Even though William T. Sherman was in Georgia, the whereabouts of Nathan Bedford Forrest was always on his mind. Since Forrest's victories at Fort Pillow and Brice's Crossroads, Sherman called for Union cavalry to hunt down the "devil" Forrest. On July 14, 1864, Sherman got his wish as Forrest was defeated at Tupelo.
Sherman's obsession with Forrest was understandable. Forrest threatened the important Federal supply line from Tennessee to Georgia. Any disruption due to Forrest's raids could cripple Sherman's Atlanta campaign.
For Sherman, the plan was simple. He wanted the Federal cavalry to "follow Forest to the death." In doing so, Sherman wanted to destroy Forrest and punish those who supported him.
"Make the people of Tennessee and Mississippi feel that although a bold, daring and successful leader, he will bring ruin and misery on any country where he may pass or tarry. If we do not punish Forrest and the people now, the whole effect of our vast conquest will be lost."
Joseph E. Johnston and political leaders in Georgia beseeched Jefferson Davis to move Forrest from north Mississippi to Georgia so he could wreck havoc even closer to Sherman.
Braxton Bragg, who was now serving as advisor to Davis, continually downplayed the importance of Forrest's victories.
In doing this, the Confederate leadership played into Sherman's hands. Sherman was happy to have Forrest creating misery in Mississippi rather than attacking his lines in Georgia.
Andrew Jackson Smith was ordered to conduct a raid through north Mississippi in an attempt to contain Forrest. Stephen D. Lee and Forrest prepared to unite and stop Smith's raid into Mississippi.
On July 12, 1864, Lee and his 2,000 soldiers joined Forrest and his 6,000 horsemen. This combination of Southern soldiers was still woefully outnumbered by Smith's 14,000 cavalry, then camped at Pontotoc.
Forrest placed most of his force near Okolona. On July 13, 1864, Smith changed course, turning east to Tupelo, forcing Lee and Forrest to race the Federals there.
Smith beat Lee and Forrest to Tupelo and began tearing up portions of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. During the night, Smith's forces constructed fortifications at nearby Harrisburg, using cotton bales, rail fences and parts of destroyed buildings.
On July 14, 1864, Smith was entrenched behind strong lines southwest of Tupelo. Forrest wanted to wait until Smith moved and he would jump on his flanks as he had done against previous Federal raids into Mississippi.
Lee couldn't wait for Smith to move, ordering an assault on the Union lines. Lee hit the Union right held by Joseph Mower. Forrest, commanding the Confederate right, assailed the Union left under David Moore and Benjamin Grierson.
The Confederate attacks were uncoordinated against strong positions that Forrest later termed as "almost impregnable." By midday, the attacks were called off. During the evening Smith burned the remains of Harrisburg.
The following day, Smith began to withdraw. Forrest attacked Smith's rear guard and was shot in the foot. Despite the wound, Forrest rode in a buggy, letting his soldiers see him to dispel a rumor of his death.
The Battle of Tupelo was a Union victory. The Confederates lost 1,310 killed, wounded or missing compared to 674 Union casualties.