Federals Begin Operations in Florida

February 19, 1864 – Federal forces launched an expedition to conquer Florida, while Confederates scrambled to put up a defense.

Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had been assigned to invade Florida. Gillmore was to impose President Abraham Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan” by registering 10 percent of the state’s voters so they could elect delegates to form a new Unionist state government. Lincoln had dispatched his secretary, John Hay, to register the 10 percent as Federal troops operated in Florida.

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, granted Gillmore’s request for naval support by providing the screw steamers U.S.S. Ottawa and Norwich to transport troops up the St. John’s River. The gunboats U.S.S. Dai Ching, Mahaska, and Water Witch would also support the army expedition.

Gen Truman Seymour | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Gillmore assigned Brigadier General Truman Seymour, an officer familiar with Florida as a veteran of the Seminole Wars, to lead the division in the field. Seymour had four objectives:

  • Help restore Florida to the Union under Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan”
  • Secure the St. John’s River for Federal trade
  • Liberate slaves and recruit them into the Federal army
  • Destroy Confederate supply lines and any materiel–primarily beef and saltworks–considered useful to the Confederate war effort

Gillmore instructed Seymour to land his troops at the state capital of Jacksonville and then move west to Baldwin, “and, if possible, beyond.” Gillmore told him that the Confederates probably had a “small force of infantry and a battery between Jacksonville and Baldwin.” Seymour was to advance no farther than Lake City.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, learned that Seymour was preparing an expedition and correctly guessed that his target would be Florida. Beauregard dispatched troops under Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt to reinforce Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, who commanded the District of East Florida.

Seymour’s Federals left Hilton Head, South Carolina, aboard 20 transports on the 5th. The force consisted of 5,500 men in three infantry brigades, two cavalry regiments, and four artillery batteries. The transports and gunboats moved up the St. John’s River and landed at Jacksonville two days later. The city had been virtually destroyed by previous Federal occupiers.

The Federals debarked and quickly captured about 100 remaining Confederates. Hay informed them that if they swore allegiance to the Union, they would be freed and allowed to help form the new state government; if they refused, they would be sent to northern prison camps. Hay said, “There is to be neither force nor persuasion used in this matter. You decide for yourselves.”

Hay received the signatures of about half the prisoners, along with several city residents. During his stay at Jacksonville, Hay invested in real estate as part of his plan to become a congressman in the new state government.

Seymour’s Federals also seized eight cannon and a large amount of cotton awaiting blockade runners for shipment. The Norwich trapped the Confederate steamer St. Mary’s on McGirt’s Creek, forcing the Confederates to burn and abandon her. The Federals prepared to head west along the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Central Railroad, toward Baldwin and the Suwannee River.

Sporadic skirmishing occurred over the next few days, with the Federals arriving at Baldwin on the 10th. To Seymour’s disappointment, the civilians expressed none of the Unionist sentiment that the Federal high command expected. Moreover, Federal cavalry under Colonel Guy V. Henry probed forward and discovered that Confederates were preparing to make a stand at Olustee.

Seymour reported to Gillmore, “I am convinced that a movement upon Lake City is not, in the present condition of transportation, admissible, and indeed that what has been said of the desire of Florida to come back (to the Union) now is a delusion.” Seymour recommended returning his force to Jacksonville, but Gillmore urged him to continue west to Sanderson, halfway to Lake City, and dispatched the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry as reinforcement.

The Federals advanced to Sanderson, where they destroyed vast amounts of public and private property. During this time, Gillmore left Jacksonville and returned to Hilton Head, where he arranged for supplies to be delivered to Seymour’s men. They were now in the unforgiving Florida country of stunted oaks, pines, and palmettos, and their only train had broken down. When Gillmore received word that Confederate cavalry might be threatening Seymour’s right flank, he ordered Seymour to fall back to Baldwin.

Seymour complied, but by the 16th, he was convinced that he could get to Lake City. He informed Gillmore that he intended to head there and destroy the railroad. He asked Gillmore to send him naval support on the Savannah River, adding, “I look upon this as of great importance.”

Stunned, Gillmore replied that there was no way he could arrange such support so quickly. He wrote, “You must have forgotten my last instructions, which were for the present to hold Baldwin…” Gillmore reminded Seymour that he (Seymour) had argued for returning to Jacksonville, but now he inexplicably sought to capture Lake City. He also informed Seymour that the Federal high command had no plans to operate in the Lake City region of Florida, making his proposed advance there pointless.

