Confederates thwart Grant’s plans, force retreat

Published: December 22, 2012


By November 1862, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was preparing his first overland push into Mississippi. This endeavor, known as the Mississippi Central Railroad Campaign, came to a sudden halt, thanks to a general who lost his command and 3,800 Confederate horsemen at Holly Springs.

Grant was ready to strike in the heart of Mississippi thanks to Union victories at Shiloh, Iuka and Corinth. With the Confederates at Grenada, Grant planned to advance through the state, using the Mississippi Central Railroad as a guide.



In doing so, Grant hoped to force Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton to devote part of his army to stop the Federals. While Grant dominated Pemberton’s attention, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman would float down the Mississippi River, taking Vicksburg with little resistance.

Grant chose the town of Holly Springs as his jumping-off point. The town, located along the Mississippi Central Rail line, was inundated with supplies to support Grant’s army of 75,000 men.

While at Holly Springs, Grant chose the home of Col. Harvey W. Walter as his headquarters and even sent for his wife, Julia, and son Jesse to join him in Mississippi. The Union paymaster and quartermaster were also sent to the supposedly safe Holly Springs.

Walter’s home had a distinctive look with Gothic towers, resembling an English castle. The home was empty as Walter was serving in the Confederate army and his wife had allegedly fled Holly Springs.

Meanwhile, Pemberton was looking for a way to stop any advance by Grant. Pemberton had replaced Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn as commander of Confederate forces in Mississippi in October.

While Grant was moving men and material to Holly Springs, Pemberton was meeting with President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in Grenada. In these meetings, a disagreement on how to deal with the Federal threat was born.

Pemberton and Davis strongly believed that Vicksburg was the priority and that the town should be turned into a fortress with an army to protect it. Johnston supported defeating the Federal army wherever they might be instead of defending Vicksburg. This disagreement would continue to play out during the Vicksburg campaign with tragic consequences.

In December 1862, Lt. Col. John Summerfield Griffith devised a plan, using the Confederate cavalry as a quick strike force to attack Grant’s supply line. Pemberton approved not one, but two strikes. Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry would raid Grant’s line at Jackson, Tenn., while Van Dorn hit Holly Springs.

On Dec. 20, 1862, Van Dorn’s cavalry swept into Holly Springs, catching Col. Robert Murphy of the 8th Wisconsin totally by surprise. The Confederates captured 1,500 Federals without firing a shot.

Maj. John Mudd’s 2nd Illinois Cavalry attempted to make a stand, charging into the Confederates. In doing so, Mudd lost 100 men but was able to escape Holly Springs.

The Confederate horsemen were amazed to see the arsenal of supplies at Holly Springs. The Confederates burned 20 to 30 buildings full of Union supplies, trains packed with supplies ready to roll south. Bales of cotton, thousands of barrels of flour and crates of ammunition were also destroyed or sent south.

Both Van Dorn and Forrest’s raids were successful. Grant called for his Army of Tennessee to retreat from Holly Springs, Oxford and Coffeeville, returning to Memphis.

Van Dorn’s men had also cut the telegraph lines. This meant Grant could not get word to Sherman of his setback at Holly Springs. Sherman was on the Mississippi River, soon to deploy his men for an attack on Chickasaw Bayou.

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