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In late spring and early summer of 1862, the fighting in northern Mississippi centered on the small town of Booneville. Besides being a station on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, Booneville became, after the Confederate withdrawal from Corinth, the advance outpost of the Union army in the Magnolia State. It was there that ‘Little Phil’ Sheridan won his brigadier’s star.

On May 27, 1862, Captain Philip Sheridan’s fortunes took a sudden leap forward. For five months he had toiled as a supply officer in one rear-echelon capacity or another. In one eventful day he moved from being an inconspicuous staff officer to commanding his own regiment. It was the beginning of a legendary career.

When the U.S. War Department promoted Colonel Gordon Granger to brigadier general, the 2nd Michigan Cavalry needed a new commanding officer. Governor Austin Blair of Michigan, hoping to avoid having to make the choice himself, wanted the new commander to be a professional soldier, as Granger was. Blair was traveling with the Union armies besieging Corinth, and learned about Sheridan from Captain Russell A. Alger and Lieutenant Frank Walbridge, a regimental quartermaster who knew Sheridan well.

On the 27th, Alger and Walbridge rode all night to hand-deliver a telegram to Sheridan issued by the Michigan adjutant general: ‘Captain Philip H. Sheridan is hereby appointed Colonel of the Second Regiment Michigan Cavalry to rank from this date.’ Sheridan had been seeking just such a combat position for several months, but his commander, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, found him more valuable as a supply officer. The Ohio-bred Sheridan was with the army at that time only because he had persuaded Halleck’s assistant adjutant general — an old friend — to order him to join the army in the field near Shiloh, Tenn. Halleck, in fact, thought Sheridan was still in Illinois buying horses.

With the telegram in hand, Sheridan eagerly went to see his commanding general. War Department policy prohibited Regular Army officers from commanding volunteer units without Department approval, because Regulars were believed to be too strict for volunteer soldiers to abide. Citing that policy, Halleck refused to authorize Sheridan’s promotion.

The dejected Sheridan returned to his quarters with the news. Alger and Walbridge convinced him to try again. ‘Enlarging on my desire for active service with troops, and urging the utter lack of such opportunity where I was, I pleaded my cause until General Halleck finally resolved to take the responsibility of letting me go without consulting the War Department,’ Sheridan wrote in his memoirs. When Sheridan thanked him, the general told him to hurry to join the 2nd Michigan because the regiment was about to go on a raid behind the Confederate lines.

During the six weeks since the Battle of Shiloh, three Union armies had closed in on the strategic rail center of Corinth, Miss. Major General John Pope, the commander of the Army of the Mississippi on the Union left, expected the Confederates to withdraw at any time. Granger, now commanding Pope’s cavalry division, ordered Colonel Washington Elliott to take his 2nd Cavalry Brigade around Corinth to strike the Mobile & Ohio Railroad about 22 miles below Corinth at Booneville.

Sheridan arrived at the 2nd Michigan Cavalry’s bivouac near Farmington around 8 p.m. He immediately summoned the regiment’s officers to introduce himself. Between midnight and 1 o’clock, the bugles signaled that it was time to ride. Sheridan rode to war wearing an infantry captain’s uniform with a pair of ‘well-worn’ colonel’s eagles given him by Granger.

The 2nd Cavalry Brigade consisted of the 2nd Iowa and the 2nd Michigan. With Elliott commanding the brigade, Lt. Col. Edward Hatch commanded his old regiment.

The hilly countryside around Corinth was not well-suited to cavalry operations. Accordingly, the cavalry found itself restricted to roads or railroad tracks. Elliott’s brigade rode southeast through very rough country toward Yellow Creek. Crossing at the main ford, the brigade reached the Memphis & Charleston Railroad two miles west of Iuka late the next evening.

By then the Confederates knew that the Union cavalry was on the move. Colonel William R. Bradfute commanded a cavalry outpost at Jacinto, midway between Iuka and Booneville. In the evening, a company arrived from Iuka with news of Elliott’s column. Bradfute deployed the few cavalry units under his command at Booneville. He placed Lt. Col. Robert McCulloch’s Arkansas cavalry and one company of Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s regiment in Booneville on the west side of the railroad so that it commanded the road by which the enemy would approach. He put Lt. Col. Charles McNairy’s Tennessee Battalion 1 1/2 miles below Booneville on the east side of the railroad. All told, he had about 400 men to defend the town.

