by Thomas J. Ryan
The birth of the Confederacy took place in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1861, and four years later one of the final nails in its coffin was hammered home in nearby Selma. It was there that Union cavalry commander Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson routed the forces of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, and destroyed the most important ordnance-manufacturing center in the South. This crushing victory opened the route to Georgia, and led to the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
After Wilson, an Illinois native, graduated from West Point in 1860, he worked his way up the ladder of responsibility in the Union army. By October 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant assigned the 27-year old command of a cavalry corps within Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Military District. At this stage of the conflict, the Southern army was in retreat, and the survival of the Confederacy was in jeopardy. Concern that President Davis would transfer the theater of operations to central Alabama and Mississippi, where provisions and munitions were readily available, led Wilson to propose an expedition into that area.
By early 1865, Wilson received approval to conduct a raid that would occupy Forrest’s units while other Union forces conducted an attack on Mobile. Wilson’s mission was to destroy the enemy’s forces, lines of communications, and military resources. The latter were principally concentrated in Selma, because early in 1863 Confederate Ordnance Bureau chief Col. Josiah Gorgas found this location to be the most secure for a joint Army-Navy ordnance production complex. At its peak, it included a naval foundry, shipyard, army arsenal and gunpowder works employing some 9,000 workers in 160 buildings.
Throughout the war, the mercurial and combative Forrest, a former Tennessee planter and slave trader, had been the bete noire of the Union command in the West. Although a regular cavalry officer, he often operated like partisan ranger John S. Mosby in the East whose trademark was attacking vulnerable targets behind Union lines. In modern parlance, Forrest had a contract on his head. Sherman wanted “That devil Forrest . . . killed if it costs ten thousand lives. . . .”
Forrest had the difficult task of preventing Wilson’s powerful force from accomplishing its objectives in Alabama. The Union cavalry numbered more than 13,000 men armed with seven shot Spencer carbines. Forrest’s cavalrymen had suffered heavy casualties in recent battles in Tennessee; therefore, he could only muster about 7,000. However, Wilson was aware that Forrest, the so-called “Wizard of the Saddle,” had overcome similar odds in the past, and snatched victory from Union opponents.
Wilson’s march from his base in northwest Alabama above the Tennessee River got underway on March 22nd following delays caused by rain and swollen rivers. Forrest, serving as cavalry commander of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, took advantage of the interval to reorganize his unruly troops, many who were deserting and marauding.
Prior to start of operations, Wilson and Forrest had scouts reconnoitering their opponents’ strength and disposition. The resourceful Wilson also sent Capt. L. M. Hosea under a flag-of-truce to Forrest’s base in Verona, Mississippi, under another pretext to gain information. During this visit, Forrest commented that although his training in military tactics was limited, he “always [made] it a rule to get there first with the most men.”
After learning that Wilson was planning a raid into the heart of Alabama, Forrest moved his headquarters to West Point in eastern Mississippi. Armed with Hosea’s report and information provided by scouts, Wilson understood that he “would have to march rapidly to beat [Forrest] to the important points in the field of operations.”
Once underway, Wilson benefited greatly from excellent intelligence, deceptive operations, and rapid movement. Forrest, on the other hand, was stymied by a lack of information, poor implementation of orders by his subordinates, and the distraction of contending with another Union threat in southern Alabama.
Wilson marched his columns by three routes to confuse the enemy. They converged in the vicinity of Jasper on March 26. Leaving their supply trains behind in order to accelerate movement, the Union cavalry arrived in Elyton (Birmingham) by the 28th. From there Wilson dispatched a brigade to Tuscaloosa to destroy the University of Alabama, a military school that had produced many officers for the Confederacy.
Learning belatedly on the 26th that Wilson was racing toward the southeast,Forrest deployed troops to intercept and delay the Union forces. While Wilson pressed on toward Selma, Rebel deserters informed him of Forrest’s whereabouts, and a captured dispatch revealed Forrest’s plans to attack Wilson’s front, flank, and rear near Plantersville.
Wilson “knew exactly where every division and brigade of Forrest’s corps was . . . and that if I could force the marching and the fighting . . . I should have the game entirely in my hands.” On April 1, the confident Union cavalry broke through Forrest’s blocking position at Ebenezer Church, inflicted saber wounds on the Rebel commander and forced his troops to fall back into the entrenchments protecting Selma.
Early the next morning when Wilson began his march on Selma, he was armed with a map of the area voluntarily supplied by an Englishman who had helped build the town’s defenses. The outnumbered and inexperienced Rebel forces behind the earthworks and stockades crumbled under the Union cavalry’s multi-pronged attack late that afternoon. Forrest managed to escape, but more than 3,000 defenders, mostly conscripted civilians, were killed, wounded, or captured. The dramatic victory at Selma was overshadowed in the Northern press, however, when Richmond fell to Grant’s forces that same day, followed by Lee’s surrender and President Lincoln’s assassination shortly thereafter.
Wilson directed the dismantling and destruction of the extensive ordnance facilities in Selma. In the event President Davis, who was escaping from Richmond, planned to continue the war in the Deep South, he no longer had a weapons and ammunition production capability to support his efforts.
After the battle, Wilson arranged to meet with Forrest at the town of Cahaba to discuss prisoner exchange. Wilson said the wounded and defeated Confederate told him, “Well general you have beaten me badly, and for the first time I’m compelled to make such an acknowledgment.”
Wilson went on to accept the surrender of the former Confederate capital at Montgomery, and overwhelmed the Rebel forces in western Georgia – demolishing every war-related facility along the way. He capped his exploits when his cavalry pursued and captured Jefferson Davis in southern Georgia on May 10, preempting the president’s plan to continue the war.
Among those in the Civil War pantheon, James Harrison Wilson is relatively obscure. Yet Alabama’s citizens readily recall with mixed feelings his well conceived and executed campaign through their state in 1865. It was arguably the most successful and devastating cavalry expedition on either side during the long and destructive conflict.
About the Author
Thomas J. Ryan is the former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table, and a long-time member of the Gettysburg Foundation. He is the author of more than 80 articles and book reviews about the Civil War, and has completed a book, ten years in the making, with the working title “Not by Guns Alone: The Critical Role of Intelligence during the Gettysburg Campaign.”
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“Selma: The Confederacy’s Foremost Ordnance Manufacturing Center,” p. 3.
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