The 38th Mississippi Infantry is a regiment that has long been near and dear to my heart. I had two g-g-g uncles who served in the regiment, and the first book I ever wrote was a history of the unit entitled Beneath Torn and Tattered Flags. The book has been out of print for many years now, but I still get calls from people all the time wanting to buy it. I actually have written a revised and expanded edition of the book, but I have not found the time to try and get it published yet. I know I need to get the ball rolling and find a publisher, and toward that end I thought i would publish an excerpt from the book dealing with the Battle of Harrisburg, Mississippi. I’m hoping that if I hear from enough readers after publishing this article that it will spur me on to go ahead and get the book reprinted.
Harrisburg is one of the lesser known battles in which the 38th took part, which is a shame, as it was a very bloody fight that cost Mississippi dearly. Mabry’s Mississippi Brigade, of which the regiment was a part, suffered extremely high casualties in this battle. This Mississippi battleground was consecrated with Mississippi blood, and the men from the Magnolia state who fought there have earned the right to be remembered.
Prior to the Battle of Harrisburg, the 38th Mississippi had been designated a mounted infantry unit and attached to the cavalry brigade commanded by Colonel Hinchie P. Mabry, a fiery Texan who had commanded the 3rd Texas Cavalry earlier in the war. Mabry’s brigade was engaged in operations against the Yankees around Yazoo City up until early June, 1864, when they were transferred to north Mississippi to help deal with the coming Union invasion of that region.
NEVER WAS A MORE GALLANT CHARGE MADE
On receipt of the orders transferring his brigade, Colonel Hinchie P. Mabry quickly had his men in the saddle headed for north Mississippi. The 38th Mississippi arrived with the brigade in Okolona on June 13, 1864, and were assigned to the army commanded by the Confederate “Wizard of the Saddle,” Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.2 The 38th arrived just after Forrest completed one of his greatest victories, the battle of Brice’s Cross Roads on June 10, 1864. Confidence in their new general was high among the member of the regiment, and Erastus Hoskins wrote his wife, “Our men are all anxious to get in one fight under Forrest.”3 Having missed the battle, Mabry’s Brigade remained at Okolona until the end of June, when they were ordered to Saltillo, Mississippi.4
Forrest’s victory at Brice’s Cross Roads had a very strong impact on Union strategy and led to the 38th’s first fight in their new command. At the time of the Union defeat at Brice’s Cross Roads, General Sherman was engaged in his Georgia Campaign, and his army was supplied via the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. If Forrest could cut this vital lifeline, the Union army in Georgia might grind to a halt.5 After Brice’s Cross Roads, the threat from Forrest seemed very real, and Sherman resolved to deal with the problem once and for all. On June 16, 1864, the fiery general issued the following order to Major General James B. McPherson, commander of the Department of the Tennessee:
…I wish you to organize as large a force as possible at Memphis, with Generals A. J. Smith or Mower in command, to pursue Forrest on foot, devastating the land over which he has passed or may pass, and make him and the people of Tennessee and Mississippi realize that although a bold, daring, and successful leader, he will bring ruin and misery on any country where he may pause or tarry. If we do not punish Forrest and the people now, the whole effect of our past conquests will be lost.6
Command of the expedition to destroy Forrest was given to Major General Andrew J. Smith, and on July 5, 1864, he led a force of 14,000 men and 24 cannon out of La Grange, Tennessee, headed south into Mississippi. To combat this expedition Forrest had an army of 7,500 cavalry, 2,100 dismounted cavalry serving as infantry, and 20 cannon.7
In response to the federal advance Mabry’s Brigade was moved forward from Saltillo to Ellistown, 15 miles northwest of Tupelo, on July 9. On arrival the brigade was temporarily attached to Brigadier General Abraham Buford’s Division for the coming battle.8
Before the 38th left Ellistown, Major Robert C. McCay, commander of the 38th Mississippi, penned a hasty letter to his wife Elizabeth, speculating on where the regiment was headed. He told her:
I drop you a line to say we are sending everything to the rear except what we can carry on horseback, and suppose by tomorrow we will be on our way to Sherman’s rear, or else to Tennessee. We are certainly going this time to do something, what, the distant future will have to reveal. God grant that we will meet with success, and all return safe. I go to do my duty and if we fight will try to make a name for my command.9
At this point in the campaign, it appeared that the Union column was headed for Okolona, and in anticipation of this move the 38th, along with the rest of Buford’s Division, was ordered to Pontotoc as a blocking force. The weary Rebels arrived in town the morning of July 10 after an exhausting all night ride.10 That same day, Stephen D. Lee, the department commander, and General Forrest, the army commander, set up a joint headquarters at Okolona. Lee, being the senior officer present, assumed overall command of the expedition against the federals.
