Submitted by C.J. Johnson
In Union General William T. Sherman’s Meridian Campaign, Union cavalry under the command of General William “Sooy” Smith was ordered to move from Memphis to the Meridian area. After he delayed his movements for more than a week, Smith and his 7,000 men finally left Memphis on February 11, and moved down the Mobile and Ohio Railroad to the area of West Point, MS. They were met by Rebel forces under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The National Park Service continues the story, “Destroying crops and railroad track along the way, Smith’s force met almost no opposition, and, before long, 1,000 former slaves were traveling with them… Smith neared West Point, 90 miles north of Meridian, on the 20th, and he fought with Confederate cavalry units at Prairie Station and Aberdeen.
Smith…not knowing how many of the enemy he faced, decided to concentrate at Prairie Station, and, on the morning of the 21st, he set out for West Point. Shortly after dawn on the 21st, Col. Jeffrey Forrest’s Confederate cavalry brigade engaged Smith. Withdrawing at times, Forrest drew Smith into a swamp west of the Tombigbee River. Other Rebel troops arrived and the fighting intensified.
Smith was sure that this was a trap set for him, and, discerning that he was greatly outnumbered, he ordered a retreat, leaving a rearguard. The rearguard held off the Confederates for about two hours before withdrawing in good order. About the same time, Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest arrived and ordered a pursuit. Skirmishing occurred the rest of the day.
At sunup on the 22nd, the Rebels attacked Smith just south of Okolona on the prairie. More Confederate troops arrived, causing breaks in the Union battle line, precipitating a retreat. For most of the rest of the day, they engaged in a running battle for a distance of eleven miles, with both sides attacking and counterattacking.
Col. [Jeffrey] Forrest was killed during one Rebel charge. The Yankees finally broke off the fighting and headed for Pontotoc. Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the commander on the field, realized that his men were nearly out of ammunition and did not order a pursuit. Mississippi militia harassed Smith to the state line.
Smith arrived in Collierville, Tennessee, near Memphis, on the 26th. Although Smith had caused much destruction during his expedition, [the continuing cavalry battle from West Point through] Okolona forced him to retire before he could do more.” Smith did not join up with Sherman in Meridian and Sherman returned to Vicksburg.
Casualties were relatively low, with the majority of casualties suffered by the Union side. While the Confederates fought with a Federal force several times the size of the Rebel army, the battles of West Point and Okolona helped to end Sherman’s expedition into Alabama. The fighting also raised Southern morale and further elevated the reputation and legend of Nathan Bedford Forrest.