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Part V:

Confederate Raids

Van Dorn Raids Holly Springs as General Forrest Strikes Rail and Telegraph lines in Tennessee



General Forrest

General Van Dorn

Colonel Jackson

Forrest, Van Dorn, and Jackson were the South’s most talented cavalry leaders in the west.   On December 20, 1862, all three men led Confederate strikes at key Union military bases.

(Colonel Jackson was promoted to Brigidier General nine days after the Holly Springs raid, which he played a key role in. His leadership and ability was so well noted fending off Grant's railroad campaign -- particularly at the Oxford skirmish, the Battle of Coffeeville, and at Holly Springs -- the Confederate leaders quickly had him promoted.)



General Grant: "On the 20th (of December, '62) Van Dorn appeared at Holly Springs, my secondary base of supplies, captured the garrison of about 1,500 men commanded by Colonel Murphy, of the 8th Wisconsin regiment, and destroyed all our munitions of war, food and forage...


"At the same time Forrest got on our line of railroad between Jackson, Tennessee and Columbus, Kentucky, doing much damage to it. This cut me off from all communication with the North for more than a week, and it was more than two weeks before rations or forage could be issued from stores obtained in the regular way. This demonstrated the impossibility of maintaining so long a line of road over which to draw supplies for an army moving in an enemy's country. I determined, therefore, to abandon my campaign into the interior..."




Following the battle of Corinth there had been allegations against Van Dorn concerning the handling of this fight and the treatment of his army. He was relieved of his command until a court of inquiry was held later in Abbeville, where all charges were subsequently dropped. Shortly after the battle of Coffeeville he was given a cavalry command -- a position much more suited to his talents and disposition.

With the Union army now stalled, the pressure was off Pemberton and he was able to build his forces at Grenada as strongly as possible under his limited resources. With the Union forces foraging in the Oxford - Water Valley area with little purpose, Lt. Col. John Griffith of Texas persuaded Pemberton to strike Grant's lightly defended supply base in Holly Springs.   With no Union pressure on Pemberton he was now able to spare his top cavalry leader – General Earl Van Dorn.  The cautious Pemberton finally agreed, and sent Van Dorn at Griffith's suggestion. On December 15th the men were called in and given three days rations, but a fifteen day supply of salt.  Each man was also issued a container of turpentine, a box of matches, and each company was supplied with axes.   In a somewhat theatrical move, General Van Dorn soon appeared on a dashing black horse to the cheers of his men.   One soldier later wrote, “Seeing General Van Dorn on a little rise, seated on his fine black mare, I thought him as fine a general as I have ever seen.”

Van Dorn led his men from Grenada, taking a circuitous route to the east and then north.  Arriving in Pontotoc, his cavalry was cheered heartily by the local townspeople as they rushed out to share what little food they had with the poorly fed cavalry.  The column now moved north in a weaving route toward Holly Springs, but deceptively passed several roads leading there, and at every chance told citizens, and those believed to be Union patriots, that he was moving on Boliver, Tennessee.  Colonel Dickey of the 4th Illinois cavalry had been sent to the general area where Van Dorn was traveling, and in fact the head of his column had nearly caught the Confederate rear guard.  Van Dorn ignored this and moved faster to the north.  A Federal courier was sent to Grant in Oxford concerning Van Dorn, but the courier got lost and the message never arrived.  One report  states that Dickey arrived back in Oxford late at night of December 19 and casually mentioned to Grant that he had approached a column of Rebel cavalry to the east, but did not engage them.  Without uttering a word, Grant immediately rose to his feet, and nearly trotted from his headquarters to the telegraph office down the street, to personally order a dispatch to Holly Springs.  But it was too late.

The night of December 19, the townspeople of Holly Springs held a huge Christmas gala and naturally invited the Federal officers and soldiers.  It was a grand event, and the townspeople provided large quantities of fine Southern wine and brandy to their guests.  Union whiskey supplies were enormous in Holly Springs, and good amounts were also provided by the Federal officers.  The officers and soldiers imbibed freely that night and returned to their headquarters and camps at a late hour to enjoy a very sound sleep.

Van Dorn’s men arrived outside Holly Springs a few hours before daylight on December 20.  It was a bitterly cold morning and the men weren’t allowed fires for warmth, and struggled to keep warm.  One soldier wrote of wearing six shirts that morning, and still nearly freezing.  But Van Dorn had told his men earlier to bear the temporary hardships of the expedition because they would soon be fully supplied with as many fine rations as they could eat and carry, and would be issued carbines, pistols, sabers, and all the blankets and ammunition they could carry.  He kept his word.

What few Union pickets that were posted on the incoming roads were dispatched of silently that morning.  The Union officers were asleep in the residencies of the people of Holly Springs, and the enlisted men slept soundly in their tents.  At daylight Van Dorn signalled his men to charge. It was reported that Van Dorn, just before entering town, met cheering citizens just at the edge of Holly Springs, tipped his saber to his cap, and then pointed it forward, to began his charge. Part of his dismounted cavalry charged the Union post on the northeast of town, near the rail depot, a cavalry unit charged through the fairgrounds, and another charged into the center of town. Union tents were trampled, as the Federals were caught totally unaware. Pistol volleys, saber clashes, hand to hand combat, and other close range tactics were used as the surprised, barely dressed, and startled Federal soldiers tried to offer a semblance of resistance. But it was hopeless. By now the ladies of Holly Springs stood in their yards cheering wildly for the Confederates as the onslaught grew in power. Soon it bacame a mob secene with Rebels, citizens, and slaves plundering the Union supply houses.  