When he arrived in Pontotoc, General Buford was ordered to position his men so that they were in front of and on the flank of the approaching Yankee column. He placed his men, including the 38th, five miles south of Pontotoc on the Pontotoc-Okolona Road. His orders stated he was to offer a stern resistance to the Union advance and only retreat back to Okolona if compelled by a superior enemy force.11
On July 11, the Yankees marched into Pontotoc, driving out the advance pickets of Buford’s Brigade. The next day, the Union soldiers marched out of town heading straight for the Confederate defensive line south of Pontotoc. Heavy skirmishing took place as the Rebels contested the Yankee advance, but the 38th was held in reserve and took no part in the fighting.12 On July 13, General Smith changed his line of march and moved off to the east towards Tupelo. This move came as quite a surprise to Lee and Forrest, who planned to fight the decisive battle against Smith on ground of their choosing near Okolona.13
As the federals moved rapidly towards Tupelo, Mabry’s Brigade, with Forrest at its head, pressed the rear guard of the retreating army. As the Yankees passed through Pontotoc, Forrest ordered Mabry to force his way into the town. The Colonel led his men in a furious charge into the hamlet, pushing aside the 7th Kansas Cavalry and Company A of the 61st United States Colored Troops. Private F. H. Holloway of the Brent Rifles later wrote an account of this charge for Confederate Veteran Magazine saying,
I should like to hear from any old soldier who was with Mabry’s Brigade, Forrest’s Command, in July, 1864, at Pontotoc, Miss., when the Yanks began to fall back. Do you remember how the ladies shouted and waved their handkerchiefs at seeing the boys in gray after them? How we scoured the thickets for the Yanks, and how they would fire a volley and run?14
The 38th continued the pursuit of the retreating federals, fighting numerous skirmishes throughout the day as the Union column pushed on towards Tupelo. The chase continued until 2 a.m. on July 14, when the Rebel horse soldiers pulled up their sweat streaked mounts one mile outside of Harrisburg, a small hamlet two miles west of Tupelo.15 There the Rebels found the federal army drawn up in line of battle, waiting to receive an attack. Although the Confederates were outnumbered and facing a determined enemy, General Lee felt he had to attack. He later explained his decision to fight saying,
…all the armies of the Confederacy were facing superior numbers and resources, and everywhere Confederate armies at this stage of the war had to fight against great odds or not fight at all. On this occasion not to fight would have been to have given up the great corn region of Mississippi, the main support of other armies facing the enemy on more important fields.16
The Union army was in a very strong defensive position, their line of battle running for a mile and a half along the crest of a ridge that gave an excellent view of the surrounding landscape. From the crest of the ridge the land sloped gently downward to a wood line several hundred yards away.17
To reach the federals Mabry’s men would have to advance uphill and cross several hundred yards of open ground while exposed to artillery and musket fire. To make matters worse, the Rebels had to make their assault under a blistering Mississippi sun, and heat exhaustion would take a heavy toll.18
Preparing to attack, General Lee took personal command of the left wing of the army, which would attack the right and center of the federal line. General Forrest took command of the right wing of the army, and was ordered to swing his men around the Union left and attack the vulnerable flank.19
The 38th Mississippi dismounted from their horses and deployed with Mabry’s Brigade on the extreme Confederate left and prepared to advance. Just after 8:00 a.m. General Lee gave the order to attack, and with Major McCay at their head the regiment pressed forward towards the Union line.20
According to General Lee’s plan, the left wing under his command was to attack first and strike the federal right a hard blow to keep their attention on that section of the battlefield. Once the Rebel left was heavily engaged, Forrest was to smash the federal left flank. The plan went badly from the start, with the brigades of Lee’s left wing failing to coordinate their movements and attacking piecemeal, allowing the federals to concentrate their fire and shred each unit as it attacked.21
