“To Fight All the Time” The 95th Ohio on A.J. Smith’s Mississippi Raid

In the spring of 1864, the decision was made to concentrate Union forces at various strategic points in the South to free up troops that would be added to the primary armies of invasion in Virginia and Georgia. In western Tennessee and northern Mississippi, this meant that the Union pulled out of Corinth, Mississippi and allowed the area to be reclaimed by the Confederacy. Corinth’s primary strategic value centered on the railroad junction of the Mobile & Ohio and the Memphis & Charleston railroads. Since Federals controlled Memphis at the western terminus and Chattanooga further east on the M&C, Corinth was no longer deemed necessary and was abandoned. General Nathan Bedford Forrest had been sent to Mississippi to raise forces that were tasked with re-taking and holding this region; the area also served as a jumping off point for Forrest to stage raids against Union supply lines in Tennessee. That said, the primary function for the remaining Federal forces in western Tennessee became a defensive one: to hold Memphis and keep Forrest out of Tennessee.

To accomplish that mission, General Samuel Sturgis led what became known as the Guntown expedition in June 1864. His plan was to strike the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, cut it, and draw Forrest into battle, which would serve to keep Forrest away from Union supply lines in Tennessee that supported the Federal offensive in Georgia. Sturgis’ subsequent mismanagement of this expedition led to his court-martial. His army was drawn into battle piecemeal at Brice’s Crossroads after being run for miles on the double-quick under a scorching heat; the exhausted troops wilted under fire and were captured by the hundreds during their retreat to Memphis. General Sturgis was loudly denounced as a drunk and a coward and was removed from command upon his return to Memphis. The overall result was mixed: abject failure at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads at the cost of nearly 3,000 casualties, but Sturgis’ raid did serve to keep Forrest engaged in defending the Mississippi hinterlands and out of Tennessee. But the military imperative to keep General Forrest’s forces tied up in Mississippi remained. General William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding general of the western theater, wondered that his troops seemed to cower before that “very devil” General Forrest, but he had a solution in mind.
Lieutenant Oscar D. Kelton, Co. A, 95th Ohio
Killed in action at Brice's Crossroads
(Ohio History Connection)

In stepped Major General Andrew Jackson Smith, an experienced and tough corps commander from the Army of the Tennessee. Smith’s arrival in Memphis, along with his troops who had participated in the Red River campaign, breathed fresh life into the dispirited ranks of the Federal garrison, and Smith set out reorganizing his forces for another go at Forrest. On July 5, 1864, as General Grant’s army pounded away at the Petersburg defenses in Virginia and General Sherman’s army licked its wounds after the bloody repulse at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, a new expedition into northern Mississippi embarked from LaGrange, Tennessee. Smith’s army was comprised of the remains of the Sturgis’ command and two divisions of Smith’s newly arrived 16th Army Corps.

The objective this time was the same as the Guntown raid: the Mobile & Ohio railroad line that connected Columbus, Kentucky with Corinth, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama. General Smith planned to strike the line at some point, tear up the railroad, provoke a response from Forrest, and then fight him on ground of Smith’s choosing. Smith was confident that in a standup fight, his men would be able to give the Confederates a sharp rap on the nose. Confederate forces in the region were technically under the command of Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee, but it was Forrest who commanded the attention of his Federal opponents.

A month before, the 95th Ohio had been roughly handled during General Samuel Sturgis’s botched Guntown expedition, losing more than 200 men captured at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads and the ensuing disastrous retreat to Memphis. The following accounts from Major William R. Warnock and Lawrence Sheehan of the 95th Ohio describe their experiences under Smith’s command at the battles of Harrisburg, Tupelo, and Old Town Creek and reflect confidence in their new leaders. The heat was intense, water scarce, and the roads dusty, but the Federal army went into this raid brimming with spirit. Men like A.J. Smith and Joe Mower may have lacked Sturgis’ flair, but they more than made up for their lack of flair in sheer competence and, as Sherman wrote, the willingness “to fight all the time.”
Major William R. Warnock, 95th Ohio Infantry

