Responding to a Union raid through vital Mississippi farm land, Nathan Bedford Forrest and his Southern horsemen were able to stop the thrust of William Sooy Smith's 7,000 Federals at Okolona. In doing so, Forrest added to his legend but also lost his beloved brother Jeffrey Forrest.
Smith's Feb. 1864 raid was part of a two-pronged advance on Meridian. William T. Sherman, hoping to gain another Union victory in Mississippi, set his sights on Meridian.
Meridian was an important railroad center and Sherman, along with 20,000 soldiers, made their way east from Vicksburg to take the town. Along the way, Sherman perfected his concept of "hard warfare" burning homes, crops and punishing the Mississippi citizens for their allegiance to the Confederacy.
Smith was supposed to conduct a raid through northern Mississippi, advancing down the Mobile and Ohio Railroad eventually linking up with Sherman in Meridian. Along the way Smith destroyed crops, railroads and liberated slaves.
As Sherman marched toward Meridian, Smith delayed leaving Memphis for 10 days. Once he did get started, muddy roads from recent rains made the Federal advance painfully slow. On Feb. 20, 1864, Sherman, fearing for Smith's whereabouts, pulled out of Meridian, returning to Vicksburg.
Meanwhile, Smith had fought a small engagement near Aberdeen. Upon hearing of Sherman's withdrawal, Smith began to retrace his path back to Memphis, heading toward Okolona. Smith was lured into a swampy area near the Tombigbee River by Jeffrey Forrest. The elder Forrest arrived and was determined to strike Smith's rear guard which had just begun to retreat.
On Feb. 22, 1864, Forrest launched his first attack on the Federal rear guard south of Okolona. In an effort to slow down Forrest, the Federal horsemen dismounted, building barricades to strengthen their position. Forrest unleashed frontal and flank attacks on the Federals.
During a series of attacks and counterattacks, Jeffrey Forrest was killed by a shot to his throat. Forrest rushed to his fallen brother's side, holding him in his arms and repeating his name over and over. Forrest ordered J.P. Strange to take charge of Jeffrey Forrest's body. Then, Forrest, consumed by grief and rage, ordered the bugler to sound the charge.
Forrest struck the Federals with such fury, that Strange wondered if Forrest was also trying to die like his brother. The Federals gave way quickly but Forrest, along with his 60-man escort, continued to lead the charge, galloping into 500 Union horsemen.
Robert McCulloch seeing the outnumbered Forrest in a host of Federals feared for his general's life. McCulloch led his horsemen into the fight to protect Forrest. Before they could arrive Forrest had killed three more Federals.
The Federals continued to withdraw, stopping to make a stand only to be swept away by Forrest. During the fighting, Forrest had the first of three horses shot from under him.
Jeffrey Forrest's body was taken to Aberdeen, where he lay in state. In his battle report, Forrest said that "for sobriety, ability, prudence and bravery he had no superior of his age." Jeffrey Forrest was buried at the Old Aberdeen Cemetery.