After heavy skirmishing, virtually every Union officer and soldier was taken prisoner and quickly paroled. (Union Major John Mudd was perhaps the only one to save his command by successfully hurrying them outside of town.)  “Parolling” was a method used then by armies who had captured prisoners but had no way to house them or move them.  A captured soldier would sign a parole order, pledging to become inactive and not serve in the army until another prisoner from the other side was “exchanged.”  In this manner both would later be released and allowed to re-join.  It was the only practical way for Van Dorn to handle so many prisoners.  Not only did the Rebels take and parole nearly 2,000 men, they also released over 1,000 Confederates.  Following this, Van Dorn’s men pillaged the Union stores, taking all they could carry, including badly needed coats, uniforms, boots, blankets, carbines, revolvers, and everything needed by a cavalry force.  In a matter of hours the ragged, poorly fed, ill equipped men were transformed into the best equipped and most effective cavalry unit in the world. 

Next, the Rebels began the systematic burning of Grant’s remaining supplies.  They burned countless wagons packed with supplies, loaded rail cars, and literally thousands of barrels of Union food supplies.  Tons of bacon and hundreds of flour kegs were destroyed, along with barrel after barrel of whiskey – that was poured into the streets to prevent the men from drinking it.   Hundreds of bales of cotton  (that would be sold to help finance the campaign) were burned in the streets.  Next the buildings were torched – including a new Federal hospital.  The munitions stores were also set afire, causing huge explosions that broke windows in houses all through town.   Van Dorn destroyed every thing that Grant could possible use to sustain his drive.  A subsequent Federal report listed partial losses to include 5,000 rifles, 2,000 pistols, 100,000 suits of clothes, 5,000 barrels of foodstuffs, $1,000,000 worth of medical supplies, and $600,000 worth of miscellaneous supplies.


Colonel Murphy, (8th Wisconsin), the commander of the garrison, and many of his men had violated orders by actually taking up residences with the townspeople of Holly Springs. Naturally, these Mississippians gleaned information from the federal officers and had ways of conveying it back to the Confederate command.  The people of Holly Springs held a Christmas gala the night before the raid and it was reported that many Union officers and enlisted men imbibed freely and liberally in fine southern brandy and other spirits.  The federal garrison had let its guard down and this was exploited to the fullest, resulting in the total loss of Grant's supplies, and the ruined career of many who had been entrusted to guard Holly Springs.

Colonel Dickey, in what many also considered negligence of duty, was aware that Van Dorn was nearing Holly Springs, but for some reason didn't act on this information or relay it to Grant in a timely fashion. When the report finally reached Grant in Oxford he immediately sent troops to fend off Van Dorn, but his efforts were too late. It could also be easily argued that Grant was negligent in his duty to have been so lax in his defense of Holly Springs. Colonel Murphy was an easy scapegoat, but even if he had been fully prepared for Van Dorn it is doubtful that his small force could have succeeded in preventing the raid. Grant knew the garrison was too small to guard against any significant attack, or otherwise he wouldn't have sent the forces he did when he heard of Van Dorn's approach. With thousands of infantry and cavalry troops inactive and ranging with little purpose between Oxford and Water Valley, Grant could have easily defended Holly Spring strongly, but he simply did not do this. Murphy was harshly criticized and dismissed from the army, and within two months Dickey was allowed a more graceful exit. Lincoln could have been as harsh with Grant as Grant had been with Murphy. But for some reason, despite any shortcomings -- even with victory -- at Fort Donelson and Shiloh, and now the disaster at Holly Springs, Lincoln always stood by Grant. As a general, Grant had many strong points. Among the most crucial was the inexhaustable supply of men and supplies from the north, and a president that always supported him despite any tactical flaws he committed.




As Grant’s supplies were still burning, Van Dorn quickly moved his men from Holly Springs, heading north, to destroy telegraph and rail line.  Union cavalry support arrived that afternoon, but it was too late.  Van Dorn moved rapidly, now leading the enraged Federal cavalry on a futile chase they soon retired from. His move had been a total success




As Van Dorn was destroying Grant’s supplies, General Forrest had been busy cutting rail and telegraph line just to the north.   He had led a raid lasting several days through south-western Tennessee along Grant’s line that destroyed 60 miles of rail and telegraph line.   Grant now had no supplies, no way to replenish his stock, and no way to communicate.  His huge army of 70,000 or so was defeated by less that 7,000 cavalry on two bold moves.  Casualties were light, but the Confederates had found weaknesses to exploit and their tactics were the crushing blows to Grant’s railroad campaign.




Grant's army had finally been stopped, and in Grenada, Pemberton's army became stronger and better supplied than ever. Confederate morale surged from the cunning tactics of their leaders at exploiting Union weaknesses at Coffeeville and Holly Springs, and hopes for the fledgling Confederacy seemed a distinct possibility. Grant and his large, well supplied, army had lost two relatively small -- yet crucial -- engagements. He was now retreating out of Mississippi, McClernand's supporters grew, and Lincoln pondered the future of the Union amidst the disaster in Mississippi, Lee's victorys in the east, and as more and more in the north appealed for an end to the war effort.



March forward to:

Part Six:
Grant Retreats to Memphis




Retreat to:

Part Four:
The Campaign Stalls




Return to Headquarters at

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Search keys: "Holly Springs, Mississippi". "Holly Springs Raid". "Van Dorn's Raid". "Van Dorn Raids Holly Springs". "Battle of Holly Springs". "December 20, 1862". "Colonel R. C. Murphy". "Colonel 8th Wisconsin Infantry". "Eight Wisconsin Infantry". "Holly Springs Pilgrimage". "Holly Springs Homecoming". Holly Springs Civil War.