Not Seen Since the Days of Bull Run: Forrest's First at the Battle of Sacramento
Updated: Dec 28, 2018
Nathan Bedford Forrest is one of the most well known personalities from the Civil War, and when it comes to remembering the man who took a near legendary status, he is usually loved or hated. Whether you love the man or hate him, there can be no denying his effectiveness as a cavalry commander. Without a doubt he was one of the best, if not THE best, cavalry leaders of the entire war. The legendary status is deserved. But like all legends, this one had a beginning that began his journey down that path. That beginning was the Battle of Sacramento.
By December 1861, the Confederate army under General Albert Sidney Johnston had moved into southern Kentucky and occupied Bowling Green, making it the Confederate capital of Kentucky. Due west was another important town, Hopkinsville, where another few thousand troops were posted. Forrest and his cavalry regiment were part of the force at this place, and was mostly being used to scout and reconnoiter. Forrest’s command was quite unique. Officially, he commanded the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry, but it was more of a hodgepodge of men from multiple states. The companies of the regiment consisted of men from Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and even Texas. Usually the regiment was simply referred as Forrest’s Cavalry Regiment.
As far as arms go, most of the men were armed like the typical Confederate cavalryman of the early war. Shotguns, antique rifles, the occasional cavalry saber, and so on. But when reading Forrest’s reports, it is evident that many of the men were fortunate to have possessed Maynard Carbines and Sharps Rifles. This would give Forrest’s men a distinct advantage when tangling with the newly recruited Federal cavalry, many of whom were still not fully equipped.
On December 26, 1861, Forrest departed Hopkinsville toward the Green River region near Calhoun, Kentucky. Encamped at Calhoun was General Thomas L. Crittenden’s Federal division with nearly 10,000 men, many of them active in the surrounding area. Crittenden’s force was believed to be the one that would spearhead an advance on Bowling Green. Forrest was to ride north and keep watch for any such movements. Greenville, Kentucky was his first stop and was halfway between Hopkinsville and the Federals at Calhoun. Here, Forrest was joined by another small detachment, 40 men of the 8th Tennessee Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. James W. Starnes. This addition bolstered Forrest’s numbers to around 300. From here, Forrest deemed it necessary to push on toward Rumsey, Kentucky, directly across the Green River from Calhoun and the Federal encampment.
At this point, he sent his two chief scouts, Adam Rankin Johnson and Robert M. Martin ahead of the column toward Rumsey to view the movements of the enemy. Johnson recalled, “Pushing forward, when we reached Rumsey we ascertained that the enemy had built a pontoon bridge and were crossing their cavalry. Thereupon, I returned to report to Colonel Forrest, while Martin remained in the vicinity to observe the movements of the enemy.”
What the two men had observed was a battalion of the 3rd Kentucky Cavalry of the Union Army. Most of these men were from the area and adjoining counties. However, the 3rd was not the only Federal regiment there. Calhoun was a busy little town on the Green River in 1861, much different than its original state before the war. The small town with only a population of about 500 citizens was soon quickly swallowed up by the nearly 10,000 Federal troops that now encamped there for the winter. The 11th, 12th, 17th, 25th, and 26th Kentucky Infantry Regiments were joined by the 31st, 42nd, 43rd, 44th Indiana Infantry Regiments, plus artillery from the 6th Indiana and a Kentucky Light Artillery batteries. Calhoun was an excellent location for Crittenden’s future movements. It sat on a high point on the Green River, the river itself was an important navigable waterway for supplies, and within easy striking distance of Hopkinsville or Bowling Green. The camp was also infested with sickness and disease. One Indiana regiment reported that only 300 of its command could be found well enough for dress parade, and the 26th Kentucky was burying men every day. The few houses used for hospitals were constantly full.
The 3rd Kentucky was also very active in the area, and were routinely sent south of the Green to patrol and seek out any Confederate force that might be in the near. In this case, they had moved to the vicinity of South Carrollton, a small village south on the Green River. There they found no Rebels and on the 28th, were near their return to Calhoun through Sacramento. This being from the report of General Crittenden does stand in contrast to the account written by Johnson nearly 50 years later. Whatever the case, the two sides were about to collide in what would become a brutal cavalry battle.
As the 3rd rode northward, Murray split his column into two wings. One went through the small village of Sacramento, while the other moved around through the woods just west of town. Adam Johnson relayed his information of the Union presence to Forrest, and the news excited nearly every single Confederate horseman. “The news that the Federals were not far away, and that a combat was imminent seemed to send a thrill of pleasure through the entire command, for these young warriors already felt in anticipation ‘the rapture of the fight.’ When the order ‘Gallop!’ was given, the men who rode the fleetest steeds impetuously crowded to the front. As I looked back at this confused body of riders, each rushing to meet the foe first, a fearful, sickening dread came over me which I well recall to this day, and I almost presumed to call Forrest’s attention to this disorderly mass of men galloping pell mell at break-neck speed…” The wild ride of the untested Confederates was noticed by Forrest. “...it was impossible to repress jubilant and defiant shouts, which reached the height of enthusiasm…”
While the Rebels jubilantly raced northward, the patrol of the 3rd Kentucky was spotted by two young citizens of Sacramento, Mollie and Betsy Morehead as they returned from morning errands. They had also seen the approaching Confederate force and immediately rode south to meet them. Before the wild riding could alert the Federals of their presence, the girls appeared in front of the advancing column. "Suddenly there came into view a young woman on a bare-back horse, wildly dashing up, frantically waving her hat, while her long hair was flying in the wind like a pennant, and her cheeks were afire with excitement as she exclaimed: ‘There the Yankees are! Right over there!’ pointing back over the hill whence she had just galloped." Forrest also writes of Mollie Morehead in his post battle report, “A beautiful young lady, smiling, with untied tresses floating in the breeze, on horseback, met the column just before our advance guard came up with the rear of the enemy, infusing nerve into my arm and kindling knightly chivalry within my heart.”
