Battle of Selma - Conflict & Date:
The Battle of Selma was fought April 2, 1865 during the final days of the American Civil War (1861-1865).
Armies & Commanders:
- Major General James H. Wilson
- approx. 9,000 men
- Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest
- approx. 4,000 men
Battle of Selma - Background:
In the late fall of 1864, the primary Confederate army in the West, the Army of Tennessee, was effectively destroyed following the Battles of Franklin and Nashville.
With little organized opposition remaining in early 1865, the commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland, Major General George H. Thomas, directed his cavalry chief, Major General James H. Wilson, to lead around 13,500 men on a raid deep into central Alabama with the goal of destroying the industrial center of Selma. This included the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry which was second in size within the Confederacy only to Richmond's famed Tredegar Iron Works. Departing Gravelly Springs, AL on March 22, Wilson's command was divided into three divisions led by Brigadier Generals Edward McCook, Eli Long, and Emory Upton. Among these, Upton had earned fame the previous year for devising new tactics for storming fortifications during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
Opposing Wilson were those troops remaining within Lieutenant General Richard Taylor's Department of Alabama and Mississippi. Few in number and spread out, the only force available to actively engage the Union columns was approximately 2,000 men led by noted cavalryman Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Initially pushing south in three columns to confuse the enemy, Wilson's men won skirmishes at Houston (March 25) and Black Warrior River (March 26). Re-concentrating, they then destroyed the Oxmoor and Irondale iron furnaces near Birmingham on March 28. Continuing on, Wilson detached Brigadier General John T. Croxton's brigade which torched several industrial sites to the south and west before burning the University of Alabama on April 4.
Battle of Selma - Forrest Makes a Stand:
As Wilson penetrated deeper into Alabama, Forrest worked to concentrate Confederate forces in the state. This was complicated by Croxton's movements and a lack of information pertaining to Wilson's intentions. Though hoping to be joined by Brigadier General James R. Chalmers' command, Forrest was compelled to make a stand at Montevallo on March 31. Opposing the bulk of the Union force with around 2,500 men, he was twice routed. Falling back, Forrest attempted to direct those troops that had not joined him to target Wilson's rear. Turning, he made a stand the next day at Ebenezer Church. It was his belief that Chalmers' men would arrive to bolster his force and reinforcements led by Brigadier General William H. Jackson would strike Wilson from the west.
Nearing the enemy's position, Wilson benefited from having captured some of Forrest's dispatches which outlined the location of Confederate forces in the state. Utilizing this intelligence, Wilson detached McCook's division with orders to take the bridge at Centreville and prevent Jackson from uniting with Forrest. Pressing forward, he commenced an attack against the Confederate position at Ebenezer Church. While part of Chalmers' men did arrive, Forrest was again overwhelmed by Union forces and received a sabre wound during the fighting.
Battle of Selma - Defending the City:
Withdrawing to Selma, Forrest made preparations to defend the city. Possessing less than 4,000 men, some of which were old men and boys, he deployed them into the earthworks which ringed city. Designed to be manned by 20,000 men, the defenders were positioned several yards apart in an attempt to cover the entire perimeter. Meeting Taylor shortly after arriving, Forrest advised his superior to evacuate the city as he considered a successful defense unlikely. Taking Forrest's advice, Taylor departed and Forrest continued to make preparations for dealing with Wilson. Nearing Selma, Wilson again benefited from an intelligence boon as the English engineer who had aided in designing the city's defenses defected to the Union cause.
Battle of Selma - Wilson's Plan:
Approaching Selma from the north, Wilson arrived outside the city around 2:00 PM on April 2. Deploying Long's division across the Summerfield Road with artillery in support, he ordered Upton's men to shift east towards the Range Line Road. Once there, they would work towards the city through a swamp and creek bottom that was uncovered by earthworks. The Union plan called for Upton to infiltrate a 300-man detachment through the swamp after dark which would then flank the defenders in the earthworks and work west. As this action commenced, Upton would fire a single gun to signal the main Union assault. This plan quickly disintegrated around 5:00 PM when part of Chalmers' command arrived and began attacking Long's wagon train.
Battle of Selma - Storming the City:
Dispatching a regiment to reinforce his wagon train guards, Long decided that Chalmers could be held long enough to mount an attack on the city. Without waiting for Upton, he ordered the rest of his division forward. Moving against the formidable, but lightly manned, fortifications the Union troops endured heavy artillery fire before scaling the earthworks. Benefiting from possessing seven-shot Spencer carbines, Long's men overpowered Forrest's defenders after a fierce fight. Hearing action to the west, Upton directed his command forward. Encountering largely militia, his men quickly broke through the Confederate defenses and began pushing into the city. With Union forces pouring into Selma, Forrest ordered his men to fall back to an incomplete inner line of defenses.
As Long and Upton struck against the flanks of this line, Wilson personally led the 4th US Cavalry forward. Charging down the Ridge Line Road, they were met by heavy fire and Wilson fell when his horse was wounded. Recovering, he began directing a dismounted assault against the enemy. Pushed back, the Confederates attempted a stand near the railroad depot and Plantersville Road but were driven off. By 7:00 PM, the fighting began to die out as Union troops took possession of Selma.
Battle of Selma - Aftermath:
In the fighting at the Battle of Selma, Union forces sustained 359 killed and wounded while Confederate casualties numbered 2,700 with the majority taken prisoner. In securing the city, Wilson's men captured 15 siege guns, 10 heavy carriages, 10 field pieces, 10 caissons, 63,000 rounds of artillery ammunition at the arsenal alone. Putting it and the other industrial sites around the city to the torch, Wilson then marched on Montgomery. Reaching there on April 12, he learned of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox three days earlier. Continuing on with the raid, Wilson entered into Georgia and defeated a Confederate force at Columbus on April 16. After destroying the town's navy yard, he pressed on to Macon where the raid ended on April 20.