Headquarters, 95th Ohio Infantry Vols., 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 16th Army Corps
Memphis, Tennessee
July 22, 1864 [1]

          My Dear Father: We have fought another battle, or rather a succession of battles, and have each time gained a victory. The effect of the Guntown disaster has been entirely removed and Lee and Forrest have been so badly cut up that it will take them several weeks to recruit their forces.
          Our expedition left LaGrange, Tennessee as I last wrote you on the 5th of this month and marched by way of Ripley, Mississippi to Pontotoc meeting with little opposition. We reached Pontotoc on the 11th and remained there until the morning of the 13th when we started for Tupelo. During the forenoon of this day, the Rebels made a dash on our train but were repulsed by the 4th Brigade of our division. In the afternoon, as our brigade was marching through a thick woods, we were fired into by a Rebel regiment which had ambushed us in true Indian style.
95th Ohio Flank Marker
(Ohio History Connection)
[Private Lawrence Sheehan of Co. B wrote that the regiment was marching in “close order through a dark swamp when all at once of column of gray coats, which had been concealed in the bushes, rose up and poured in one of the most dreadful volleys of musketry among our ranks I ever heard. We were surprised and panic-stricken, so much so that every man not wounded ran into the woods in confusion. Our officers rushed into the woods entreating the men to form a line, which was done under the heavy fire of the enemy. We then poured volley after volley into them until all our pieces were discharged. The order was given to charge bayonets which was done, every man hallooing to the utmost of his power. The Rebels broke their line and ran in confusion. I had my gun shot out of my hands while loading and the stock was broken.”][2]

The Rebel regiment was the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry and numbered 400 men. The 72nd Ohio and 95th Ohio, each numbering about 150 men, were ordered to charge. We drove the Rebels back through the woods about 200 yards when they were reinforced by an entire brigade and we were compelled to fall back about 50 yards before such overwhelming numbers. By this time, the 114th Illinois Infantry, numbering about 200 men, formed in line on our left and we were again ordered to charge. The men went into them with a yell, and we soon had the satisfaction of seeing the Rebel brigade, which numbered three times as many men as we had engaged, running in a manner that somewhat consoled us for Guntown, especially as it was Bell’s brigade that had flanked us in the Guntown fight.
Major General Andrew J. Smith
(Library of Congress)

As we were advanced on the last charge, I was on the right of our regiment and we were about 25 yards from the Rebels where we had quite a sharp fight before they retreated. As it was so close, I commenced firing at them with my revolver. I had fired once and had just cocked my revolver to fire a second time when the Rebel shot my horse. He became so unmanageable that I was obliged to dismount and send him back to the road where he died in about half an hour.

          The Rebels couldn’t stand the hot fire we were pouring into them and in a few minutes retreated, leaving their killed and wounded in our possession. From some of the prisoners we took, we learn that the Rebels had made a detail to work a battery (which was following our regiment) after they had captured it, but the battery got into so quickly and threw the grape and canister into their ranks so fast and thick that they were glad to get out of range. The Rebels lost a good many men and didn’t gain a single point. The adjutant of our regiment was wounded in the jaw but not dangerously. Lieutenant Colonel Jefferson Brumback had his horse shot under him about 10 minutes before mine was shot. The 95th Ohio had eight men wounded and two will probably die. We then marched to a point near Tupelo and bivouacked for the night.

