In May of 1864, General William T. Sherman started his troops out from near Chattanooga toward Atlanta. The Federal campaign depended on the Nashville & Chattanooga railroad, which was threatened by Confederate cavalry, namely those under General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Sherman directed General Cadwallader C. Washburn, in charge of the Department of West Tennessee, to send a force into Mississippi to divert the attention of Forrest. Washburn put General Samuel D. Sturgis in command of a force of 8,000 men with orders to keep the enemy occupied.
Sturgis moved out of Lafayette, Tennessee, toward Tupelo, Mississippi, on June 2, 1864. The march was marked by heavy rains, mud, and intense heat. On June 10, the Union column approached Brice’s Crossroads, where Forrest executed a devastating flanking maneuver on exhausted Union forces. Union troops barely escaped and staggered back to Memphis, Tennessee.
After Sturgis failed to defeat Forrest, General Andrew Jackson Smith was entrusted by Sherman with taking the fight back into Mississippi, moving out on June 22, 1864, by way of Moscow, Tennessee. General Stephen D. Lee, in command of the Department that included Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, gathered troops to counter the Federal advance. Following days of marching, Union forces achieved a victory in the Battle of Tupelo on July 14, 1864. Forrest had refused to take command of the Southern forces, deferring to Lee, whom he resented. On July 15, Union troops began marching toward Memphis, camping near Old Town Creek, and were again engaged before the Southern troops retreated.
Sherman was pleased with the Union victory, but was displeased that Forrest, though wounded, had escaped. Forrest continued to oversee raids until the end of the war but Sherman and the North still pushed on to Atlanta.