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written by Alethea D. Sayers

At the onset of the American Civil War, La Grange Tennessee was a thriving community of over 2,000 inhabitants. Known for it's culture, society and education, La Grange became a country seat for the wealthy citizens of Memphis, who built their elegant antebellum homes on the bluffs overlooking the Wolf River. What made La Grange geographically desirable to the newcomers, unfortunately, also made it strategically vital to both the Union and Confederate armies.

Situated on a high bluff, La Grange commanded a view well into Mississippi, its neighbor to the South. It is said on a clear day, one could see the town of Holly Springs, twenty-three miles in the distance. The Memphis & Charleston Railroad ran through La Grange, continuing three miles to the east and the town of Grand Junction, where it bent sharply southward towards Corinth, Mississippi. Providing the only rail-line running East and West, the Memphis & Charleston Railroad was essential for shuttling troops and supplies.

Initially, the idyllic lifestyle of La Grange's citizens were altered very little in 1861. However, when the entire and only graduating class of the newly built Presbyterian Synodical College for Men volunteered for the Confederate Army in July, change was seen quickly approaching.

The Civil War arrived on the very doorsteps of La Grange on June 13, 1862, less that one week after the fall of Memphis to Union troops. From that moment on, the town was occupied by Union or Confederate armies, who vied for it's strategical importance.

General Ulysees S. Grant, in his personal memoirs, made note of his first visit to La Grange on June 23, 1862, recalling:

"I halted in La Grange. General [Stephen A.] Hurlburt was in command there at the time and his headquarters tents pitched on the lawns of a very commodius country house.* The proprietor was at home and learning of my arrival, he invited General Hurlburt and me to dine with him. I accepted the invitation and spent a very pleasant afternoon with my host, who was a thorough Southern gentleman fully convinced of the justice of secession. After dinner, seated on the capacious porch, he entertained me with a recital of the services he was rendering the cause. He was too old to be in the ranks himself-he must have been quite seventy then--but his means enabled him to be useful in other ways. In ordinary time the homestead where he was now living produced the bread and meat to supply the slaves on his main plantation, in the low lands of Mississippi. Now he raised food and forage on both places, and thought he would have that year a surplus sufficient to feed three hundred families dependent upon the "patriotism" of those better off. The crops around me looked fine...I felt...the greatest respect for the candor of my host and for his zeal in a cause he thoroughly believed in, though our views were as wide apart as it is possible to conceive."

* The home General Grant refers to is Hancock Hall, occupied by Dr. J. J. Pulliam.

In late July of 1862, Sherman evacuated his troops from La Grange, fortifying his garrison at Bolivar, Tennessee and sending the rest back to Memphis. While in this same month, Confederate, Maj. Gen.Earl Van Dorn was planning to converge with forces under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and Maj. Gen. John C. Breckenridge at Grand Junction, 3 miles to the east of La Grange for the purpose of attacking Grant's extended line in West Tennessee.

By August, Price's Cavalry, commanded by Act. Brig. Gen. Frank Armstrong, were seen in and around La Grange. On September 16th, Union cavalry scouts noted Van Dorn's presense in La Grange, along with a force estimated at 10,000. With the movements of two large Confederate forces in the area, the Federals could only guess the objectives to be either Bolivar or Corinth.

Price, moved to occupy Iuka on September 13 and await further developments. When Grant received this information, he planned to attack Price on September 20, before Van Dorn could reinforce him. A surprise attack by Price's Confederates on Rosecrans leading brigade on the 19th, resulted in a premature but bloody battle in which Price took heavy casualties and withdrew from Iuka during the night. Price fell back to Ripley, Miss. to await Van Dorn's forces.

Excerpt from the Official Records of the War of Rebellion: "At this time Price was at Ripley with his force; Van Dorn was at La Grange, with cavalry thrown out to the neighborhood of Somerville, and Villepigue (and Lovell probably) at Salem. With this disposition made of his cavalry Van Dorn was enabled to move from La Grange to Ripley without being discovered..."

On October 3-4, the battle of Corinth was fought between Van Dorn's 22,000 and Rosecrans 21,000. The Confederates lost the battle, suffering over 4,000 in killed, wounded and missing. Van Dorn fell back on Holly Springs, establishing an outpost at La Grange to protect the rear of his army. For their own safety, many of the wounded Confederates were sent to the rear of the army, some making their way to La Grange.

By November 4, Sherman's forces were again closing in on Van Dorn. Van Dorn ordered his pickets back to Holly Springs, Miss.

