In 1863 Federal armies won important victories at Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga. In the spring of 1864 the Federal mission was to bisect the South from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the Atlantic coast at Savannah, Georgia. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman wanted to destroy the Confederate Army led by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and occupy Atlanta along the way as he executed his “March to the Sea.”
Sherman knew that his plan was vulnerable. To supply his large troop movement into north Georgia, he depended on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. This line could be most threatened by the excellent horseman of Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry corps. Sherman needed to keep Forrest in north Mississippi.
In June, Sherman ordered Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis and 8,100 soldiers to move out of Memphis and into north Mississippi for the purpose of fighting Forrest and his cavalry corps of 3,500. Win or lose the primary goal was to keep Forrest in Mississippi. Sturgis's forces were crushed by Forrest on June 10 at the Battle of Brices Cross Roads and the Federals retreated back to Memphis. Although defeated, the primary mission was accomplished.
In July, Sherman still needed Forrest to stay in Mississippi. This time though, Sherman expected better results on the field of battle. Sherman ordered his commander in Memphis "to make up a force and go out to follow Forrest to the death, if it cost 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury." Now the Federal force was 14,000 strong and led by Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Smith. The Federals left Memphis on July 5 headed into north Mississippi, determined to defeat Forrest.