Thursday, September 7, 2023

Review - " Outwitting Forrest: The Tupelo Campaign in Mississippi, June 22 - July 23, 1864 " by Edwin Bearss, ed. by David Powell

[Outwitting Forrest: The Tupelo Campaign in Mississippi, June 22 - July 23, 1864 by Edwin C. Bearss, ed. by David A. Powell (Savas Beatie, 2023). Hardcover, 6 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,174/191. ISBN:978-1-61121-670-7. $29.95]

Before his stint as a featured commentator on Ken Burns's award-winning Civil War television series vaulted him into wider public recognition and before he became a well-known preservation advocate and legendary battlefield tour leader, the incomparable Edwin Cole Bearss researched and authored a slew of manuscripts and journal articles covering Civil War campaigns and battles fought across all three major theaters. During a time when modern maps, at least detailed ones, were generally neglected, Bearss made them a priority in his work. His magnum opus, a three-volume history of the Vicksburg campaign, has received multiple printings, but other significant book-length studies written during the Park Service historian's early and middle career periods unfortunately languish in unpublished form or were released only in obscure, small-run printings. An example of the latter is his groundbreaking 1969 survey The Tupelo Campaign, June 22-July 23. A Documented Narrative & Troop Movement Maps. However, courtesy of publisher Savas Beatie and editor David Powell, that is no longer the case, with Bearss's Tupelo manuscript, retitled Outwitting Forrest: The Tupelo Campaign in Mississippi, June 22 - July 23, 1864, the latest release from SB's Battles & Leaders series.

Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest's shocking rout of Union general Samuel Sturgis's large combined-arms column at Brice's Crossroads on June 10, 1864 almost immediately caused shaken, yet still determined, Union authorities to fit out another even stronger expedition for a renewed drive into northern Mississippi. Led by A.J. Smith, a well-regarded fighting general, and consisting of a corp-sized infantry element backed by powerful cavalry and artillery forces, this new campaign hit the road less than a month after Sturgis's defeat. That expedition, and its signature battle fought at Tupelo, Mississippi, is the central focus of this study.

Readers familiar with Bearss's style of presentation, spare in language but thorough in intelligibly written operational and tactical narrative accompanied by sound strategic commentary, will find the same in this government-sponsored manuscript. Supported by new maps created at the appropriate scale, the text follows the paths of opposing forces in northern Mississippi across roughly two weeks of marching, skirmishing, and fighting, those sequence of events culminating in a sharply fought battle at Harrisburg/Tupelo on July 14 and a lesser engagement at Old Town Creek the following day. The "Outwitting Forrest" aspect of the book title adopted by the publisher likely refers to Smith's 'stolen march' that resulted in Union forces successfully bypassing Forrest's roadblock established southeast of Pontotoc. Smith's skillful lateral redeployment from Pontotoc to Tupelo successfully fended off multiple Confederate attempts at interdicting the march. As a result, the bluecoats were able to reach the Mobile & Ohio Railroad in force, a goal of the campaign, and establish a strong defensive perimeter around Tupelo. On July 14, Smith's command delivered a bloody repulse to the attacking Confederate cavalry under the direction of department commander S.D. Lee and principal subordinate Forrest. However, after Smith, complaining about dwindling supplies and ammunition problems, abruptly abandoned his campaign and returned to Tennessee, both sides laid claim to overall victory.

Contemporary critics and modern observers alike generally agree that the best use of Forrest's cavalry during this period lay in raiding Sherman's supply lines. Agreeing with that line of thinking, Bearss determines that S.D. Lee's decision as Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana commander to concentrate his considerable mounted forces for the defense of Mississippi instead of using them to operate against the enemy lines of supply and communication supporting Sherman's army group in Georgia was a clear mistake. One can certainly use that (as Bearss does) as an example of Lee lacking strategic vision, but, to be fair, most Civil War department commanders were understandably hesitant to strip the defenses of their own geographic area of responsibility by sending their best troops well beyond departmental boundaries. Strongest criticism might perhaps be more appropriately levied against President Davis and his War Department for declining to intervene, and Bearss's text also condemns Davis's inaction on this matter.