Forrest immediately sent Johnson forward again to find their exact location. He saw the Federals forming into a V shape line with a section on the road. As Johnson returned he found Forrest trying to convince the girls to retire as the fight was about to commence. Johnson relates that he expected Forrest to reign in his men and form an orderly advance, but the opposite rather happened. The men continued to wildly advance, and came upon the rear guard of the 3rd Kentucky at a location just south of Sacramento called Garst’s Pond. Some of the Federals were watering their horses, and in the confusion of the early war era, were unsure if the approaching cavalry were friend or foe. The confusion was ended however when a shot broke the stillness of the air.
Was it a careless private that fired this shot? One might think that firing without any sort of orders or a plan would be the work of such a soldier. But then again, when discussing Forrest and his aggressiveness, should it come as a surprise that Forrest himself actually fired the first shot? “Taking a Maynard rifle, I fired at them, when they rode off rapidly to their column.” The Confederates quickly pursued. Forrest relates that his men made a push toward the Federal line that was forming just south of town. His men had exchanged only about three rounds with the Federals when Forrest realized that only a portion of his command had been able to engage the 3rd Kentucky, who he wrote “showed signs of fight.” He pulled back to the main force. Murray took this regrouping as a retreat, and began an advance of his own, throwing out a section of his command to flank on the Confederate left. The remainder appeared to be forming for a general attack. Forrest at once dismounted some of his men to make use of his superior firepower. “I dismounted a number of men with Sharps carbines and Maynard rifles to act as sharpshooters…” Forrest then ordered flank attacks of his own on the left and right, and then charged the center with the remainder of the mounted men. During this charge, Captain Merriwether was struck by two bullets to the head and was killed on the field.
Though outnumbered and with risk to his flanks, the teenaged Major Murray still attempted a stand. The Union troops Initially repelled the Confederate charge and traded shots for about ten minutes. In reporting this part of the fight, General Crittenden criticizes an unknown Federal trooper. “I have from many reliable witnesses, would have repulsed them, but at this critical moment some dastard unknown shouted, ‘Retreat to Sacramento!’ The route was on as the majority of the men fled, despite the efforts of the officers." The ensuing flight took them right through the town of Sacramento, where some Southern sympathizing citizens took the opportunity to fire on the retreating Yankees.
Forrest and other Confederate horseman began to catch up with groups of Federals that still attempted some sort of resistance while the remainder fled in wild confusion. Forrest soon found himself in close combat with two Union officers and one enlisted man. Johnson writes, “the latter shooting a ball through his collar, and Forrest quieting him with a pistol-shot just as the two officers made an attack upon him with their swords, which he eluded by bending his supple body forward, their weapons only grazing his shoulder. The impetus of his horse carrying him a few paces forward, he checked and drew him a little to one side and shot one of his antagonists as his horse galloped up, and thrust his saber into the other.” The severely wounded officers fell from their mounts, who then proceeded to crash into each other. These frightened animals tripped up Forrest’s horse, throwing him off his saddle. Johnson mentions that Forrest’s horse was badly crippled, so he grabbed one of the riderless Union mounts and brought it to his commander.
During the melee, or “a promiscuous saber slaughter of their rear” as Forrest put it, several men from both sides met in close combat. Captain Arthur Davis of the 3rd Kentucky used his sword to kill Private William Terry of Forrest’s command. Davis was then obliged to quit his horse, causing the dislocation of his shoulder. With only one good arm left, and without a mount, Davis was forced to surrender. The Evansville Daily Journal reported that several of the Confederate soldiers mistook Captain Albert Bacon as Colonel James S. Jackson, the commander of the entire 3rd Kentucky regiment who was not present at the fight, and moved in and surrounded him. Other sources say that Bacon shot and missed Forrest who returned fire, wounding Bacon who also fell from his horse. Bacon refused the demands of surrender and fought to the death. Forrest related in his report, “At this point Captain Bacon, and but a little before Captain Burges, were run through with saber thrusts…” It is possible that Bacon was not killed outright, but rather died shortly after the fight had concluded as Forrest reports that Bacon and Burges were taken to nearby farm houses and made as comfortable as possible. One Union private from Bacon’s company was dismounted from his horse during the fight and fled to the safety of the woods. He later located Bacon at the farmhouse and found that Bacon was still alive. Bacon was able to direct the soldier on his property after his death and then breathed his last. The Confederates left him with his side arms as he requested.
