As Union general William T. Sherman started his Atlanta Campaign in the summer of 1864, he wanted to protect his vulnerable supply line by ensuring that Confederate cavalry, including General Nathan Bedford Forrest, did not attack it. In June, an attempt by Federal forces under General Samuel D. Sturgis to destroy Forrest had resulted in an embarrassing Union defeat at Brice's Crossroads.
As soon as Sturgis' demoralized troops returned to Memphis, Sherman ordered
another expedition against Forrest. Sturgis was blamed for the mismanagement of the Union forces in battle and was relieved of his command. General Andrew Jackson (A. J) Smith was selected to lead the new mission.
General A. J. Smith and a force of 14,000 men set out from LaGrange, Tennessee, on July 5. His secondary goals were to destroy the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and burn crops in the fertile region known as the "breadbasket of the Confederacy." Determined not to repeat Sturgis' mistakes, Smith marched slowly into Mississippi so as not to wear out his troops before the battle. He also kept the soldiers in close formation and always ready for battle making them less vulnerable to a surprise attack from the Confederates.
While the Union soldiers were heading south General Forrest and his superior officer General Stephen D. Lee, were amassing
troops in Okolona. Advance units were sent to delay the Union forces at Pontotoc and then lure them into a Confederate trap. General Smith however, recognized the superiority of the Confederates' position and declined to fight on his enemy's terms.
On the morning of July 13, Smith decided to move to Tupelo. With Forrest and Lee in pursuit, the Confederate cavalry skirmished with the Federal column throughout the day. Despite these attacks, Smith managed to reach Harrisburg and occupy advantageous ground. His men dug in at Harrisburg, a community that was rapidly dying as its occupants moved east to the railroad and the new town of
Tupelo. At Harrisburg Smith awaited the inevitable Confederate attack.
"Forrest believing, our intention was to press on to Okolona drew all his Forces from Tupelo
and occupied a high ridge beyond a Low swampy bottom and fortified it, thinking Smith would
rush his forces through the bottom into a trap he had layed for him."
Lieutenant Samuel Evans, 59th U.S. Colored Infantry.
"The Union and Confed forces are today racing on near and convergent
roads to see who shall reach Tupelo first, and get into a favorable
position for the real struggle that must come to "morrow."
Chaplain Elijah E. Edwards, 7th Minnesota Infantry