In his usual fashion, Bearss does not inappropriately stretch the documentary evidence in support of taking sides in controversies associated with the battle. After Smith placed his superior command in favorable defensive positions west and south of Tupelo, it was incontestably Forrest-like for that general to want to wait Smith out and then hit the federals after circumstances forced the bluecoats to resume movement. However, Lee was in charge and felt keenly pressured by the situation in his department to attack immediately. As Bearss relates in the book, primary sources are in conflict regarding Forrest's level of enthusiasm for attacking Smith's strong position at Tupelo. Similarly, what motivation(s) lay behind Forrest declining Lee's offer to command all Confederate forces during the battle has been a subject of long debate. Here again, Bearss presents the evidence as he sees it and leaves it to his readers, if they so choose, to engage in speculation. Given the typical result of Civil War cavalry assaulting well-formed infantry, it becomes difficult to imagine any scenario in which Forrest and Lee's outnumbered cavalry could have overcome Smith's veterans compactly positioned behind temporary breastworks and backed by plentiful artillery and strong cavalry on the flanks. Brice's Crossroads provided some precedent in terms of force mix, but the two battlefield situations were very different. Regardless of how one characterizes the high command interaction of Lee and Forrest (who generally got along well together), as Bearss explains, the Confederate attack proceeded in piecemeal fashion and to neither general's credit. The result was a badly directed battle from the Confederate side and a terrible decimation of irreplaceable officers and manpower in four brigades. In the author's view, those brigades permanently lost their offensive capabilities, a significant impact.

Three additional chapters at the rear of the book cover a series of Union diversionary operations in Central Mississippi. Most significantly, General Henry Slocum pushed a division-strength raiding column well beyond the Big Black River (at one point reoccupying Jackson and destroying the rebuilt railroad bridge over Pearl River). In another, General Alfred Ellet conducted an inland expedition into Jefferson and Claiborne counties. All of these early to mid-July raiding operations are described by Bearss in some detail. As the author astutely observes, their significance is primarily attached to their fixing Confederate defenders in place and withholding possible reinforcements for Forrest. Through influencing Lee's determination to immediately attack at Tupelo, those events, especially Slocum's movements, greatly affected the course of events in northern Mississippi. Finally, in fulfillment of his government directive, Bearss concludes the study with his professional recommendations regarding interpretation of the Tupelo site.

David Powell edits the manuscript with a restrained hand, his supplemental footnotes largely confined to providing capsule biographies of a number of general and field grade officers mentioned in the text. Occasionally, additional historiographical context is added, an example of that being some comparisons between Bearss's text and corresponding views and conclusions found in the most thorough and up to date modern treatment of the campaign, Tom Parson's Work for Giants: The Campaign and Battle of Tupelo / Harrisburg, Mississippi, June-July 1864 (2014). Though it would be unfair to compare too closely works researched and written nearly a half-century apart, Bearss and Parson do share a number of opinions and interpretations in regard to the quality of opposing generalship, their decision-making during the campaign, and the overall significance of events that July. Obviously, if you can only read one book on the campaign you have to go with the very impressive Work For Giants, but Parson generously credits Bearss's trailblazing work as having a profound influence on his own. For those who already have Bearss's Forrest at Brice's Crossroads [Morningside (1979, R-1987)], the middle section of which covers the Tupelo Campaign, and are curious about similarities between it and the 1969 manuscript, there are numerous shared elements (i.e. very similarly written passages), but both text and overall coverage are not exactly the same. One notable difference is the absence in the 1979 book of the chapters addressing the Slocum and Ellet raids that, as mentioned before, so strongly influenced Lee's mindset at Tupelo.

A decade ago, Savas Beatie and editor Bryce Suderow made widely available for the first time two volumes of Bearss's previously unpublished Petersburg Campaign writings. Through the continued efforts of SB and now David Powell, in Outwitting Forrest we now have another seminal Bearss study finally achieving general access through wider publication. Hopefully, there's more to come.


  1. Really appreciate you taking the time and trouble to review this so thoroughly, Drew. It was a pleasure to get published, something I had long wanted to do. -- Ted Savas

  2. Thanks, Drew, for the nice review and the bandwidth to highlight Ed's work. This book so deserved to reach a wider audience. - Dave Powell

    1. It does hold up well. You picked a good one to be a part of.


***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.