Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest Rides to the Rescue
As one Confederate monument after another is torn from its pedestal, it makes one look back nearly a quarter of a century to a fight in Woodbury over a newly adopted county flag.
For those who wonder why a small county in Tennessee might give a special respectful honor to a man that in modern times has become so polarizing. For whatever he was, to the people of Cannon County in 1862, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a hero.
July 13, 1862 was an important day for Forrest, it was his 41st birthday and he celebrated with the first independent victory of his controversial military career. Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest came knocking on the Rutherford County Courthouse door and liberated a number of citizens who were facing the hangman’s noose. Several were from Woodbury.
Forrest, who was born in nearby Chapel Hill, has been both been mythicized and demonized by history. To followers of the “Lost Cause,” Forrest was a brilliant commander who would have won the war for the Confederacy, if only he had been placed in charge. To his detractors, Forrest was a racist responsible for the worst massacre of the Civil War and is still vilified for his part in the founding the Ku Klux Klan.
Naturally, the truth lies somewhere between.
He departed East Tennessee with the Texas Rangers and the 2nd Georgia Cavalry on July 9, making a forced ride of nearly 50 miles to Altamount. After resting a night at Altamont, the troopers headed for McMinnville where they were joined on the 11th by Morrison’s cavalry and two companies of Tennessee troops and the 100 Kentuckians.
Now totaling some 1,400 men, the unit departed for Murfreesboro on June 12, only stopping to feed horses and men late that night in Woodbury. A state historic marker “Forrest Rested Here,” marks the stop on the eastern side of Woodbury.
There Forrest was approached by many of the female residents of Woodbury who informed the colonel that most of the town’s men had been taken prisoner the previous night by Union troops who charged them with giving aid to the Confederate army.
While briefly resting in Woodbury, Forrest reassured the women that their men would be home the following night. He told his troopers July 13 was his 41st birthday and that they would celebrate by a victory in Murfreesboro. By this time, his scouts had informed the cavalry commander that Murfreesboro was occupied by the 9th Michigan and 3rd Minnesota infantry, a portion of the 7th Pennsylvania cavalry and an artillery battery consisting of four cannons.
The Confederates rode the 18 miles to Murfreesboro, arriving at the outskirts of town at about 4:30 a.m.
Using deception, Forrest’s vanguard took out the 15 Union pickets without a shot being fired by pretending to be part of the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry arriving for duty. The cavalry surrounded the Union soldiers and took them prisoner with drawn pistols. No shots were fired and no alert was given.
Colt Navy revolvers were the preferred weapons of the Confederate troopers along with shotguns, which gave them a definite advantage in firepower in close combat situations. Forrest didn’t like sabers, believing them to be a rattling nuisance.
The Union forces were in three positions with the largest detachment at Oaklands, another downtown at the Square and a third across town near Stones River. That third unit, the 3rd Minnesota was 500 men strong with four pieces of artillery.
It was Forrest’s intention to catch them all sleeping. And he did.
In columns of four, the Confederates rode quietly into town. Forrest directed the Texas to assault the Michigan/Pennsylvania troops near Oaklands. The Georgia cavalry was to ride full bore through town and position themselves between the Minnesota forces and town. Forrest was to personally lead Morrison’s battalion against the forces downtown.
Just as day was breaking, the Texas Rangers were poised within sight of the Union tents. When the command was given, they charged, rousing the sleeping Pennsylvania cavalrymen. Some of them were killed, but most were captured.
The 9th Michigan was better prepared and was quick to offer resistance to the Texans. Col. W.W. Duffield stepped from his tent and rallied his men until he was seriously wounded by Col. Wharton, who was then shot down. Duffield, shot in the groin and left thigh, led the defense until he passed out from loss of blood. Lt. Col John G. Parkhurst reorganized and repositioned the Federal troops behind a cedar fence, which was strengthened with wagons and hay bales.
Heavy fire from the Texas Rangers kept the Michigan troops penned down and unable to come to the assistance of the other Union troops.
Lewis Maney, his wife, Adeline, and their children watched the clash from an upstairs window at Oaklands.
Meanwhile, Morrison’s battalion, in Forrest’s direct command, charged downtown where they discovered the jail on fire where a number of area men were being held. Several of them had been condemned to hang on the 13th, including a Baptist minister and four of his neighbors and Confederate Capt. William Richardson, who penned an account of the raid.
Flames were high when Rebel troopers forced open the jail door and dragged the prisoners out. Forrest personally checked their condition.
Richardson wrote he would “never forget the appearance of General Forrest on that occasion; his eyes were flashing as if on fire, his face deeply flushed, and he seemed in a condition of great excitement.”
While the Confederates went door to door downtown looking for Federal officers, the remaining provost officers took refuge on the second floor of the Courthouse, which was very easily defended. From their perch, the Union troops were able to pepper any Rebel within range.
In response, Forrest ordered his troops to assault the courthouse from all four sides, batter down the doors and take the garrison. After two or three hours fight, he ordered the courthouse set on fire. The Union troops quickly surrendered.
Brig. Gen. T.T. Crittenden was captured along with his staff. Local legend says Crittenden was discovered hiding under a bed.
With downtown Murfreesboro under Confederate control, Forrest then acted to capture the remaining units near Oaklands and outside of town close to Grantland, the home of the Murfree family (near the modern intersection of Medical Center Parkway and Broad Street.)
The 3rd Minnesota immediately formed into lines after hearing the clatter of small arms fire downtown, but they had moved only 400 yards when spotting Lawton’s Georgia cavalry. Held in check, the Minnesota troops plinked at the Confederates from long distance using the four-
Accessing the situation, Forrest led a small detachment around the Minnesotans and attacked their base camp. Now the troops under Col. Lester could neither advance nor retreat.
He then turned to subterfuge.
Riding back into town Forrest sent a flag of truce to Duffield and Parkhurst in their strong position near Oaklands.
Forrest told the two colonels that the remaining Union troops had surrendered (they hadn’t) and he was concentrating his entire force on their position. He demanded unconditional surrender or he would put every man to the sword.
Duffield and Parkhurst, both seriously wounded, discussed the offer and accepted it, surrendering at noon.
Forrest left enough men to guard those troops and then trotted back across town with the remainder of his troops.
He then used the same ruse on Colonel Lester. Forrest sent a flag of truce forward with this message:
Lester asked to consult with Duffield and was immediately taken, under escort, downtown where the dog and pony show continued with Forrest constantly rotating units so it appeared he had far greater numbers. After seeing Duffield and his surrendered men, Lester immediately capitulated.
Nathan Bedford Forrest had captured Murfreesboro, saved a number of Cannon County citizens, and started building his legend.
“Murfreesborough, July 13, 1862
Colonel – I must demand an unconditional surrender of your force as prisoners of war, or I will have every man put to the sword. You are aware of the overpowering force I have at my command, and this demand is made to prevent the effusion of blood. I am, Colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,