Bacon and Davis commanded a small impromptu squad that put up fierce resistance, as is evident. The Evansville Daily Journal reported that the small group of men repeatedly had to hack and cut their way out of being surrounded by Rebels. They also noted that the Confederates “spoke in the highest terms of the little band who caused them such a bitter fight to overpower.” Some stories here also are evidence of the poor weapons, most likely only pistols and sabers with which the men of the 3rd Kentucky were armed. “Another one of the privates who had a personal encounter with one of the rebels, took deliberate aim at him, and shot him right in the breast. The rebel yelled, ‘shoot again you d--d rascal, your pistol ain't worth a G-d d--d.’ He burst into tears and said the d--d rebel shot at me, and now my pistol won't kill him.”
Adam Johnson relates in his memoir that it was at this point, after the Federals had ran, that he came back across Robert Martin. Martin was coming out of the woods leading a horse, with a belt full of pistols. “‘Hello Bob; what have you been doing?’
‘I’ve been trying to get even with a fellow that stole my horse-- old Beauregard,’ he replied laughingly, meaning the high headed, slender limbed gray horse he had lost.
‘Well, here is his horse, this is his pistol, and this is his gun,’ he said as he smiled.
‘What became of the Yank?’
‘I left him over yonder in that strip of woods you see to the left of that road.’"
The Federals were completely broken and were making a mad dash back to the safety of the pontoon boats and Camp Calhoun. Forrest’s men made an aggressive pursuit beyond Sacramento for nearly two miles at full speed. After the hand-to-hand combat, the Union troops began dropping weapons to increase the speed of their mounts. Forrest decided to call off the chase as his horses were beginning to wear down, and they would need them should General Crittenden send out a fresh force. “Returning, we found the dead and wounded in every direction. Those who were able to be moved we placed in wagons.” He then began his move back towards Greenville, having stirred a hornet’s nest.
Murray’s troopers did not stop riding till they reached Camp Calhoun. “The panic-stricken troopers were most terribly frightened. When they came in sight of the camps at Calhoun, they paid no attention to the picket guards, but rushed over the bridge, regardless of sentinels and everything else, and never drew rein until they were in the midst of the camp and surrounded by excited soldiers. It appears to have been a scare unrivaled since the days of Bull Run.” They also reported that the men were covered in mud and blood, and exhausted with fatigue. To the casual reader, it would appear that the 3rd Kentucky was caught up in a cowardly retreat in the face of the enemy. Major Murray refuted these claims, and did not place any blame on the men he had commanded. He later stated that he would take the same men into combat again with odds against them. “We here all know that the regiment is made up of fighting material, as they have proved it on several occasions.”
The Federal division was put into motion by General Crittenden once he learned of the perceived disaster. The rest of the 3rd Kentucky was put on alert and formed and ready to move at a moment’s notice. The 26th Kentucky Infantry was also called to arms, including the company of Captain Gabriel Netter and their Colt rifles. At 10:00 that night, Colonel James Jackson led the combined cavalry and infantry force of about 500 men across the pontoons toward the vicinity of Sacramento. His orders were to collect stragglers and the wounded, and if he found the enemy, to “bead them up.” Jackson was not to be pulled into a long pursuit of the enemy. On the 29th, General Crittenden himself rode out with an escort to Sacramento to see the scene of the fight himself, and to check in on Colonel Jackson. Upon his arrival, he discovered Jackson burying the dead, six. He also reported that five or six were so badly wounded that they could not be moved back to Calhoun. Crittenden also commented on the state of arms of the men in Jackson’s regiment. “The rebels are thoroughly and well armed, and Jackson’s men are badly armed, and, what is worse, have no confidence in their pistols. I know that you will remedy this as soon as possible.”
The casualties of the battle can be difficult to account for, as both sides give very different numbers. Murray and Crittenden reported that the Federals lost only eight killed with some wounded, and a small number missing. They claim to have killed and wounded at least three wagon loads of Confederates, with only giving one confirmed death in Captain Merriwether. Forrest reports a much higher number of Union dead and places the figure at 65 killed and 35 wounded and prisoners, while his own stand at two killed and three wounded. Since the Union regiments were still in the process of recruiting, it is possible that the Union casualty figures could be slightly off, but it is safe to say that they were nowhere near the figures reported by Forrest.
Murray might have been embarrassed after the rout of his patrol. But for an 18 year old officer to face off with Nathan Bedford Forrest, though unknown at the time, and come out of the fray to fight another day can be considered an accomplishment. Murray’s superiors gushed their praise of the boy to their superiors, and Murray eventually commanded the entire regiment. As the war progressed, he continued to rise in command and ended the war a brigadier general.
Clearly this small, and seemingly insignificant fight, cemented the aggressive fighting style of Nathan Bedford Forrest. He would be equally as combative less than two months later at Fort Donelson, and his other numerous cavalry raids into Tennessee and Kentucky. It is also the first time Forrest showed that he would lead from the front, and fight the enemy himself. Forrest’s legendary status was about to take off.