Following its December 1864 victory at Nashville, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas' Union command did not see any active campaigning in Tennessee. That winter, while his infantry was dispersed to other fronts, Thomas' cavalry, under Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, gathered at Waterloo and Gravelly Springs, Alabama, for a thrust into the Deep South. A brash and gifted soldier, protege of both Thomas and Gen.-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant, Wilson was originally ordered to make a diversion in favor of a larger force bound for Mobile. Eventually, he won permission to conduct an independent campaign against Selma, Alabama, one of the Confederacy's most vital munitions depots.
On March 22nd, following 2 months of organizing and training, Wilson led 13,500 well-armed and equipped troopers, the largest mounted force assembled during the war, south from Gravelly Springs toward the Black Warrior River. The corps moved along 3 divergent trails to facilitate mutual support and confuse Confederate leaders. The latter included Lt. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest, one of the South's ablest commanders, now in charge of all cavalry in Alabama, Mississippii, and eastern Louisiana.
Unimpressed by his adversary's reputation as the "Wizard of the Saddle", Wilson invited a showdown by a rapid advance into Forrest's bailiwick. He moved so nimbly that he eluded brigades of horsemen sent to slow his march and even dispatched a brigade under Brig. Gen. John T. Croxton on a side campaign against Tuscaloosa, drawing attention from the main raiding body. On the 31st, Wilson's advance drove a force under Forrest from Montevallo, 40 miles above Selma. The next day, at Ebenezer Church, 20 miles farther south, the Federals emerged victorious from a bloody saber-and-pistol duel against 2,000 cavalry and 6 cannon.
Besides drubbing the Confederates, Wilson gathered enough intelligence to plot Forrest';s countermoves, then burned a strategic bridge near Centreville, thereby preventing reinforcements from reaching Selma. By the afternoon of the 2nd, when it drew up outside Selma, Wilson's force had come 300 miles in 12 days.