As the 38th Mississippi cleared the woods and moved into the open, they were immediately targeted by the Union cannoneers, and iron shot and shell began to tear holes in the gray line. The Mississippians dressed their ranks and continued across the killing field separating them from the Yankees. When they were within 300 yards of the Union line a terrific fire from the Union infantry opened on them, but the 38th pressed on through the hailstorm of lead.22 Major McCay was at the forefront of the regiment urging his men to go forward when he was struck in the head by a Yankee bullet. He fell into the arms of Colonel Mabry, dead before he touched the ground.23 In his after action report, Mabry gave a vivid account of the charge that killed so many of his men:
I immediately ordered a charge, but the heat was so intense and the distance so great that some men and officers fell exhausted and fainting along my line, while the fire from the enemy’s line of works by both artillery and small-arms was so heavy and well directed that many were killed and wounded. These two causes of depletion left my line almost like a line of skirmishers.24
Despite heavy casualties, the 38th Mississippi pressed on, leaving a trail of gray clad bodies to mark the path of their advance. At about sixty yards from the Union line the fire was so intense that the survivors in the regiment were forced to take shelter in a small depression that afforded them some protection from the hurricane of fire being thrown at them. The men quickly brought their muskets to bear on the nearby Union line, loading and firing as fast as they could.25 Those who made it to the relative safety of the depression found themselves under the leadership of Captain John J. Green of the Johnston Avengers, the only company commander still with the regiment. Mabry eventually gave Green the order to take his men and advance on the Yankee line, but the young Captain bluntly stated, “Colonel, we have exhausted every round of ammunition, but if you say so we will try again with empty guns.” On hearing these words Mabry replied, “We can’t stay here and live. Order your men back.” 26
The heavy fire from the Union Infantry and artillery kept the 38th pinned in place, and the regiment was not able to immediately withdraw. The men were only able to pull back after the Tennessee brigade of Colonel Tyree H. Bell advanced on their right and the Yankees switched their fire to the new threat.27 When the musket fire slackened, the 38th retreated out of the range of the Union guns, and the dazed survivors took stock of the calamity that had befallen them. The regiment was smashed and took no further part in the battle.28
The other units in Lee’s left wing suffered the same fate as the 38th – their piecemeal attacks were all easily repulsed with very heavy losses to the Rebels. When General Forrest saw the fearful destruction of the left wing, he called off the attack on the right by the men under his command. The Confederates then prepared themselves for a Union counter attack, but General Smith thought his exhausted men had seen enough action for one day and did not elect to continue the contest. On July 15, with his men low on ammunition and food, he decided to return to Memphis. General Lee initially followed the retreating federals, but owing to the thoroughly worn out condition of his men, and the heavy casualties his army had sustained, he called off the pursuit on July 16.29
The charge at Harrisburg was clearly the high water mark of the 38th Mississippi’s service. Outnumbered and outgunned, the rank and file of the regiment pressed home their attack with great valor in spite of the odds against them. For their bravery, the regiment paid a very dear price: twenty men were killed, fifty-one wounded, and three were missing. for a total casualty list of seventy-four. An examination of the dead and wounded shows the officers of the 38th paid a particularly high price at Harrisburg: three were killed, including the commanding officer Robert McCay, and nine were wounded. Captain John J. Green was the only company commander in the regiment to come out of the fight unhurt. The command structure of the 38th had been decimated in a few short hours.30
