A Federal Soldier’s Story of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads

I recently found this account of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, written by Cornelius A. Stanton, the Captain of Company I, 3rd Iowa Cavalry at the time of the engagement took place. It was published in the Southern Sentinel (Ripley, Miss.), November 1, 1906:

A FEDERAL SOLDIER’S STORY

Personal recollections of the Battle at Brice’s Crossroads on June 10, 1864.

It may interest the veterans of  Forrest’s Cavalry to read a brief description of some of the incidents in one of their great battles as

Wartime CDV of Cornelius A. Stanton - www.deadfred.com

Wartime CDV of Cornelius A. Stanton – http://www.deadfred.com

they appeared to a soldier who was present on the Federal side. In General Sherman’s book (Sherman’s “memoirs”) he states that during the summer of 1864, while engaged in the Atlanta campaign, he feared that General Forrest would cross the Tennessee River with his cavalry and break up the railroad in the rear of Sherman’s army, and in anticipation of this danger he sent General Sturgis to Memphis with orders to take command of a force of cavalry and infantry, “go out toward Pontotoc engage Forrest and defeat him.”

Gen. Sturgis carried out the first part of his instructions, but when he met Gen. Forrest, instead of defeating him, he was himself defeated, and the Federal forces under his command were utterly routed, with great loss of men, artillery, small arms, wagons, rations, ammunition and other Army equipments.

The Sturgis expedition, consisting of Grierson’s division of cavalry ( Winslow’s and Waring’s brigade’s) and 5000 infantry, left Memphis on June 1, 1864. I was then the captain of a company in the third Iowa cavalry, attached to Winslow’s brigade, and I shall not attempt to describe the battle of Brice’s Cross roads in detail, but only the small part of it which I saw, and in which I was engaged with my company and regiment.

On the morning of 10 June we left our camp at the Stubbs plantation, the cavalry moving out ahead of the infantry, and when Winslow’s brigade reached the Brice Cross roads Waring’s men were already engaged on the Baldwin Road. Winslow’s men dismounted and went forward about 800 yards east of the Brice house formed in the woods, our line reaching some distance south of the Guntown Road and extending north far enough to bring a part of my regiment out to an open field. The men of Waring’s brigade continued our line northward behind the field and curving to the west up to and across the Baldwin road. My company’s place in the line was at this field, and I saw that part of the battle which took place at this point and witnessed their heroic bravery on the part of Confederates such as I had never seen before. We were scarcely in position before the Confederates appeared in our front, and it was with mingled feelings of admiration and dread that we watched them as they emerged from the woods and advanced towards us across the open field.

Scan0001

Tennyson has immortalized ” The Charge of the Light Brigade” at Balaklava, but that charge, when considered with reference to the unshrinking courage and  grim tenacity of the men engaged, does not equal the heroic gallantry of Forrest’s soldiers who charged across that bullet swept field at Brice’s Cross roads.

Nearer and nearer to us came the men in gray, until we could distinguish the features and see the determination written in every face,

The Spencer Carbine

The Spencer Carbine

and then they met a deadly and merciless fire. The Federal soldiers in the rear of the field were armed with Spencer carbines, a magazine gun  (the best in use at that time) carrying seven metallic cartridges. seven shots could be fired in quick succession without stopping to reload, and that continuous and withering fire met the brave men in gray, but heedless of the thick storm of death, their line continued to advance. No soldiers ever faced the enemy’s blazing guns more fearlessly than did the veterans of Forrest’s  cavalry who made that desperate charge. The bullets came like swarming bees, men fell all along the line; it seemed impossible that any living thing could stand in front of such a storm of lead and iron ball. It was gallantry beyond parallel, but the terrific volleys finally became too much for human endurance.

There is a point in battle beyond which human flesh and blood cannot pass. The men in gray reached that point and then retired. Later the Confederates charged here again, and drove back the Federal line, but that I did not see, as my regiment had been transferred to another position. The fearless attack at this field was equaled by Forrest’s  other troops along the line, and everywhere they passed forward impetuously and persistently, fighting with desperate bravery.

The battle of Brice’s Cross roads was an exhibition by Forrest’s soldiers of grand courage and undaunted valor which I do not believe was surpassed on either side during the Civil War. About 2 o’clock there was a lull in the battle, Federal infantry regiments began to arrive, and as Grierson’s cavalry had been engaged since 11 o’clock, they were relieved by the infantry and were ordered back and halted in the woods, a short distance in rear of where the infantry regiments went into line; they were hardly in place before they were attacked with determined fury; the crash of arms was deafening, a perfect hail of bullets from the Confederate side came over my regiment, where we lay in line on the ground: I remember noticing the  forest leaves cut by rifle balls, falling all around, almost as thick as snowflakes. Intending to attack the Confederate flank, Sturgis now ordered the cavalry return to their horses, which were being held in the open ground, just in rear of the Brice house, and we were there, mounted and in line, awaiting further orders, when broken detachments of infantry came streaming out of the woods in wild disorder and confusion, and it was evident that our forces were defeated.

