|By Carole Deutsch
OKOLONA, Miss. — The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Okolona will be commemorated Feb. 21-23 by a Civil War re-enactment of the event, authentically recreated with live cannon fire, on the battleground.
The 254 acres on which the battle was fought has been acquired by a historic trust, and the three-day event will be a formal dedication of the land, making it a national memorial.
A multitude of activities are planned: Battles will be re-enacted on the very spot where they occurred 150 years ago, and visitors can walk the historic trails and pay tribute at the cemeteries.
The Battle of Okolona, fought on Feb. 22, 1864, was one of the most valiant conflicts of the American Civil War. The commander of the Confederate cavalry, Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, was a fierce combat leader whose fighting spirit would not let him back – down despite being outmanned and outgunned almost three to one – when he faced more than 7,000 cavalry under the command of Brig. Gen. William Sooy Smith.
On Feb. 1, 1864, Maj. Gen. William Sherman planned an ambitious campaign from Vicksburg, Miss., to seize the railroad center at Meridian, Miss, push on to Selma, Ala., and then on to Mobile. Sherman ordered Brig. Gen. William Sooy Smith to take his 7,000 cavalrymen from Memphis, Tenn., through Okolona, along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, and join the rest of the Union force of 20,000 at Meridian on Feb. 10.
Smith, waiting for reinforcements, disobeyed orders and left Memphis 10 days late, on Feb. 11. His march was slowed by muddy roads, and it was not until Feb. 18 that Smith and his men attacked the Mobile & Ohio Railroad at Okolona. Two days later, he fought with Confederate cavalry units at Prairie Station and Aberdeen. On the 21st, knowing that the formidable General Forrest commanded the troops he was fighting and surmising that Sherman had by then left Meridian and was on his way back to Vicksburg, Sooy Smith lost his nerve and left West Point, heading for Okolona.
Sherman had waited at Meridian for Smith from Feb. 14 to 20. When he left, it was primarily because he didn’t know Smith’s whereabouts. Shortly after dawn on Feb. 21, a younger brother of Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Col. Jeffrey Forrest, engaged Smith and forced him into a swamp west of the Tombigbee River. The battle intensified, and Smith ordered a retreat when Confederate reinforcements arrived. It was at this time that the dogged Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest issued an order that intensified the Rebel attack.
On the morning of Feb. 22, at Ivey’s Hill, a few miles from Okolona, the Union cavalry dismounted and threw up a blockade. Col. Jeffrey Forrest led the assault against them and was shot through the neck and fell, mortally wounded. His men held their ground while Col. Forrest died in his brother’s arms.
Maj. Gen. Forrest, consumed with grief, remounted his horse while wielding his saber and with reckless resolve charged the Federal line. The Union troops fled the line, with Forrest and 120 of his men in pursuit. A mile up the road, some 500 Yankees met them head on. What ensued was one of the most brutal hand-to-hand battles of the war.
As the battle continued, the Union forces pulled back and regrouped at a plantation house. They were stormed by the Rebels in a battle so fierce that Maj. Gen. Forrest’s horse was killed. He mounted another, which also was killed, and a third, which Forrest road till nightfall, was injured.
By nighttime, Forrest’s men were nearly out of ammunition and ceased their fighting. Badly beaten, Sooy Smith and his men took flight and reached camp at Memphis on Feb. 27, disheartened and disgraced, having gone down in resounding defeat. Despite the outcome of the war, the unyielding resolve of Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, known as “Wizard of the Saddle,” is recorded in history for all time.
Dwight Stevens, founder and president of Stevens Auction Co. and chairman of the Aberdeen Landmarks Committee, is a staunch supporter of the preservation of Southern historical sites.
In conjunction with this highly anticipated Okolona event, Stevens Auctions will offer more than 100 authentic Civil War artifacts, which include military art depicting the renowned battles of the war, letters, books, bronze sculptures, swords and medals. They will be sold as part of a specialty auction containing the contents of one of Aberdeen’s finest old homes, “the Painted Lady,” built in 1880, as well as fine furnishings and decorative arts from three different avid collectors, amassed over a consistent 40-60 year period.
The auction is listed on the activities agenda for the anniversary celebration and will follow a three-hour battle re-enactment Feb. 22. It will be held at 3:30 p.m. (CST) at the National Guard Armory, 607 W. Monroe Ave., Okolona. For a complete schedule of the battle re-enactment activities, visit http://battleofokolona.com, and to preview the auction, visit www.stevensauction.com and select “calendar.”