The Civil War touched almost every place in Tennessee, and towns like Collierville, located on the historic Memphis-Charleston railroad line in Shelby County, have their own Civil War stories to tell.
In the fall of 1863 Confederate forces had won a great victory at the Battle of Chickamauga in northern Georgia and had now bottled up the Union Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. The North began rushing reinforcements there and the Memphis & Charleston RR was needed as a vital east-west link.
Conflict came to the doorsteps of Collierville residents as Confederate cavalry operations responded to disrupt these Union supply lines and communications. On October 11, 1863, 3,000 Confederate troopers of General N. B. Forrest’s cavalry, under the command of Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers, swooped down on the small Union garrison protecting Collierville. The Confederates chased the Federals into their fortifications and captured wagons of supplies.
Suddenly, in what proved to be a stroke of luck for the Union army, a supply train carrying Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and his headquarters staff and escort regiment --an estimated 260 men--pulled into the Collierville depot. Chalmers had been unaware that Sherman’s unscheduled train was coming--in fact Sherman was headed east to review his troops at Corinth, Mississippi, before they moved to Chattanooga to help the besieged Army of the Cumberland.
Gen. Sherman quickly sent his troops from the train to push back the Confederate assault while he ordered local commander Col. D. C. Anthony to refuse General Chalmers’s demand for surrender. Soon the Confederates were close enough to fire volleys into General Sherman’s train and Fort Collierville, and Sherman ordered the burning of nearby buildings that potentially sheltered enemy fire. The Confederates captured the rear of the train and set fire to a portion of it and even captured Sherman’s favorite horse, Dolly, but they never gained control. Union commanders ordered reinforcements to rush to the town. When Chalmers learned of approaching Federal reinforcements from Germantown, he withdrew his troops, to fight another day.
Losses on both sides totaled over 200. The Federal dead were buried and later removed to the National Cemetery in Memphis. One unknown Confederate soldier is buried in the town’s Magnolia Cemetery.
Despite the damage, General Sherman was back on track, headed to Corinth, in a day. But the encounter at the Collierville depot taught the Union general that dependence on this railroad was unwise. He reported to General Grant that the Federal advance in the Deep South should never be dependent on the railroad and should depend instead on whatever could be taken from the countryside. The lesson Sherman learned at Collierville became part of his basic strategy along the “March to the Sea” in 1864.
Adapted from the article by Nancy Bassett, Collierville, and Carroll Van West, Middle Tennessee State University Center for Historic Preservation Text copyright© 1998 by the Tennessee Historical Society, Nashville, Tennessee.