Excerpt from OR's (Van Dorn's correspondence to Price): "General: The enemy are advancing and have driven in our pickets at La Grange and Grand Junction. Have your command placed in readiness to move at once. Cook three days' rations. Reported thirty regiments infantry and four cavalry. Have no report yet from direction of Corinth: may have to-night. Have sick in readiness to be sent to the rear by cars."

On November 6, a sharp skirmish ensued at La Grange between Van Dorn's pickets and Sherman's advancing column. Sherman's forces reoccupied La Grange on November 7, while Van Dorn deemed it advisable to withdraw from Holly Springs and take a strong line behind the Tallahatchie.

Thus, the citizens of La Grange found themselves once more the host to the Federal army. General Grant and Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson both arrived at La Grange on the 10th, Grant to prepare for upcoming campaign against Vicksburg. In preparation for the campaign, some 30,000 Union soldiers were camped in and around La Grange. And on Nov. 16, Grant issued orders that no civilians were allowed to travel outside of the Federal lines. On Nov. 27, Grant left La Grange, traveling to Holly Springs, where his wife, Julia, would take up temporary residence while Grant went on to Oxford.

On Dec. 20, Grant's plans were disrupted when Van Dorn, and a cavalry force of 3, 500, swooped down on Holly Springs, forced the Federal garrison to surrender and destroyed over 3 million dollars of Federal supplies -- supplies needed for the Vicksburg Campaign. At the same time, Forrest's cavalry was tearing up tracks just north of Jackson, Tennessee, in Grant's rear. Grant reluctantly cancelled his movement on Vicksburg, falling back to La Grange and Grand Junction. In the months following, from Dec. 1862 to April of 1863, Grant's center wing (16,000), commanded by Maj. Gen. James McPherson, and various cavalry units were encamped at La Grange, while his right wing, commanded by Sherman, was located at Memphis.

Grant resumed his offensive against Vicksburg in March, leaving a garrison at La Grange. Some of the units that occupied La Grange during this time were the 6th Iowa Infantry, 103d Illinois Infantry, 46th Ohio Infantry, the 6th & 7th Illinois Cavalry and the 2d Ohio Cavalry.

During the month of April, 1863, Grant worked his way down the Mississippi River where he was poised to land his forces at Grand Gulf on April 29. To create a diversion, Grant assigned Col. Benjamin H. Grierson to lead a cavalry raid through Mississippi.

Grierson's Raid, which began in La Grange, was considered one of the most daring Union cavalry raids during the Civil War. In terms of success, the raid achieved it's goal by drawing away almost one-third of the Confederate infantry, and Pemberton's entire Confederate cavalry away from Vicksburg. Grant was able to cross the Mississippi on April 30, and after a long siege, Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, 1863.

Throughout the remainder of 1863, La Grange continued to be occupied by Union soldiers, who considered it strategically vital to maintain. Various skirmishes and engagements took place frequently in nearby towns, such as Moscow, Collierville, Grand Junction, Somerville and in La Grange through the summer and fall.

In late November, Confederates were again threatening the Federal garrison at La Grange. While Forrest was busy recruiting for his cavalry in the vicinity of Jackson, Tennessee, Federal cavalry began closing in on him. To assist Forrest in getting back to Mississippi safely with his recruits, Confederate General Stephen D. Lee ordered cavalry forces under Brig. Gen. Chalmers, Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Ferguson, and Col. L. S. Ross to create a diversion by operating along the Memphis-Charleston Railroad between La Grange and Memphis.

From New Albany, Mississippi, the 4,000 Confederates moved to the railroad bridge at Moscow, Tennessee, located approximately 10 miles west of La Grange, arriving there on Dec. 4. Forrest had already been skirmishing with the enemy at nearby Somerville and Collierville Nov. 26-28th.

When Chalmers and Ross reached Moscow, they encountered a brigade of 3,000 Union cavalry, commanded by, Colonel Edward Hatch preparing to cross the railroad bridge at the Wolf River. Sent out from La Grange by Grierson on Dec. 3d, Col. Hatch had been ordered to scout out the area for Confederate cavalry. A severe engagement broke out between the two forces on the bridge, resulting in Union casualties of 4 killed, 11 wounded and 45 captured. According to Grierson's battle report, the Confederates left 26 dead on the field. Also, a major loss to the Union cavalry was over 125 horses, they being pushed or shot off of the bridge and drowning in the icy waters of the Wolf River. The Confederates retreated south to Mount Pleasant on Dec. 5th, pursued by Federal cavalry.

