Name: Thomas M. Nelson
Highest Rank: Lieutenant colonel
Unit: Nelson’s Rangers
Service Record: Enlisted April 28, 1861, 4th Georgia Infantry, resigned in November. Formed Nelson’s Rangers, April 1862, fought at Huntsville, Tenn., Richmond, Ky., Brice’s Cross Roads, raided in Mississippi and Alabama. Killed on July 14, 1864, at Harrisburg, Miss.
On April 28, 1861, a fortnight after the Union surrender at Fort Sumter, Private Thomas M. Nelson was among 83 volunteers assembled at the Albany, Georgia, railroad depot ready to defend the Confederate cause. The 28-year-old doctor had been assigned to Company E of the 4th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment and was en route to Richmond, Virginia.
Upon arriving in the capital of the Confederacy, Dr. Nelson was named surgeon of the 4th Georgia, though he would never fight with the unit. For unknown reasons, Nelson resigned his position in November and returned to Albany.
In April 1862, an independent cavalry company was formed called Nelson’s Rangers, with the former surgeon as its captain. Eventually there were more than 130 men in the company, including four of Nelson’s nephews.
In mid-August, Nelson’s Rangers escorted Maj. Gen. E. Kirby Smith’s 19,000-man Army of Kentucky as it marched from Knoxville, Tenn., to drive the Federal Army of the Ohio out of the Bluegrass State. Near the village of Huntsville, Tenn., the Rangers saw their first action when Captain Nelson led a successful cavalry charge on a Federal camp, overpowering its defenders. On August 30, the Rangers subdued an entire skirmish line during the Battle of Richmond (Ky.), a Confederate victory.
Smith was ordered to reorganize his army west of the Mississippi River in late 1862, and Nelson’s Rangers were assigned to accompany him. But with winter approaching, the Rangers returned to their homes in Georgia to wait for spring. While the Rangers were heading west to join Smith at Shreveport, La., they were pulled back to help in Mississippi as Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman began their decisive Vicksburg campaign.
After Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, 1863, Nelson’s unit was reassigned to the commands of Maj. Gen. Stephen Dill Lee and Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Rangers began conducting raids in northern Alabama and Mississippi.
Nelson returned to Albany that winter and married Fannie Tift on December 30. The following spring the Rangers were again serving as a cavalry escort for Stephen D. Lee’s army, and in June fought with Forrest’s 6th Mississippi Cavalry at the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads. Nelson was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
After Forrest’s victory at Brice’s Cross Roads, Sherman ordered his troops to pursue and destroy the brash Rebel general. The two armies met on July 14, 1864, at the village of Harrisburg, Miss., near Tupelo. Nelson was killed while leading his men in that fight.
As Forrest later reported: “[T]he battle of Harrisburg will…stamp with immortality the gallant dead and the living heroes it has made. Prominent among the dead is Lieutenant Colonel Thomas M. Nelson—a Lion-Hearted Officer.”
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.