As long as I live I shall never forget the terrible sight which was presented when the retreat began; it was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, and it might be fitly described with the lurid adjectives which the Italian poet used in his description of  hell. The battered and beaten fragments of the infantry regiments poured out of the woods, slowly followed by the victorious Confederates, who advanced, cheering and firing as they came, and with their front lines came Morton’s battery, firing at close range, into the retreating  Federals.

In the open ground west of the Brice house the cavalry, aided by some detachments of infantry which still held together, made an

Flag of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry - www.iowahistory.org

Flag of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry – http://www.iowahistory.org

effort to repel the Confederate attack and check the retreat, but the attempt was not successful. The road  back to Tishomingo bridge was filled with mule teams and wagons, artillery, caissons, ambulances, wounded men, riderless horses and a mob of disorganized and panic stricken troops, all hurrying to the rear. At the bridge across the Tishomingo there was indescribable excitement and confusion, and there the Confederates captured all that part of our wagon train that had not crossed and part of our artillery, except Winslow’s two guns, was captured that night in the Hatchie Swamp. Darkness came on and enforced a truce between pursuer and pursued: Forrest knew how to gather the fruits of victory, and his pursuit had been relentless and unsparing, but at dark or soon after, he wisely halted long enough to give his men and horses a few hours rest. Sturgis now ordered Winslow to push on with his brigade, ahead of the retreating troops and stop them at Stubbs’  plantation until they could be formed for another fight. Winslow moved his brigade through the woods, parallel with and near the road, reaching Stubbs’ place ahead of the flying army and stopping the retreat, but later, when Sturgis came up, he made no attempt to reorganize the infantry regiments, he said ‘the whole thing had gone to hell,’ and ordered Winslow to open the road to the rear, let the retreating infantry pass, and urge them to hurry along.

Winslow’s cavalry remained at Stubbs’ until 2 o’clock at night, lighting many fires along the road and in the woods, hoping to deceive the Confederates in the belief that a large force was in camp there; at 2 o’clock the road seemed clear, and supposing all the infantry that had escaped capture was safely in front, we went forward on the road to Ripley. My recollections are still vivid of that fearful night; the air was hot and oppressive, we were weary also worn from lack of food and rest since early morning, and an indescribable feeling possessed us of terrible disaster that had overtaken us. At daylight Forrest made a fierce and furious attack upon the rear of our column, and at Ripley, after passing through the town, a part of our cavalry, with a detachment of infantry, made a stand in the outskirts of the village, but soon forced to give way. When the retreat from Ripley began, our brigade took the Salem road, with my regiment as rearguard, and just where the road enters the woods, northwest of the town, I was ordered to stop with my company, and, if possible, check the pursuit long enough to allow my regiment to fall back a short distance and take another defensive position: we did not remain long, a detachment of the Sixteenth Tennessee, led by Col. Jesse Forrest, charged us and a hand to hand fight ensued, in which I lost twenty-three men of my company.

In Jordan’s Life of Forrest he speaks of this fight to the edge of the woods near Ripley, saying, ‘The charge on the Federals was made with such hardihood that the commander of the rear guard narrowly escaped capture.’ I was the Federal officer to whom he refers, and if any of the Sixteenth Tennessee men at the reunion were in that charge and the fight which followed they may remember seeing a Federal officer who broke away and galloped up the road closely pursued by three or four Confederates, who tried to knock him off his horse with their empty guns, but he escaped. It was lucky for me that their guns were empty and my horse was not quite as jaded as theirs were, or I might not be here now to tell this story.

I went into the engagement at Brice’s Cross Roads with thirty five men in my company. The next day, after the fight at Ripley I had four men left. I may be pardoned for saying here that in spite of the misfortune that overtook me and my company in this campaign I received soon after a major’s commission, which dated from the memorable day at Brice’s Cross roads.

All day on the 11th and all through another dismal night we hurried on, the cavalry in the rear protecting the tired infantry soldiers who filled the road ahead of us, staggering along, some of them wounded and almost exhausted from hunger and fatigue, and it was not until we reached Colliersville that we made our first stop for food and rest. On the morning of the 13th we reached Memphis. It had taken us ten days to march from Memphis to Brice’s. We came back over the same road in three days and nights. Our losses in this campaign were 2,100 men, 16 pieces artillery, 1,500 stand small guns, 300,000 rounds ammunition, 300,000 rations, 200 horses and mules, 200 wagons and ambulances and other property.