Meanwhile, Confederates stationed at Lake City observed the Federal movements and relayed them to Finegan. He reported to Beauregard that the enemy numbered at least 10 regiments. Beauregard responded, “Enemy’s forces should on no account be exaggerated. His regiments average 600 at most, composed largely of newly drafted men and recruits; not a match for one-half of our men.”

Finegan scrambled to build a defense line along the railroad near the small hamlet of Olustee, about 10 miles east of Lake City. He ordered his officers “to impress the required negroes and to collect such tools as might be procured from the surrounding plantations.” By the 19th, the Confederate defenses were not yet completed, but Colquitt’s Confederates had arrived to reinforce Finegan. Seymour’s Federals passed Barber’s Plantation and headed for the Confederate line outside Lake City.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 366, 371, 373-74; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 900-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 394-97; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 462; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 545

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The Hunley Attack

February 17, 1864 – One of the first submarine attacks in history occurred when a “submersible” Confederate vessel confronted a Federal warship on blockade duty at Charleston Harbor.

The C.S.S. H.L. Hunley was a forerunner to the modern submarine. It had sunk in two previous test runs, killing both crews, including inventor Horace L. Hunley himself in the second run. Both times the Confederate navy salvaged the Hunley and restored her for service. Built from a boiler cylinder, the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped craft was nicknamed “the peripatetic coffin.”

The H.L. Hunley | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had received intelligence that Confederates were experimenting with submersible ships to attack the Federal blockaders. He had been aware of “semi-submersible” vessels ever since the David’s attack on the U.S.S. New Ironsides last October, and he knew that new technology was being attempted to make the vessels even harder to see on the water.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles warned Dahlgren that Confederates were developing a type of “submarine machine.” Dahlgren passed this information to his fleet commanders, instructing them to look out for a ship “of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.”

A Confederate deserter informed the Federals that a vessel had been developed that could “stay underwater 10 minutes each time, and would come up 75 to 80 yards from where she went down.” Dahlgren reported, “When she does not dive, she only shows two heads above the water about the size of a man’s head. He (the deserter) thinks she is about 20 feet long and the manholes are about eight feet apart. She is made of iron.” Dahlgren stated that because he had “every reason to expect a visit from some or all of these torpedoes, the greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them.”

Dahlgren put all his ship captains on high alert, but he assured them that only in “smooth water, and when the tide is slack, that any danger is imminent.” The waters had been rough in Charleston harbor since the beginning of the year, and by the time calm finally came on the night of the 17th, the Federal crews had grown complacent.

Lieutenant George E. Dixon, commanding the Hunley, targeted the U.S.S. Housatonic, a 1,240-ton wooden sloop-of-war. Dixon and his six crewmen waited for a strong ebb tide and favorable winds to help maximize the Hunley’s top speed of four knots. Moving out on a foggy night, guided by a near-full moon, the vessel covered the 12 miles to her target, on blockade duty just outside Charleston Harbor.

At 8:45 p.m., Captain Charles W. Pickering, commanding the Housatonic, sighted a strange object floating in the water toward his ship and notified Acting Master John K. Crosby, the deck officer. Crosby later stated, “It… had the appearance of a plank moving in the water.” The Hunley was already within 100 yards when Crosby saw that it was an enemy vessel. He ordered the crew to slip the anchor cables and back the ship away, but by that time, the Hunley was upon them. None of the Housatonic’s 12 guns could be depressed low enough to fire on the attacker.

The Hunley’s crew detonated a torpedo attached to a spar against the Housatonic’s side. According to Crosby, “The torpedo struck forward of the mizzen mast, on the starboard side, in line with the magazine.” The torpedo held 90 pounds of gunpowder, and the Federal ship sank within five minutes after detonation. Because the water was just 27 feet deep, the Housatonic did not sink completely, allowing all but five of her crew to escape. The remaining 158 crewmen were rescued by the nearby U.S.S. Canandaigua.

