Civil War Battle for the Heartland – Part 3
COLUMBUS, GA. — Battle for the Heartland begins, as the north plans raids into the Heart of Dixie. “Wilson’s Raiders”, are developed by the North to disable the Southern industrial and manufacturing centers. Cutting vital supply lines and disrupting food deliveries and ammunition the North learned to art of ambush.
The losses to the North of Nashville, Atlanta, and now Richmond, much more significance to the industrial centers located along this region which stretched from eastern Mississippi trough Alabama to central Georgia. Most of the factories that were producing arms, textiles, shoes, flour and other wartime essentials for the South were in the towns in this area. The Heart of Dixie, the Battle for the Heartland was coming to Columbus, GA!
Unfortunately for the South and Jefferson Davis, Union leaders also begin to recognize the possibilities available to the Confederate Government. In his memoirs, General U.S. Grant confirms that late in the war he was very concerned about the South’s ability to protract the conflict. Grant was very aware of the North’s growing weariness of war, as well as the South’s. However, Grant believed there was one major factor in the South’s political structure, concerning public discontent, which gave the South a distinct advantage over the North. Grant asserts that the entire South was an “armed camp, controlled absolutely by the government, with soldiers to back it.” He concludes that the Confederate Government could have continued the war regardless of the magnitude of public discontent; because the North, since the people controlled the government, could shut down the Union army at any time simply by cutting off its supplies and money.
General Wilson proposed to deny the Confederates access to resources in the South’s industrial heartland by initiating a devastating raid. Wilson would engage the Rebel forces protecting this region (Lt. General N.B. Forrest’s command), and destroy the industries, armories, and warehouses located along his route.
General Wilson’s orders were very similar to those which Grant had issued to Sherman a year earlier before beginning Sherman’s march on Georgia. Grant’s letter to Sherman, dated April 4, 1864, instructed him to” get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their resources.”
The battle for the heartland begins. On Sherman’s march to the sea, he had decided to destroy everything in his path, all food supplies both military and civilian , scatter families of the south like vagabonds in their own land, and undermine the morale of the military forces of the South by causing concern for their families whom had no food or a place for shelter.
Gen. Wilson’s methods were a bit less harsh than those of Sherman. At the outset of his expedition Wilson issued strict orders prohibiting pillaging. However, the principal object of his expedition was to destroy everything of military value that his command came across. Also, his corps was to sustain itself by foraging and appropriating food from the countryside. This lead to some confusion in the ranks as to what forms of personal property were to be spared; in some cases Wilson’s orders were just simply ignored. Wilson wrote in his biography a response to some concerns to his orders on no pillaging ” Some of the marauders and desperadoes who always find place in modern armies doubtless took part in plundering the stores and occasionally breaking into private houses, but all such work was ruthlessly and promptly stopped as soon as it became known”. Nevertheless, Wilson’s orders were to destroy the South’s capacity to supply itself and by the destruction which he left in his wake permits no questioning of his pursuit of that objective.
On Feb. 14, 1865, Gen. George Thomas was instructed by Gen. U. S. Grant to prepare to initiate a drive south through Alabama. In the orders, Gen. Grant assigned three objectives. “(1) Attack as much of the enemy’s forces to insure success to Gen. Canby in Mobile. (2) Destroy the enemy’s lines of communications and military resources. (3) Destroy or capture enemy forces brought into the field. Tuscaloosa and Selma probably would be the points to direct against. This however, would not be so important as the mere fact of penetrating deep into Alabama. Discretion should be left with the officer commanding the expedition as to where to go, according to the information he may receive, he will best secure the objects named above. Now that your forces have been so much depleted I do not know what number of men you can put into the field. If not more than 5,000 men, however, all cavalry, I think it will be sufficient.”
On Feb. 22, 1865, Gen. Thomas met with Gen. Wilson at Eastport, Mississippi to discuss the mission and receive his orders. Gen. Thomas had planed to strike Selma and Tuscaloosa with a force of only 5,000- 6,000 men in support of Gen. Canby’s operation. At this time Wilson alleges that he convinced Thomas to permit him to take his entire force. Wilson had long believed that the cavalry was not being used to it full potential. They had in most cases been used to form small elements in support of the infantry; supporting protection to the front, rear and flank and an occasional raid of supply lines and railroads. Wilson felt the cavalry could be better used in battle with more success. He was one of several commanders who had come to appreciate the potential of using cavalry as a form of ‘mounted infantry’. This would allow use of their mounts to transport them quickly to the site of battle; one there they would dismount, leave their horses a safe distance away, and then proceed to battle lines on foot. This method offered several advantages over fighting on horseback Leaving the horses in areas behind battle lines, protected the horses from death or injury (procurement of new trained horses were next to impossible in battle zones), horses were rested and ready for the next advance or retreat. Also cavalrymen offered a smaller silhouette to fire on when dismounted. This advantage was important now with the use of long rifled firearms. By the way, Confederate Gen. N.B. Forrest was particularly successful in using cavalry in this way. In fact, this method of fighting is one of the primary reasons that he became, arguably, the South’s best cavalry commander of the war.
Wilson moved his forces south to Alabama where he set up two training camps on the north bank of the Tennessee River to prepare for the campaign. Unfortunately for Wilson and his troops, the area became saturated in late February by non-stop deluge of rain just as he was preparing to begin his movement south. Gen. Grant began impatiently pressing both Wilson and Thomas to get the operation underway, there was little that could be done. According to Gen. Wilson’s correspondence with Gen. Whipple (Thomas’ chief of staff), written on Feb. 28,1865, the Tennessee River had “risen 30ft. in 4 days.” No crossing could be made. The forces would not move till March 22,1865.
Shortly after arriving in Alabama, Wilson learned that Forrest was the commander of the forces occupying the region in which he was going to be raiding. The significance of Gen. Forrest presence was respected by all. Wilson’s commanding officer, Sherman, considered Forrest to be superior of any Union cavalryman, and Grant had come to respect his abilities during the campaign against Vicksburg. Forrest had been assigned commander of all mounted forces in east Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama on January 24,1865. He reorganized the entire command, and attempted to refit it with what few supplies he could muster. His forces were clearly outnumbered, having approximately only 10,000 men in his entire command, as compared to Wilson’s 13,000 men. To make matters worse, at no time during Forrest’s efforts to defend the area would he have all of his forces available together at the same time. His strongest showing was 3,000-4,000 men at one time. However, Forrest was well known “for being able to get the most out of the least.”Wilson was racing against time to get a jump on Forrest.
Wilson knew that the rivers and streams of the area would prove difficult to cross due to the heavy rains. On March 27,1865 Forrest forces under Chaimers we reported marching toward Selma. Wilson knew it was imperative to cross both the Cahaba and Black Warrior rivers before Forrest could counter him. Wilson did so successfully, with one trooper lost drowned while crossing the Black Warrior.
Union forces arrived at the village of Elyton (present day Birmingham) on March 29, 1865, and destroyed the Mclvain and Red Mountain Ironworks. The morning of the 31st forces reached Montevallo and destroyed the Columbia, Bibb, and Central Ironworks. That same night Wilson orders Croxton’s brigade to Tuscaloosa to “destroy the bridge over the Cahaba River, factories, mills, university, and whatever else might be of value to the Rebel cause.” The destruction which would characterize the “Wilson’s Raiders” was beginning to take shape!
Just outside Montevallo, Wilson’s pickets (no pun intended) reported that the Confederates were moving forward to attack.