          Early on the night of the 14th our pickets commenced skirmishing and our generals prepared for a fight. The men soon saw, by the way they were handled, that A.J. Smith and Joe Mower were equal to Forrest and his generals, and consequently went into the fight with a hearty good will and felt confident of success. Before 7 a.m., the engagement became general and lasted only three hours. The Rebels made charge after charge on our position but were repulsed with terrible slaughter. We had an excellent position and one which protected our men and as the Rebels seemed very anxious to attack us, Generals Smith and Mower let the men lie down in position and shot down the Rebels as they advanced across the open fields. Our artillery was posted in excellent position and as the enemy made their repeated charges did great execution.
95th Ohio National Colors
(Ohio History Connection)
[Lawrence Sheehan related that “the long line of graybacks came out of the woods through an open field, their officers waving their swords and all yelling their best. General Mower let them come until within about 20 steps of our line when we rose up and poured the cold lead into their ranks, our artillery opening at the same time. It was a fearful sight. Their ranks were cut to pieces and what was left retreated perfectly panic-stricken and demoralized. Where their lines had formed was covered with dead and mangled bodies, some with their legs off, some yet alive with their bowels hanging out, some with their arms torn off at their shoulders, and in some places the blood was shoe-mouth deep. The Rebel General Faulkner was left dead on the field; I saw him and got a button off his coat.”]

          A little before 10 a.m., the Rebels abandoned their attempts to drive us from position and retreated, leaving their killed and wounded in our possession. We advanced the lines about half a mile but the Rebels were too severely punished to continue the attack. I went over the battle grounds, and I must say I never saw as many dead Rebels in as small a space of ground as there was there. We learned from our Rebel prisoners that their officers had told them that we were all 100-days’ men and would run at the first fire if they would only put on a bold front and charge, which is no doubt the reason of their attacking us so boldly in our position. The Rebels admit a loss of 2,400 killed and wounded but I should not be surprised that it is even greater. [Official Confederate losses came in at roughly 1,250 killed and wounded with another 50 missing with Forrest lamenting that the effort to drive Smith from Mississippi "cost the best blood of the South."]
Lieutenant Henry Warren Phelps, Co. H, 95th Ohio. A devoted historian, Phelps wrote extensively of his regiment's wartime service throughout his lengthy career. 
          On the 15th, we were busily engaged in caring for the wounded and burying the dead. On the morning of the 16th, as we had but three days’ half rations for our army and were four days’ march from our base of supplies, we commenced our march to LaGrange. Our division, General Mower’s, was in the rear and our brigade in the rear of the division. One half of our army had marched out on the road and nearly all of our train had started. The Rebels saw this and, thinking we had only a cavalry rear guard, charged across the same fields in which they had been so badly repulsed on the 14th. Our artillery opened on them with grape and canister and our infantry poured a deadly volley into them. They fell back just as they had on the day of the battle. The Second Brigade then made a charge and drove the Rebels entirely back from their position.
95th Ohio National Colors with battle honors for
Tupelo and Old Town Creek
(Ohio History Connection)
          We then marched about five miles and went into camp near a creek. Just as our brigade, which was in the rear, had crossed the creek, the Rebels commenced to shell our camp. We were immediately formed in line of battle and Colonel McMillen ordered an advance. After recrossing the creek, our brigade charged on the Rebels and drove them back in great confusion. The lost quite heavily in this engagement and if our men had not been so much exhausted, we would have captured the Rebel battery. After this we were not molested by any demonstrations of the enemy. They were wary of being led into the some trap and captured as some men we captured in the last fight thought our brigade must have been formed in line of battle in the woods waiting for them to come up as we advanced so quickly after they had shelled the camp.

          We then marched by easy stages to LaGrange where we arrived on the 21st and came by railroad to Memphis today. Our force consisted of about 12,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, the whole commanded by Major General Andrew J. Smith assisted by Generals Mower, Grierson, and Colonel Moore. Our total loss in killed, wounded, and missing does not exceed 500 and will probably be not more than 400. The Rebels were commanded by Generals Stephen D. Lee, Nathan B. Forrest, Abraham Buford, and others. It was a terrible punishment to the Rebels and if we had only been able to supply ourselves with rations, we could have marched to Mobile.

Tattered National Colors belonging to the 95th Ohio
(Ohio History Connection)

[1] Letter from Major William R. Warnock, 95th Ohio Infantry, Urbana Citizen & Gazette (Ohio), August 4, 1864, pg. 2
[2] Letter from Private Lawrence Sheehan, Co. B, 95th Ohio, Springfield Republic (Ohio), August 10, 1864, pg. 1


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