The Hunley signaled her success to Confederates on Sullivan’s Island but then disappeared, believed to have been sunk by the blast. There were no survivors, and the craft was finally found in 1970. However, this was the first sinking of a ship by a submarine in history, and it served to put the Federal blockaders on full alert. According to the Charleston Daily Courier:

“The explosion made no noise, and the affair was not known among the fleet until daybreak, when the crew were discovered and released from their uneasy positions in the rigging. They had remained there all night. Two officers and three men were reported missing and were supposed to be drowned. The loss of the Housatonic caused great consternation in the fleet. All the wooden vessels are ordered to keep up steam and to go out to sea every night, not being allowed to anchor inside. The picket boats have been doubled and the force in each boat increased.”

Dahlgren directed his captains to launch patrols and put up netting to guard against similar type vessels. He also wrote Welles proposing a Federal reward of $20,000 to $30,000 for anyone seizing or destroying any vessel like the Hunley. Distressed by this surprise attack, Dahlgren wrote, “They are worth more to us than that.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 730-31; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 898; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 399-400; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 465; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 179; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 363-64; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 371; Ward, Geoffrey, Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

North Carolina: Confederate Deserters Executed

February 15, 1864 – Thirteen men who deserted the North Carolina militia to join the Federal army were executed by Confederate officials, even though they had never officially belonged to the Confederate army.

Confederate forces withdrawing from New Bern captured several Federal troops near Beach Grove and identified 22 of them as former members of the North Carolina Home Guard. They had served in J.H. Nethercutt’s battalion of the 66th North Carolina, under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke. The men had apparently deserted and joined the Federal cause when rumors swirled that the Home Guard would be drafted into the Confederate army.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederate Department of North Carolina, confronted these prisoners and exclaimed, “God damn you, I reckon you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I’ll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert!” He later told his subordinates, “We’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting… every God-damned man who didn’t do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung.”

However, a court-martial had no authority over these men because they had belonged to a state militia unit, not the national army. Nevertheless, two were executed by firing squad before Pickett even approved the creation of a court-martial to try the remaining 20 men. The Fayetteville Observer reported, “Among the prisoners captured by our forces near Newbern were several deserted from our army. We learn by an officer just from the spot that two of these have already been executed, and others are undergoing trial.”

The tribunal consisted of Pickett’s officers, headed by Hoke. According to one of the defendant’s brothers, “the court-martial refused to admit an attorney, or to receive any evidence in favor of the accused.” Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, received a list of 53 Federal prisoners who had once belonged to the North Carolina militia. He forwarded this list to Pickett and wrote, “I ask for them the same treatment, in all respects, as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.”

Before Pickett responded, seven men were found guilty and hanged less than 24 hours after the verdict. On the 14th, the remaining 13 men were found guilty and sentenced to death the next day. According to Reverend John Parris, chaplain of the 54th North Carolina:

“The scene beggars all description. Some of them were comparatively young men; but they had made a fatal mistake; they had only 24 hours to live, and but little preparation had been made for death. Here was a wife to say farewell to a husband forever. Here a mother to take the last look at her ruined son; and then a sister who had come to embrace, for the last time, the brother who had brought disgrace upon the very name she bore, by his treason to his country. I told them they had sinned against their country, and that country would not forgive; but they had also sinned against God, yet God would forgive if they approached Him with penitent hearts filled with a godly sorrow for sin, and repose their trust in the atoning blood of Christ.”

Nethercutt urged Hoke to intervene on the condemned men’s behalf, but Hoke told him (according to Nethercutt) that “he could do nothing, as he had an order for their execution.” Parris wrote:

“The 13 marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear not. On the scaffold they were arranged in one row. At a given signal the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling; but it was as truly the deserters’ doom. Many of them said ‘I never expected to come to such an end as this.’ But yet they were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom.”

Pickett replied to Peck’s letter the day after the executions. He told Peck that he had only executed 22 of the 53 men on the list, but because the list had been “so kindly furnished me,” it would help Pickett “bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts.” Pickett wrote, “Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors.”

Before Peck received Pickett’s reply, he was shown the article in the Fayetteville Observer stating that two men had been executed and the rest were awaiting trial. Peck wrote, “Having reported this matter to higher authority, I am instructed to notify you, that if the members of the North Carolina regiment who have been captured are not treated as prisoners of war, the strictest retaliation will be enforced.”

Peck warned Pickett that the Federals held “two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and two captains” at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula “as hostages for their safety.” Peck received information from various sources, some accurate and some not, and he tried sorting it out with his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, before learning the truth in March.