At dawn on the 29th, Elliott’s brigade started forward again, this time riding southwest through country filled with swamps. About 3 o’clock the next morning, the Union cavalry arrived at the outskirts of Booneville.

While Bradfute thought he had enough men to defend the town, most of the defenders had already left. He confronted McCulloch about the disappearance of his battalion the next day. ‘I asked him why he did not remain in his position overnight,’ Bradfute said. ‘He reported that Colonel Orr had ordered him to move his command to the railroad bridge by order of General [P.G.T.] Beauregard.’

Booneville was more than just another place on the railroad. Stranded there was a fully loaded supply train bulging with artillery, arms and ammunition. The train had been scheduled to leave 48 hours earlier, but had been delayed by what General Beauregard, Johnston’s second in command, termed ‘mismanagement.’

Because the main Confederate force lay behind them, Hatch tried to cut communications between Booneville and Corinth. Upon arrival, he sent a lieutenant with a six-man detail to cut the telegraph line. They tried twice to destroy the wire, but both times they were run off by alert Confederate cavalry.

At dawn on the 30th Elliott deployed his two regiments about a quarter mile from the Confederate camp. Hatch’s regiment was on the right, with Sheridan’s to the left and a little behind the 2nd Iowa.

Elliott advanced his regiments in two columns, after leaving part of each regiment behind as a reserve. Hatch was directed to take half the 2nd Iowa straight into Booneville, while Sheridan took half the 2nd Michigan to burn a bridge on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad south of town.

Hatch cut the telegraph wire and tore up the railroad with one squadron while another advanced over the railroad. The few healthy Confederate troops remaining in town immediately surrendered. Also captured were 2,000 sick and wounded Confederates.

Hatch reported later that his men had also destroyed ‘13,000 stand of arms, equipments for 10,000 men, and an immense amount of stores and ammunition.’ He also noted, ‘Some of our men, going too far from us in their zeal to destroy, were attacked — killed, wounded, or taken prisoners.’

Beauregard told a different story, writing to his superiors in Richmond: ‘I regret to add that the enemy also burned the railroad depot, in which were at the moment a number of dead bodies and at least four sick soldiers of this army, who were consumed — an act of barbarism scarcely credible and without a precedent to my knowledge in civilized warfare.’

Sheridan’s men rode rapidly to the railroad, then down it 1 1/2 miles without discovering any bridges or culverts to destroy. The nearest bridge was at Baldwin, nine miles farther down the track, but a report said that three Confederate regiments and a battery guarded it. Sheridan gave orders to destroy the railroad at four different places. ‘I concluded that I could best accomplish the purpose for which I had been detached — crippling the road — by tearing up the tracks, bending the rails, and burning the cross-ties,’ he reported. ‘This was begun with alacrity at four different points, officers and men vieing [sic] with one another in the laborious work of destruction.’ Since they had few tools, they accomplished this destruction by lifting the track from its bed, turning it over, and subjecting it to heat from burning fence rails.

By then, Bradfute knew of the Union attack. Pickets arrived at McNairy’s bivouac with word that Union cavalry was in Booneville, something the Confederate colonel did not understand, since he thought that McCulloch still held the town. Alarmed, Bradfute led McNairy’s battalion toward Booneville. En route, he came across a column of sick Confederates being marched to Iuka under guard. He routed the Federals and followed them as they retreated toward the railroad.

The Confederate troopers soon stumbled upon the Union reserve. Captain Archibald Campbell had dismounted part of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry, and Bradfute believed that about 300 troopers faced him in line of battle, while another 1,000 mounted men waited in reserve behind them. He decided that the best course of action was to fall back about 200 yards to the rear. The Union cavalry subsequently made one attack on his lines before withdrawing to its original position.

Elliott now began to worry about a Confederate counterattack. He heard reports that the Confederate cavalry was massing south of Booneville. To make matters worse, Halleck’s methodical advance on Corinth had finally succeeded. Beauregard had evacuated the town during the night. The entire Confederate army was now between the Union raiders and the main Union forces at Corinth. Elliott felt that he had to move quickly if his command was to escape the rapidly closing trap.

