HOUSTON – Most people don’t know Okolona was raided by Union forces at least four times during the Civil War with at least two other skirmishes occurring around this “bread basket of the Confederacy.”
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has sparked interest in events that occurred in this area and the Chickasaw County Historical and Genealogical Society invited author and historian Donald Harrison to speak about his book and research on campaigns, raids and strategy as it related to this part of the state.
“When the Confederacy could no longer count on corn out of Tennessee, it turned to the Black Prairie Belt around here and an area in Georgia for supplies,” said Harrison, who spoke at the Chickasaw County Heritage Museum Thursday night. “The railroad had brought prosperity to this part of the state when it came through in 1859 but it also made us much more of a strategic target when the war broke out.”
Harrison pointed out Pontotoc Ridge was high ground stretching from Tennessee to the North Central Hills of Mississippi. He said it was the route of the GM&O Rail Road and the route of most Union forces that came south out of Memphis.
The first raid took place in December 1962, said Harrison, when Yankee soldiers raced down from Grand Junction, Tenn., along the railroad, burning bridges and destroying provisions. He said this was also General Ulysses Grant’s push to Vicksburg.
“The strategy was to send the main body in one direction and then have these feints or raids spread out from it,” said Harrison. “In this campaign that is what happened and that is what sent the first Yankees to Okolona and Houston on Dec. 17.”
One of the most famous forays came 151 years ago this week with Grierson’s Raid in the spring of 1863.
“Grierson left LaGrange, Tenn., on April 17 and was in Okolona on April 22,” said Harrison. “That’s when he also raided Palo Alto and this little bitty stop in the road called Tupelo before returning to Tennessee.”
Harrison said Okolona’s Rose Gates Hospital and a warehouse full of cotton were destroyed in this skirmish.
Harrison said Okolona was burned and homes across this part of the state were pillaged and also burned. During the course of the war, Okolona would be burned twice.
The Union invasion came in full force in the winter of 1864 with General William Sooy Smith leaving Memphis to meet up with Grant in Meridian.
“But he got cold feet and met Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest,” said Harrison. “He never did make it to Meridian.”
Smith made it as far as West Point and decided to push west. This was the move that led to the Battle of Ellis Bridge in Clay County. As Yankees fled north, it also led to the Battle of Okolona where Forrest’s brother would be killed.
“This was the time when Confederate soldiers saw the devastation done by the Union forces on their way south,” said Harrison. “It inflamed them and they fought with a vengeance. They say Forrest started his charge just east of the railroad in Okolona in the morning and if the Sun had not gone down, he would probably still be chasing them.”
Harrison said Okolona was burned again in the winter of 1865 by Grierson. It was during this raid that the Houston Courthouse records were burned after a wagon taking them to safety was captured on Old Starkville Road.
“There is a lot of history in this area and a lot of very interesting people who were involved in it,” said Harrison. “If we don’t document it and record it and then tell about it, it will all be lost.”
Harrison’s visit to the Chickasaw County Heritage museum is part of a new exhibit of local Civil War soldiers and families. That exhibit, featuring photos, letters and artifacts from the Civil War will be unveiled at the Spring Flywheel Festival April 25-26.
The Chickasaw County Heritage Museum was also recently the recipient of the Frank E. Everett, Jr. Award, established by the Mississippi Historical Society, to recognize people and organizations for outstanding contributions to the preservation and interpretation of local history.