After the war, Nethercutt testified before a Federal war crimes commission regarding those executed: “As far as I can recollect, these men were never borne on the rolls and returns of the (66th North Carolina) regiment.” In response to the question why these men deserted before their unit was absorbed into the Confederate army, Nethercutt said that he did not believe “their sympathies were with the rebellion.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Fall of Meridian

February 14, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal Army of the Tennessee completed its destructive march through central Mississippi by arriving at the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in the state.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

As the Federals resumed their eastward march on the 14th, Sherman issued orders to his commanders on what their men should do once they reached Meridian:

“The destruction of the railroads intersecting at Meridian is of great importance, and should be done most effectually. Every tie and rail of iron for many miles in each direction should be absolutely destroyed or injured, and every bridge and culvert completely destroyed… The troops should be impressed with the importance of this work, and also that time is material, and therefore it should be begun at once and prosecuted with all the energy possible. The destruction of the buildings must be deferred until the last moment, when a special detail will be made for that purpose.”

Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate Army of Mississippi, had ordered his troops to abandon Meridian, but before they left, they dumped felled trees on the roads to slow the Federal advance. They also destroyed the bridges over Tallahatta Creek and the Oktibbeha River. Federal engineers and laborers rebuilt the bridge over the Tallahatta that morning. Then, as Sherman reported:

“At the Tallahatta, 20 miles from Meridian, we found the road obstructed with fallen timber, and satisfied the enemy was trying to save time to cover the removal of railroad property from Meridian, I dropped our trains with good escorts and pushed on over all obstructions straight for the Oktibbeha, where we found the bridge burning.”

Colonel Edward Winslow’s Federal cavalry led the advance across the Oktibbeha, where they pushed the small Confederate rear guard through Meridian. A Federal infantry division led by Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith came up, with Winslow and Smith arguing over whether the cavalry or the infantry should be the first to enter the town. Winslow won, telling Smith, “I believe this cavalry would charge the Gates of Hell if I tell them,” and leading his troopers into Meridian. Smith’s infantry followed, as a soldier named John Ritland recalled:

“Again we marched on with the firm resolution in our hearts to do or die; and again we were halted, this time to receive orders not to fire a shot, meanwhile, continuing our interminable marching, as if there was no end. Almost unaware we found ourselves marching through a deserted town with here and there some negroes reported, but not a sign of the enemy. Upon asking where they might be, the negroes reported, ‘They’re all gone. They began going yesterday. Some went last night, and the rest this morning.’ They had divided and their destinations were Mobile and Richmond. We occupied the city without a shot.”

Sherman entered the town that night. The next morning, he issued a proclamation to his troops, congratulating them for–

“… their most successful accomplishment of one of the great problems of the war. Meridian, the great railway center of the Southwest, is now in our possession, and by industry and hard work can be rendered useless to the enemy and deprive him of the chief source of supply to his armies. Secrecy in plan and rapidity of execution accomplish the best results in war, and the general commanding assures all, by following their leaders fearlessly and with confidence, they will in time reap the reward so dear to us all–a peace that will never again be disturbed in our country by a discontented minority.”

The Confederates fell back to the east side of the Tombigbee River. Polk’s ultimate destination was Demopolis, Alabama, while he moved about $12 million worth of supplies to Selma and Mobile. His cavalry, led by Major General Stephen D. Lee, did its best to harass Sherman’s Federals but could do little in the face of such overwhelming numbers.

The next day, the Federals began destroying the town in earnest, wrecking railroad tracks, locomotives, factories, sawmills, machine shops, public buildings, and private homes, while the Confederates were powerless to save the civilians from such devastation. Sherman reported on the 20th: “For five days 10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction… Meridian, with its depots, store-houses, arsenals, hospitals, offices, hotels and cantonments no longer exists.”

In the 11-day, 140-mile campaign from Vicksburg to Meridian, the Federals obliterated 115 miles of railroad track, 61 bridges, and 20 locomotives in pursuit of Sherman’s goal to ensure that the Mississippi railroads could not function for the rest of the war.