Elliot remained in Booneville until he was sure the Confederates could not put out the fires that Hatch’s men had started. For two or three hours after leaving, he could hear the sound of ammunition exploding inside Booneville. The brigade returned to Farmington to rest.

After the Union victory at Corinth, Pope sought to capture part of Beauregard’s rear guard with a quick, concerted movement. After one day’s rest, Elliott’s brigade was back at Booneville, passing through it toward Blackland on June 4. Besides the two regiments, they had four pieces of artillery. Eight miles from Booneville, they crossed a narrow bridge over Twenty Mile Creek. On the high ground on the far bank, Sheridan’s cavalrymen came upon an enemy in force. Campbell dismounted one battalion of the regiment to hold the enemy in place while the rest of the men crossed the creek. In the small skirmish that followed, Sheridan suffered his first casualties, three men killed and nine wounded. The regiment fell back to Booneville.

On May 27, Sheridan had been a supply captain. Less than two weeks later, he commanded his own cavalry brigade. Elliott was promoted to brigadier general on June 11, and Pope immediately appointed him as his chief of staff. As the ranking officer in the brigade, Sheridan took command of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade. His good luck was holding steady.

The 2nd Cavalry Brigade had been part of Pope’s Army of the Mississippi when it captured Island No. 10, and the troopers had been in the saddle daily since their arrival near Pittsburg Landing at the end of April. In mid-June they again returned to Farmington to rest, but on June 26 Sheridan received orders to take the brigade back to Booneville for a third time.

The Union armies were still in Corinth. Sheridan’s brigade would serve as an outpost if the Confederates tried to make a sudden sortie against them. Sheridan quickly realized that his exposed position was vulnerable to Confederate cavalry. As soon as he arrived there, he surveyed the surrounding countryside to make his own maps. ‘I must confess that my crude sketch did not evidence much artistic merit, but it was an improvement on what we already possessed,’ he said, ‘for it was of the first importance that in our exposed condition we should be equipped with a thorough knowledge of the section in which we were operating.’

Changes had occurred in the Confederate Army, as well. With Beauregard ill, General Braxton Bragg became commander. Bragg appointed Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers to command the army’s cavalry. On June 30, Bragg set in motion a series of operations that would result in another skirmish at Booneville. The results of the fighting would be many times greater than the fight itself.

With Southern forces now concentrated at Tupelo, Bragg ordered Brig. Gen. John M. Withers’ division, designated the reserve corps, to march on Ripley, Miss., about 20 miles northwest of Booneville. He told Chalmers to screen the infantry advance and ‘make a corresponding move with the cavalry, say 1,200 or 1,500, via Blackland, striking any enemy there and brushing him away, and by a feint create the impression that you are after Rienzi; then suddenly make for Ripley, but in rear of the enemy, so that he cannot retreat.’ Bragg hoped the cavalry could continue on to the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, where they could tear up track and burn bridges.

A train of empty wagons was in the area, and Bragg ordered Chalmers to bring them along to salvage any military supplies they might capture. Chalmers’ immediate objective, however, was Sheridan’s exposed brigade at Booneville.

Both of Sheridan’s regiments were armed with modern rifles. The 2nd Michigan had Colt revolving rifles, while each trooper of the 2nd Iowa carried a Sharp’s carbine. Lieutenant Leonidas Scranton of the 2nd Michigan commanded a company at the bridge over Kings Creek on the road toward Blackland. The Union picket line was 3 1/2 miles from Booneville.

The Union pickets were nervous. They had heard about a Confederate raid at dawn on June 28, when about 70 Rebel cavalrymen had attacked the 3rd Michigan’s picket line to the west near Blackland, capturing one man and wounding another.

Chalmers divided his force, giving Mississippi Cavalry Colonel Wirt Adams command of the 1st Division. Adams had under his command the 6th Confederate Cavalry Regiment of Colonel John Lay and the 8th Confederate Regiment of Colonel William B. Wade, as well as four companies of his own regiment. His entire division consisted of only 750 men.

Chalmers ordered Adams to have his men carry three days’ cooked rations. The Mississippi Cavalry left Saltillo at 6 a.m. on the 30th and rode to Brice’s Store, 12 miles to the north. There they waited until the other four companies of his regiment arrived before riding toward Blackland at 5 p.m. Two miles from town, Adams had his command bivouac for the night.

