Wilson's Raid was a cavalry operation through Alabama and Georgia in March–April 1865, late in the American Civil War. Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson led his Union Army Cavalry Corps to destroy Southern manufacturing facilities and was opposed unsuccessfully by a much smaller force under Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Background and opposing forces
After his victory at the Battle of Nashville, Union Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas and his Army of the Cumberland found themselves with virtually no organized military opposition in the heart of the South. Thomas ordered Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson (who commanded the Cavalry Corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi, but was attached to Thomas's army) to lead a raid to destroy the arsenal at Selma, Alabama, in conjunction with Maj. Gen. Edward Canby's operations against Mobile. Selma was strategically important as one of the few Confederate military bases remaining in Southern hands. The town contained an arsenal, a naval foundry, gun factories, a powder mill, military warehouses, and railroad repair shops.
Wilson led approximately 13,500 men in three divisions, commanded by Brig. Gens. Edward M. McCook, Eli Long, and Emory Upton. Each cavalryman was armed with the formidable 7-shot Spencer repeating rifle. His principal opponent was Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose Cavalry Corps of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana consisted of about 2,500 troopers organized into two small divisions, led by Brig. Gens. James R. Chalmers and William H. Jackson, two partial brigades under Brig. Gen. Philip D. Roddey and Colonel Edward Crossland, and a few local militia.
Wilson was delayed in crossing the rain swollen Tennessee River, but got underway on March 22, 1865, departing Gravelly Springs, Alabama. He sent his forces in three separate columns to mask his intentions and confuse the enemy; Forrest learned very late in the raid that Selma was the primary target. Minor skirmishes occurred at Houston (March 25) and Black Warrior River (March 26), and Wilson's columns rejoined at Jasper on March 27.
On March 28, at Elyton, near present-day Birmingham, another skirmish occurred and the Union troopers destroyed the Oxmoor and Irondale iron furnaces. A detachment of General Emory Upton's division destroyed the Shelby Iron Works in Shelby on March 31, 1865. Wilson also detached a brigade under Brig. Gen. John T. Croxton and sent them south and west to burn the Roupes Valley Ironworks at Tannehill and Bibb Naval Furnace at Brierfield on March 31. They then burned the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the site of a training ground for militia and Confederate troops, on April 4. This movement diverted Chalmer's division away from Forrest's main force.
On March 31, Forrest was routed by the larger, better-armed Union force at Montevallo. The cavalrymen under Chalmers had not arrived to reinforce Forrest, but he could not wait. During the action, Forrest's headquarters were overrun and documents captured that gave valuable intelligence concerning his plans. Wilson dispatched McCook to link up with Croxton's brigade at Trion and then led the remainder of his force rapidly toward Selma. Forrest made a stand on April 1 at Plantersville, near Ebenezer Church, and was routed once again. The Confederates raced toward Selma and deployed into a three-mile, semicircular defensive line anchored at both ends by the Alabama River.
The Battle of Selma took place on April 2. The divisions of Long and Upton assaulted Forrest's hastily constructed works. The dismounted Union troopers broke through by afternoon, after brief periods of hand-to-hand combat; the inexperienced militiamen abandoning their positions and fleeing was the primary reason for the entire line breaking. General Wilson personally led a mounted charge of the 4th U.S. Cavalry against an unfinished portion of the line. General Long was severely wounded in the head during the assault. Forrest, who was also wounded, and whose tiny corps was severely damaged, regrouped at Marion, where he finally rejoined with Chalmers. Wilson's men worked for over a week at destroying military facilities. The scale of destruction was so great that every house in the city was sacked, except two. From there, Wilson's forces moved toward Montgomery, which they occupied on April 12.
Word reached the Union force of the surrender of Robert E. Lee on April 9 and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, but the raid continued, heading east into Georgia. The Battle of West Point, Georgia, was fought on Easter Sunday, April 16, when the brigade of Colonel Oscar H. La Grange attacked an earthwork defensive position named Fort Tyler. Although the Union men had to bridge a ditch under the fire of one 32-pound naval gun and two 12 pound cannon inside the earthwork, the undermanned Fort Tyler was captured. Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert C. Tyler, who was convalescing in West Point from previous wounds and who had mustered a small garrison of soldiers and local volunteers, was mortally wounded by a sharpshooter, becoming the last general officer to be killed in the Civil War. Tyler is buried at the West Point Confederate cemetery.
Finally on Easter Sunday, April 16, Wilson was victorious in the Battle of Columbus, Georgia in which Upton's division clashed with Confederate forces at Columbus, capturing the city and its naval works and burning, then scuttling the incomplete ironclad ram, CSS Jackson. This engagement is widely regarded as the "Last Battle of the Civil War." On April 20, Wilson's men captured Macon, Georgia without resistance, and Wilson's Raid came to an end. This was only six days prior to General Joseph E. Johnston's surrender of all Confederate troops in the Carolina's, Georgia, and Florida to William Tecumseh Sherman in North Carolina.
Wilson's Raid had been a spectacular success. His men captured five fortified cities, 288 cannon, and 6,820 prisoners, at a cost of 725 Union casualties. Forrest's casualties, from a much smaller force, numbered 1,200. The raid was done without the disastrous collateral damage that characterized Sherman's March to the Sea of the previous year. Unlike Sherman, Wilson and his commander, George H. Thomas, did not tolerate uncontrolled behavior, such as looting, from their men. Residents accused Wilson's men of sacking Selma after the battle, but during house-to-house fighting, fires broke out, and renegades from both armies, along with escaping slaves, did most of the looting. Wilson quickly re-established discipline.
- Samuel Sullivan Cox, Three Decades of Federal Legislation, 1855 to 1885, Mills 1885, p. 402 (Based on the eye-witness account of Alabama's Provisional Governor, Lewis E. Parsons).
- Civil War Times, April 2003
- "The Last Battle of The Civil War," by Charles Swift.
- Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- National Park Service battle description for Selma
- Jones, James Pickett. Yankee Blitzkrieg, Wilson's Raid Through Alabama and Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976. ISBN 978-0-8203-0370-3.