Battle of Selma (April 2, 1865)

Updated: September 28, 2016

The Battle of Selma took place in Selma, Alabama on April 2, 1865, during the American Civil War. Major General James H. Wilson's Union cavalrymen attacked Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest's greatly outnumbered Confederate cavalry force defending the city.

On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, DC, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions: Grant would travel with Major General George Meade's Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee's army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade's flank.

The Union Army of the Potomac relentlessly engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia throughout the spring of 1864. By June, Grant forced Lee to retreat to the Richmond-Petersburg area. Thereafter, both armies entrenched and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months.

Meanwhile, in the West, Sherman captured Atlanta in early September 1864. Before embarking on his March to the Sea, Sherman sent Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, in pursuit of Lieutenant General John Bell Hood, whose Army of Tennessee was threatening Tennessee after evacuating Atlanta. After subduing Hood's army at the Battle of Nashville (December 15, 1864-December 16, 1864), Thomas faced little organized resistance in the West. Upon Thomas's recommendation, Grant authorized the formation of a new cavalry force to invade the Deep South.

In the spring of 1865, Major General James H. Wilson assembled over 13,000 Federal cavalrymen at Gravelly Springs, Alabama, on the Tennessee River, and commenced training. The Federal force consisted of three divisions commanded by Brigadier General Edward M. McCook, Brigadier General Eli Long, and Major General Emory Upton. Well-armed with Spencer repeating carbines, Wilson's cavalry crossed the Tennessee River on March 22, 1865, targeting coal mines, ironworks, mills, munitions manufacturers, and anything else that could aid the Confederate cause.

Wilson was opposed by Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who commanded roughly 2,500 regulars from the Cavalry Corps of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. Augmented by poorly trained and ill-equipped state militia, which included old men and boys, who were spread across the region, Forrest commanded no more than 5,000 soldiers at the height of the operation. Outnumbered and outgunned, Forrest's "soldiers" offered little resistance to Wilson's cavalry as it moved in blitzkrieg fashion into Alabama.

Wilson easily rolled through northern and central Alabama, destroying iron works at Elyton, Brierfield, Tannehill and Montevallo. His progress was nearly uncontested until Forrest mounted a spirited but futile stand at Ebenezer Church, roughly twenty miles from Selma on April 1. Following a decisive Union victory, Forrest was forced to fall back to the earthworks and defenses that ringed Selma.

The next day, Wilson's cavalry advanced toward Selma in two columns, reaching the outer ring of Confederate defenses at about 2 p.m. Wilson planned to infiltrate the Rebel lines under the cover of darkness that night, but scattered elements of Forrest's command threatened the Union rear, prompting Long to launch an assault against the Confederate front at 5 p.m. The Southerners offered stiff resistance but could not withstand the Yankee onslaught. The Federals breached the Confederate line where it intersected the Summerfield Road. Soon after a second breakthrough occurred, the Rebels withdrew into the city. Wilson kept up the pressure, personally leading a charge against the inner defensive ring. Despite blistering fire from the defenders, the Yankees proved unstoppable. By 7 p.m. on April 2, Forrest began withdrawing what was left of his command from Selma. Coincidentally, roughly 700 miles to the northeast, Robert E. Lee began evacuating Richmond and Petersburg that same night.

What happened after the Federals took possession of Selma remains controversial. There is little doubt that Wilson's men destroyed the city's arsenal, foundries, and iron works, as their mission mandated. However, much of the city was destroyed by fire. Some sources claim that the conflagration was started by fleeing Confederates who set fire to the city's cotton stores to keep them from falling into enemy hands. Other sources maintain that the Yankees looted and then burned Selma. Quite probably, the truth may never be known.

The Battle of Selma was a resounding Federal victory. In the course of capturing the city, the Union suffered only 319 casualties (forty-two killed, 270 wounded, and seven missing), compared with 2,700 for the Confederates. Amazingly, in light of the intensity of the fighting, the Rebel losses included fewer than fifty killed.

The fall of Selma would have been a considerable loss for the Confederacy had not Lee been only days away from surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Wilson's victory deprived the South of one of its few manufacturing centers, but in effect, the war was nearly over when Selma fell. 

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Selma included:

Cavalry units:

1st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

3rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

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"Battle of Selma," Ohio Civil War Central, 2018, Ohio Civil War Central. 22 Jun 2018 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=895>

APA Style

"Battle of Selma." (2018) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved June 22, 2018, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=895

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