After U.S. Brigadier General James Negley’s June 7-8 attacks on the Confederate forces at Chattanooga, U.S. Major General Don Carlos Buell moved his Army of the Ohio from Corinth, Mississippi, toward Chattanooga to reinforce Negley. The Confederate response was to divert the reinforcements and to draw Union troops away from Chattanooga. To that purpose, Confederate Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest was dispatched from Chattanooga with two of his cavalry units to retake Murfreesboro, while Colonel John Hunt Morgan launched a cavalry offensive against Union stations in Kentucky. At that time, Murfreesboro, a strategic supply depot on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, was held by a small Union force camped in and around the town.
Two more cavalry units joined Forrest on his way to Murfreesboro, bringing the total of Confederate troops to about 1,400. While Forrest camped at McMinnville on the night of July 12, a detachment of the Eighth Texas captured the Union pickets without a shot fired. From the captured pickets, Forrest learned of the uncoordinated Union troop emplacements at Murfreesboro. The Ninth Michigan, along with a unit from the Fourth Kentucky cavalry, was camped at Maney’s Spring. The Third Minnesota and part of the First Kentucky battery, who had originally camped near the Michigan troops, but relocated due to inadequate water supply and ill will between regimental leaders, were now a mile and a half northwest of town. The Ninth Michigan’s Company B, commanded by Captain Oliver C. Rounds, provost marshal of Murfreesboro, was holding several local citizens prisoner in the courthouse to be executed by order of Major General Thomas L. Crittenden. Crittenden had arrived from Alabama on July 12 and was completely unsuspecting of any Confederate activity in the area.
Just before dawn on July 13, his birthday, Forrest and his men approached from the east on Woodbury Pike, capturing a Union hospital and the Ninth Pennsylvania. Forrest divided his troops into three forces to address the three remaining Union concentrations. The Ninth Michigan at Maney’s Spring defended its position forcefully, though its commanding officer, Colonel William Duffield, was wounded and taken to the Maney house at Oaklands. The Third Minnesota, to the west of the Michigan troops, held its position through sporadic Confederate attacks. Though relatively unengaged, the Minnesotan commanding officer, Colonel Henry C. Lester, refused to come to the aid of the hard-pressed Michigan troops, thus forcing the latter to surrender. Under a flag of truce, Forrest led him past the same Confederate units repeatedly, causing Lester to overestimate the number of opposition forces. Once assured of the other units’ surrender, Lester then gave up his own troops, as well as the attached Kentucky battery. He was later court-martialed for cowardice.
Meanwhile, the Confederates who attacked the Federal garrison at the courthouse were exposed to Union sharpshooter fire from the cupola, and the assault to free the prisoners soon became uncoordinated and ineffectual. After several Confederate casualties, the courthouse door was finally breached and a fire kindled in the building to force the Federals to surrender.
By evening, Forrest’s cavalry had captured between 800 and 1,200 Union prisoners, including Major General Crittenden and Captain Rounds, and set free the condemned citizens in the courthouse, all to the joy of the loyalist townspeople. Owing to the large number of prisoners, however, Forrest had to retreat to McMinnville, leaving Murfreesboro open again to Federal occupation. The Confederates also captured a large cache of supplies, including four pieces of artillery, all amounting to about a quarter of a million dollars. The greatest damage was the destruction to the railroad–the depot, a substantial length of tracks, and the bridge south of town were torn up or burned down. Confederate casualties numbered only about 150.
The raid, also referred to as the First Battle of Murfreesboro, was the first significant operation behind Federal lines in the western theater. As Forrest’s first independent raid, its success catapulted Forrest to great renown and a promotion to brigadier general. Strategically, the raid succeeded in diverting Union regiments from reinforcing Negley’s troops at Chattanooga and disrupted Union control of Middle Tennessee by destroying communications and stores at Murfreesboro. Because the Union officers mistakenly estimated that Forrest had as many as 3,500 troops, local garrisons were called in from the Army of the Ohio to protect Nashville and Middle Tennessee. This allowed Confederate General Braxton Bragg to concentrate his forces for an August campaign into Kentucky, ultimately leading to the Battle of Perryville in October.
Robert S. Henry, “First with the Most” Forrest (1944); James L. McDonough, Stones River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee (1980)