanks. The opposing lines were close to each and firing deadly. The dead and wounded from our brigade came back thick and fast. At one time a portion of the enemy’s lines were compelled to fall back, but only temporarily. It was only the work of an hour or two to cut to pieces our weak line with their heavy line of musketry.

Map of the Battle of Brice's Crossroads- from Sherman's Praetorian Guard; map by Hal Jespersen.
    At this time the enemy’s skirmishers came out on our left in a very    heavy line; two volleys from our regiment sent them back to the woods in a hurry, which two volleys were all the 72nd had an opportunity of giving them. The whole line now commenced to fall back in but little order, the enemy crowding in and yelling like Indians. Across a small creek about 40 rods in rear of the position our line had held, the two Negro regiments were formed in line, some 1,300 strong. On and on came the enemy until within close range of the Negroes who were lying down behind a rail fence, when they rose up and poured into them a close and deadly volley. Hundreds of the enemy went down. It checked them for a short time, but a few hundreds could not long hold thousands in check. They soon came upon them on all sides and they were compelled to fall back, many of them being killed or taken prisoners.

     Our train, which had been huddled up close in our rear, was now trying to get out, but so many teams and all trying to move on one narrow road. It was soon blocked up and the whole train lost except the animals. Our regiment was in the rear of the infantry and cavalry in rear of us. Thus far we had lost but one piece of artillery. The enemy crowded on thick and fast. The cavalry charged and scattered them. It was now 4 P.M. The fight commenced on the part of the infantry at 2 o’clock. So far our regiment had lost none killed and but two slightly wounded. Other regiments were badly cut up. 

    We arrived at Ripley 14 miles back early in the morning. The 72nd scattered badly during the night. In the night, the artillery got stuck fast in a swamp and was compelled to abandon their guns. The road was blocked with them and therefore the ambulances in the rear loaded with wounded were abandoned also. We were scarcely all in Ripley when the enemy’s advance guard came on us. They were received with a heavy volley from our brigade of cavalry and a portion of the infantry. 
Captain Leroy Moore, Co. F, 72nd O.V.V.I.
Captured June 11, 1864

    We immediately pushed on in retreat in very fair order. But two of my men were gone, but they were so worn down by exertion, lack of sleep and food, that it was hard work to march. The cavalry did the best they could to protect our rear, but were hard pressed. At 8 A.M. it was very warm; many of the men were sun-struck and overcome with heat yet they pressed on. So we marched, the stronger pressing on in advance and the weaker falling back. It was a painful sight to see the wounded trudging along, two often riding one mule bareback. Saw one or two walking who had an arm blown off by a shell the day before and had walked all night. Stopping to fill by canteen at a creek, I fell behind my company. When I overtook them, only half were left, and they, poor fellows, overcome with heat, said they could go no further. With them I found an acquaintance, a lieutenant of the 95th Ohio, badly wounded in the arm. Having one hard cracker left, I divided it with him. Urging my men to come on, we started. Only one or two made the attempt. Hurrying on for some miles, we reached a high point. Here about 100 of us were together when the Rebels, who had run along the valley on our flanks, poured a volley into us. A few fell and the balance rushed down the bank of the opposite side, surprised by the sudden and unexpected fire. A moment and the surprise was over, and they came rushing back, and poured a volley into the Rebels, which sent them back. We were now nearly up with the advance of the infantry, or what was left of them, many having been made prisoners as they lay exhausted.

Corporal Henry J. Potter, Co. E
Captured and died while POW

    About 11 A.M. Saturday the 11th, the enemy’s cavalry came up on the flank again in force and cut us in two. I was just in advance of the point where the dash was made, could hardly walk from the effects of the heat, and felt rather dubious about reaching Memphis, distant 60 miles. Just then came upon a cavalry man mortally wounded. His comrade wished me to assist in getting him in the shade, which we did. Gave him a drink of water and then he died. His comrade gave me his horse and we came on. Rode hard all the afternoon and stopped at dark to rest horses for a few minutes; but were hardly to ground when the enemy came upon our rear guard. Now commenced the second night’s march- a night of torture. Could only keep awake by biting my lips and twisting my ears, etc. By great exertions I could keep my eyes open but everything became visionary.  Could see all manner of beautiful things. Occasionally an opening would admit of a little more light, when the illusion of beautiful residences and the most delightful places in the world for a weary man to rest would be presented. Sometimes would turn my horse in that direction when the limb of a tree or a bush hitting me in the face or something equally sudden would bring me to my senses. The drummer in my company fell off his mule in his sleep and the fall did not wake him. The mule went on and someone who stumbled over him woke him up. I saw many of the cavalry fall off their horses. Frequently the head of the column would halt. After waiting for some time for it to move on, someone would go up to learn the cause of the halt and when the men would be found asleep and the horses huddled together in the road. A few ambulances were still kept along and a number of them overturned with their loads of wounded. We arrived at Collierville, 20 miles east of Memphis Sunday forenoon, and from there came in on the trains sent out from here. To sit down was to sleep and to sleep was to be captured. Nothing but great determination of purpose and powers of endurance brought anyone through.

    Two nights and two days of steady marching without food is more than I ever hope to have to make again. Distance about 110 miles. All of the field and staff officers and nine out of the 20 line officers are back; balance supposed to be captured. I took into battle 25 men-brought home five. Undoubtedly many of them are hiding in the woods and a few may come in. Everyone one of the nine non-commissioned officers I had are gone. We brought off our colors; the flag minus the staff. The enemy was three times our number, commanded by Pope, Kirby Smith, Forrest, and Chalmers. Gen. Buckland met us at the depot, his countenance betraying the anxiety he felt for his old regiment. Hundreds of the wives, children, and friends of the Negroes were there. It was a heart-rending sight to see their manifestations of grief at the absence of their friends. 

Brigadier General Samuel Davis Sturgis


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