At 3 a.m., Chalmers ordered Adams to advance on Booneville. Lay led the advance, with Wade in the middle and Adams’ regiment bringing up the rear. Adams reported that ‘the purpose of the expedition, and plan of the same, was to attack the central one of three cavalry encampments of the enemy, reported to be situated [at] Wolf Creek and Osborne’s Creek.’

Lay deployed one company in front, with more men as flankers on each side. Following the main road, they passed through Blackland toward Booneville. When his advance struck the Union picket line, Adams ordered the lieutenant in command to try to cut off the retreat of the Union troopers. Because of fields on both sides of the road, the Confederates could not approach without being seen. They would have to charge down the road.

Although Adams had field command, Chalmers meddled in operations. Without Adams’ knowledge, he ordered Captain Isaac F. Harrison to take two companies to the right to try to cut off the retreat of the Union troopers.

Scranton immediately realized that the Confederates were trying to turn his flanks. After his men fired a few volleys, he had them fall back to a new position. Later he had them retreat to the junction of two roads. By the time Harrison’s forces arrived on the road beyond the bridge, Scranton’s men had already retreated beyond them.

The Confederate cavalry advanced down the road, but soon stumbled into the Union troopers ‘in stronger force’ than expected, Adams reported. As soon as he heard about the attack, Sheridan ordered Captain Campbell to take a squadron out to see what was going on. When Campbell arrived at the intersection, he found Scranton’s dismounted men firing at the Confederates from cover. Campbell took command of the defense. Sheridan soon sent him another squadron of the 2nd Michigan with orders to hold the enemy until reinforced. If necessary, he was to fall back slowly.

Sheridan ordered Hatch to leave one company behind to guard the town. The rest of the 2nd Iowa — less its two saber companies — was to form in a mounted line behind the 2nd Michigan to cover the flanks and support it by a counterattack if the enemy broke through.

During the Civil War, Union cavalry regiments had a degree of specialization. Most of the troopers of a regiment were trained to fight on foot, but two or more companies — designated saber companies — were kept as a mounted reserve. Sheridan placed two saber companies from each regiment under the command of Captain Alger. Using his hard-won knowledge of the terrain, Sheridan sent Alger on a hidden route through a densely wooded area that would bring him into the Confederate rear on the Blackland Road. Led by a guide, the 90 Federals set out.

Until the fighting reached the junction of the roads, the Confederates had attacked on horseback. As they approached the Federal line, they dismounted and advanced through fields on both sides of the road. Adams was unaware that Sheridan had reinforced the Union pickets. He ordered Lay to try to capture the entire force. Two dismounted companies would advance down the road while two more attempted to move around behind the Union position to cut the enemy soldiers off.

As the Confederates advanced, they were hit by heavy fire from the hidden Union troopers. Chalmers sent word for him ‘to push them hard.’ By then, Adams had concluded he faced an entire regiment instead of just a picket force.

Chalmers continued to interfere with Adams’ plan. Unknown to the colonel, Chalmers had detached Wade’s 8th Cavalry Regiment and sent it down the road to the left. Coming down the Blackland Road, Wade struck the right of the Union line.

With the Union fire becoming heavier, Adams ordered the two flanking companies to rejoin the column. All four companies would attack down the road. As his troops moved into position, another message came from Chalmers. Adams reported that Chalmers told him ‘to push on down the road to Booneville, and if I would not do so, to give way to Colonel [James Holt] Clanton’s command.’ Adams could see no use in attacking down the road on horseback in a column of twos or fours. The column would be wracked by Union fire, and the Confederates troopers would have no opportunity to return fire. Instead, Adams ordered his dismounted regiment to deploy on the right side of the road while Lay’s regiment deployed on the left. As the two regiments advanced on foot, the 1st Alabama Cavalry charged down the road past them in columns of four. Adams reported that he had no idea whether this charge had any success, but the Union line still held.

Adams continued to attack until he thought he had driven the Union troopers from their position. The Confederates were still far from capturing the Union camp when the attacks stopped.