For the Federals it was an utter rout and humiliating defeat; yet our beaten and disheartened troops were not lacking in soldierly qualities. Their bravery had been tested before, and was tested again on other fields where they did not fail. It was the same cavalry which was compelled to retreat from Brice’s and Ripley that afterwards, under other leaders, rendered effective service at Harrisburg, Montevello, Ebenezer Church, Boglers Creek, Selma, Montgomery, Columbus and Macon.

For the Confederates Brice’s Cross roads was one of the most dramatic and overwhelming victories of the war. It was an illustration of Gen. Forrest’s matchless generalship, of the amazing swiftness and precision with which he formed his plans and the tenacity of his thunderbolt methods of executing his designs, of the genius which entitles him to rank with the great military leaders of history. Every veteran knows the pride a soldier feels in the record of the regiment to which he belonged, and the veterans will pardon me, I know, for referring to the fact that my regiment, the Third Iowa Cavalry, was one of the regiments that was first in the fight at Brice’s Cross roads and was one of the last to leave the field. I was forced to retreat, but retreated in perfect order, and in turn with other regiments of Winslow’s and Waring’s cavalry brigades formed the rear guard and covered the retreat of the Federal troops and continued to fight until the Confederate forces discontinued the pursuit. What is true of my regiment is also true of the other regiments of Grierson’s cavalry division; and the brigade to which my regiment belonged brought through to Memphis two pieces of artillery, our ambulances and all our wounded men.

Brice's Crossroads National Battlefield Site - National Park Service

Brice’s Crossroads National Battlefield Site – National Park Service

To the comrades at the reunion I would like to say I am glad that now every true American takes pride in the soldierly qualities and brilliant achievements of the men of Forrest’s cavalry. They have won renown which will endure as long as history survives. I honor them for the splendid record which they made in the Titanic struggle: I honor them for their heroism in battle and for their superb manhood in excepting the final result of the war: I honor them for their devotion to duty and loyalty to principle; I wish for them all the blessings in life that noble men deserve, and I hope that they may continue to ‘Meet and greet in closing ranks, in time’s defining sun. Until the bugles of heaven shall sound the recall. And the battle of life be won.’

C. A. Stanton, Vicksburg, Miss., Oct. 16th, 1906

After reading Stanton’s very well written account of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, I thought I would try to find a little more information about him. At the age of 19 he enlisted in Company I, 3rd Iowa Cavalry, on September 6, 1861, at the rank of 5th Sergeant. Stanton must have been a very good soldier, for he rose in rank very quickly. He was promoted to Sergeant Major in July 1862, and just two months later he was made an officer and assumed the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Promoted to Captain in the 3rd Iowa Cavalry in June 1863, Stanton was wounded at LaGrange, Arkansas, on July 1, 1863.  After recovering from his wounds he returned to the 3rd, and after the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads was promoted to major in the regiment. He mustered out of service on August 9, 1865, at Atlanta, Georgia, and returned home to Iowa.

In the 1870 United States Census, Stanton was living in his hometown of Centerville, Iowa, making his living as a dry goods merchant. At some point, however, he moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, as he was living there by the early 1900s. Cornelius A. Stanton died in Los Angeles, California, on December 17, 1912. His body was returned to Iowa where he was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Centerville. In his obituary a friend wrote of him:

His life was a life of service to his country, his state, his community, his fellow man. He inculcated in his life the highest and purest principles of brotherhood and fraternity. His liberal hand was ever open to the poor, the needy and the unfortunate…His comrade and long ago friends can see him now as a fair-haired lad, just as he stood on the threshold of young manhood, with the glow of youth and health upon his cheek, with eyes turned to a future of bright prospects and rosy dreams; when the tocsin of war sounded in his ears and the cry for help came from his bleeding and distressed country, appealing to the patriotism of the land to uphold the flag of the Union and to crush the cohorts of treason and rebellion. He thought not of himself and the allurements of life in its peaceful pursuits, but he buckled on his armor and went forth to face all the dreadful realities of a bloody war that involved the perpetuity of this government and the great question of human liberty.

- Report of the Proceedings of the 42nd and 43rd Reunions of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, 1915.

This year, 2014, marks the 150th anniversary of Brice’s Crossroads. I, for one, plan to remember the brave men, North and South, who fought there by visiting the battlefield and seeing this sacred ground first hand. It will be a great trip, and I am sure I will write about it in a future blog posting.

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2 thoughts on “A Federal Soldier’s Story of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads

  1. Robert b

    A wonderful account! The war comes to life through the eyes of one who saw the elephant.

    • Thanks Robert! I knew as soon as I read the article I would have to publish it on the blog, as it was too good to remain hidden away.

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