As a result of Lee's diversion, Forrest managed to escape the tightening Federal noose, crossing the Wolf River at a point very near La Grange. According to a letter sent by Forrest to Maj. Gen. S. D. Lee, on Dec. 29; "GENERAL: I have succeeded in getting out with about 2,500 men." and "Owing to my having to leave Jackson so soon there are about 3,000 men left that I could not get together in time. If arrangements can be made to go back again, can bring out at least 3,000 men." OR's Vol. 1, Ser. XXX1/3.

Confederate cavalry continued to harass the garrison at La Grange throughout the months of January and February of 1864 as they slipped in and out of West Tennessee. On Feb. 2d, a colonel Jno. McGuirk, commanding the 3d Mississippi Cavalry, of Chalmer's Brigade, reported the following; "Yesterday at 11 a.m., when I was about starting for Moscow, my scouts reported the enemy in force at Junction. I went with my command to the edge of the place and offered them battle, which they declined, and remained in the fort. They were confined closely in the fort. I did not allow them to picket outside. At dark retired with my regiment and went into the fortifications at La Grange, where I remained until sunrise this morning, when I moved out, being exhausted and horses without forage twenty-four hours. I was, on this account only, compelled to abandon the town and move to forage my command..." (Or's Vol. 1, Ser. XXX1/3) According to Union reports of this action, the Confederates suffered 2 killed and 8 captured.

In July of 1864, Sherman ordered a cavalry force of 14,000, commanded by Brig. Gen. Andrew Jackson (A. J.) Smith to move from La Grange into Mississippi, intercept Forrest and protect Sherman's supply line. In a fierce engagement between Smith and the combined forces of Forrest and S. D. Lee, at Tupelo, the Confederates suffered a defeat and Forrest was wounded.

In August, another expedition involving 10,000 Union Cavalry, led by Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson (A. J.) Smith was sent out of Memphis via La Grange to Oxford, Mississippi. They returned to La Grange at the end of August, having marched a distance of 106 miles.

By September of 1864, the North and South turned their attentions to Sherman at Atlanta and Lee's struggle at the seige of Petersburg. Though a Confederate victory now looked bleak, Southerners in West Tennessee were enjoying the brief triumph of yet another of Forrest's daring raids.

To prevent another advance by Smith into Mississippi, Forrest led 2,000 men on a bold raid of Memphis on August 21. At the time, Memphis was manned by a Federal garrison of 5,000 troops. Forrest withdrew from Memphis with minor casualties and inflicting little damage. But the incident was embarassing for Federals and increased Sherman's determination to stop Forrest.

With the crushing defeat of the Western Confederate Army at Franklin, Tennessee in November of 1864, and the Battle of Nashville in December, the hopes of ridding the state of enemy occupation were dashed.

As winter turned to spring in La Grange, April brought the close of four years of bloodshed to an end with Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. The people who had stayed behind in La Grange could only survey the damage to their town in disheartened dismay.

During the course of the war, over 60 engagements, skirmishes and raids are recorded in the OR's for La Grange. More than 40 houses and structures were burned or dismantled by the Federal soldiers to provide firewood. The fine, newly built, Male Synodical College was used as a prison, a hospital and then dismantled brick by brick to build fireplaces for Federal soldiers in the winter of 1862-63. Over one-hundred and fifty Confederate soldiers now lay buried in a mass grave in the small cemetery. And as Charles Wills, a Union soldier of the 103d Illinois Infantry would write in his diary in 1863; "This town has been most shamefully abused since we left here with the Grand Army last December..."

While the once prospering town of La Grange would never fully recover from the damage suffered at the hands of enemy occupation, some of the homes that witnessed and endured this tragic era still remain, restored and as picturesque as the Union soldiers found them over 137 years ago.

Reference Sources for the Chronology of Events are as follows:

  • 1. War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (OR's)
  • 2. The Civil War Dictionary, Boatner III, Mark M. Pub. David McKay Co. New York
  • 3. Charles W. Wills; Army Life of an Illinois Soldier, Pub. 1984 Southern Illinois University Press
  • 4. The History of La Grange, Tennessee, author unknown
  • 5. La Grange; La Belle Village, Tennessee Historical Quarterly Vol. XXX, 1971
  • 6. Grierson's Raid, Blue & Gray Magazine, June 1993
  • 7. The Atlas of the Civil War, McPherson James D., MacMillan, 1994 New York

 

 

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