Shortly after the battle Erastus Hoskins wrote his wife and gave her a detailed account of the battle:
…the enemy threw up works of rails & logs and early in the morning of the 14th our forces advanced and the battle raged in earnest – our boys say it was the hottest place they had ever been in – our regiment lost very heavily – it went into the fight with 158 men – and lost 13 killed and 57 wounded – and 10 missing – in all 74 – which was more than any other regiment – it went farther than any other in the charge and remained longer Col. Mabry says there never was a more gallant charge made – than the one made by the 38th Maj. McCay acted gallantly and was shot in the head and fell dead in the field – Adjt. W. L. Ware was mortally wounded in the breast – but of 9 officers commanding companies – 1 was killed and 7 wounded – a severe blow to the 38th. I don’t think we gained any thing by the fight it might be termed a draw battle I think the loss on both sides about the same – and while the enemy could not advance south – We could not advance on them – the enemy finally retreated leaving us in possession of the field – Which makes us the victors though dearly paid for.31
Six days after the battle, Colonel Mabry penned a letter to Elizabeth McCay, wife of Major Robert McCay, to inform her of her husband’s death. His compassionate words are a fitting tribute to Major McCay:
With feelings of deepest sorrow, I announce to you the death of your husband – Maj. Robert C. McCay 38th Miss. (Mounted Infantry). He was killed in battle at Harrisburg, Miss. on the 14th Inst. while gallantly leading his regiment. While nothing can atone to you and your children for his loss, it will be a consolation to know that he died nobly at his post. He was shot through the head and fell in my arms and expired without a struggle. None excelled him in devotion to his family, fidelity to his country, and gallantry as a champion in the glorious struggle for freedom. As his commander, as his associate, as his friend I mourn with you his loss. May that faith in him who does all things aright, soften the sorrows of your sad bereavement.32
The battle of Harrisburg left the 38th Mississippi a broken ruin of it’s former self, but for the rank and file of the regiment, there were still battles left to fight. They were few in number, but these soldiers were survivors of the very worst the Yankees could throw at them, and they fought on to the bitter end.
2 Jordan and Pryor, 484-485.
3 Erastus Hoskins Letters, 8 July 1864.
4 Jordan and Pryor, 484-498.
5 Edwin C. Bearss, Forrest at Brice’s Cross Roads (Dayton, OH: Morningside Bookshop, 1994), 146.
6 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 2, 123.
7 Bearss, Forrest, 153-154, 164.
8 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 329.
9 Robert McCay to Elizabeth McCay, 8 July 1864. A copy of this letter is in the collection of Charles Sullivan of Perkinston, MS.
10 Jordan and Pryor, 499.
11 Ibid., 499-500.
12 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 330, 349.
13 Bearss, Forrest, 175.
14 F. H. Holloway, “Incidental To The Battle Of Harrisburg,” Confederate Veteran, November 1910, 526.
15 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 349.
16 Stephen D. Lee, “The Battle of Tupelo, or Harrisburg, July 14, 1864,” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 6 (1902), 45.
17 Bearss, Forrest, 197.
18 Ibid., 202.
19 Lee, 45.
20 Bearss, Forrest, 202-203.
21 Ibid., 203-205.
22 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 349.
23 Hinchie P. Mabry to Elizabeth McCay 20 July 1864. The original letter is located in the McCay Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.
24 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 349.
26 James H. Jones, “Extracts From A Letter,” Lexington (Mississippi) Advertiser, 6 December 1901.
27 Bearss, Forrest, 207-208.
28 Official Records, Series 1, Volume 39, Part 1, 350.
29 Bearss, Forrest, 211, 221, 229.
30 Rowland, Military History, 333-334.
31 Erastus Hoskins Letters, 19 July 1864.
32 Hinchie P. Mabry to Elizabeth McCay, 20 July 1864. Original letter in the McCay Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.