Collecting his regiment, Adams moved to the left to report to Chalmers on the Blackland Road at Mount Ratcliffe. Part of Lay’s regiment joined them there, where they rested for an hour or two. Perhaps Chalmers thought that by protecting the advance of the reserve corps he had accomplished his mission. Still, it is inexplicable why he chose to wait within striking range of the enemy.

After sending Alger on his way, Sheridan ordered Hatch to move part of his regiment to the left flank. If the opportunity occurred, they were to make a mounted charge. Hatch put part of his regiment on the left under Major Datus E. Coon.

When he heard about Alger’s column maneuvering in behind them, Adams ordered his regiment to form a mounted line facing to the rear. Lay’s regiment was 75 to 100 yards ahead of Adams, on the left.

As the Union cavalry appeared in sight, it formed in a line. Yelling and firing their revolvers, the blue-clad troopers attacked Lay’s regiment, which then fell back in confusion on Adams’ line. Wanting to give his men a chance to use their shotguns, Adams ordered an advance at a walk. As his line struck Alger’s force, Coon’s battalion of the 2nd Iowa Cavalry came at them from behind.

In an effort to escape the closing vise, the Confederate cavalry charged down the road toward Alger’s men. Alger immediately ordered a retreat, and while engaged in a running gunfight with a Confederate trooper, he collided with a tree and was sent crashing to the ground. Most of Alger’s force turned onto a side road and lost the Confederate pursuers. Adams called a halt to the chase after 10 miles because his horses were exhausted. When he encountered a swamp, Coon likewise halted his battalion.

The next day Sheridan informed Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans that he had driven off a force of 5,000 men. This was generous. While that might be a reasonable number of men for seven regular regiments, the Confederate regiments were greatly understrength. If anything, the force Chalmers used to attack Sheridan was probably little larger than the Union force of 900.

For years there was disagreement about the exact number of casualties. ‘Our loss in this affair was: Killed, 1; wounded, 24; missing, 16. Total casualties, 41,’ Sheridan reported. ‘The loss of the enemy must have been severe, as we were occupying good positions all the time and well covered, while they used the open ground for their deployment. They have taken a number of wagons from the people to carry off their dead and wounded. Among the wounded that fell into our hands are two lieutenants, who will die.’ Adams, however, claimed he had only four men wounded, but that was just in his regiment.

Until his death in 1916, Lieutenant William Richards claimed that he was the only Confederate casualty of the battle at Booneville. When he read Sheridan’s report years after the war, he asked Chalmers to make an accurate statement about the number of casualties his force had suffered. The former Confederate general by then was a Republican politician. Not wanting to offend his former Union supporters, he refused to say anything.

Although the engagement was minor, it had two important results. The Union Army continued to expand, continually creating new positions. To protect Washington during the Peninsula campaign, the Army of Virginia was created, and John Pope was sent to command it. Rosecrans took command of the Army of the Mississippi. Henry Halleck arrived in Washington to command all the Union armies.

The brief fight at Booneville solidified Sheridan’s chances of becoming a general. On July 30, Rosecrans and four other brigadier generals — Granger, Elliott, Jeremiah Sullivan and Alexander Asboth — sent a message to Halleck. ‘Brigadiers scarce; good ones scarcer…the undersigned respectfully beg that you will obtain the promotion of Sheridan. He is worth his weight in gold.’ When Sheridan’s promotion to brigadier general came through in September, Halleck saw that it was backdated to July 1 — the date of the fight at Booneville.

The second consequence occurred a year and a half later. By then, Ulysses S. Grant had become the commander of all the Union armies, with Halleck as his chief of staff. During the winter, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton made himself politically unacceptable to command the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac by virtue of his intemperate attacks on Maj. Gen. George Meade before Congress’ Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. That merely sealed his fate, however, as Grant wanted someone more energetic to command the cavalry.

In late March, Grant met with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to discuss the situation regarding Pleasonton’s replacement. Grant wanted Maj. Gen. William Franklin, but Franklin’s lackluster performance at the Battle of Fredericksburg had made him unacceptable to Stanton.

Halleck was at the meeting, and he may have been thinking about Booneville. During a pause in the discussion, Halleck suggested, ‘What about Sheridan?’

This article was written by Robert C. Suhr and originally appeared in the May 2000 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of America’s Civil War.