Sherman informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that his troops had taken “some 500 prisoners, a good many refugee families, and about 10 miles of negroes,” while inflicting so much damage that it was “simply impossible for the enemy to risk anything but light cavalry this side of Pearl River…” He also wrote:

“My movement to Meridian stampeded all Alabama. Polk retreated across Tombigbee and left me to smash things at pleasure, and I think it is well done… We broke absolutely and effectually a full hundred miles of railroad… and made a swath of desolation 50 miles broad across the State of Mississippi which the present generation will not forget.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 925-26, 934; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 397-98; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 464; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488

The Proposed Dalton Demonstration

February 12, 1864 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant asked Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland, to feign an attack on Dalton to divert Confederate attention from the Federal offensive in Mississippi.

Grant, heading the Military Division of the Mississippi, commanded three armies between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River:

  • Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio faced Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate corps near Knoxville in eastern Tennessee
  • Thomas’s army at Chattanooga faced General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee at Dalton in northern Georgia
  • Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee faced Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s Army of Mississippi outside Meridian

Sherman was in the process of laying waste to central Mississippi while closing in on the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in the state. Grant wanted to support Sherman’s effort by having Thomas prevent Johnston from helping Polk. Grant also wanted Schofield to drive Longstreet out of eastern Tennessee, but he needed Thomas to send troops to support that mission as well.

Major General John G. Foster, who had just been replaced as Army of the Ohio commander by Schofield, traveled to Nashville to confer with Grant about the eastern Tennessee situation. Foster convinced Grant that Longstreet would not threaten Schofield, prompting Grant to announce that “no movement will be made against Longstreet at present.”

Major General George H. Thomas | Image Credit: Histmag.org

This allowed Thomas to devote his full attention to Johnston at Dalton. Grant asked Thomas on the 12th, “Should you not be required to go into East Tennessee, could you not make a formidable reconnaissance toward Dalton, and, if successful in driving the enemy out, occupy that place and complete the railroad up to it this winter?” Thomas responded that if he had one more division, “an advance on Dalton would be successful.”

Grant reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that he had decided not to send Thomas’s Federals to support Schofield because “if we move against Longstreet with an overwhelming force he will simply fall back toward Virginia until he can be re-enforced or take up an impregnable position.” Instead, “Now that our men are ready for an advance, I have directed it to be made on Dalton, and hope to get possession of that place and hold it as a step toward a spring campaign.”

When Thomas still had not moved after five days, Grant reiterated his instructions: “Make your contemplated move as soon as possible.” Thomas replied, “I have had more obstacles to overcome than I had anticipated. I find it absolutely necessary to take artillery, for which I must have horses. I cannot say positively what day I shall start, but certainly by Monday (the 22nd).”

On the 18th, Thomas followed up his reply from the previous day: “I regret to be obliged to report that I do not think I shall be able to take the field, the cold and damp weather having brought on an attack of neuralgia, from which I suffer intensely.” Thomas assigned Major General John M. Palmer, commanding XIV Corps, to lead the demonstration.

Palmer would lead the three divisions from his own corps, plus a division from IV Corps under Brigadier General Charles Cruft, which was 30 miles east of Chattanooga. Palmer’s corps would advance from the northwest toward Dalton while Cruft advanced from the northeast. Palmer directed Cruft to move out on the 22nd, writing him the day before:

“I had supposed that you had received detailed orders for your movements tomorrow… From the lateness of the evening at which I received my own orders, I am not able to give precise directions for further operations, but can only suggest that I hope everything will be done to make the reconnaissance effective.”

Despite the vagueness of the instructions, Palmer and Cruft were to somehow join forces before they reached Dalton, about 35 miles south of Chattanooga. The Federals would move out the next day.

Meanwhile, Johnston continued his new routine of inspections, drills, and rest in the Army of Tennessee while awaiting Federal action. As Sherman’s Federals destroyed Meridian, Johnston resisted calls from Richmond to send reinforcements to Polk. Finally, President Jefferson Davis ordered Johnston to dispatch Lieutenant General William Hardee’s corps. Johnston reluctantly complied.

Hardee’s Confederates began arriving at Montgomery, Alabama, on the 19th, where they learned that Sherman had left Meridian. They did not yet know that Sherman was returning to Vicksburg; they feared he might continue east into Alabama. One of Hardee’s divisions linked with Polk’s army at Demopolis on the 21st. With the Federals poised to advance on Dalton the next day, this left Johnston dangerously vulnerable.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 369; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 935

Meridian: Federals Continue Moving East

February 11, 1864 – Federal cavalry finally began moving out of Tennessee to support Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals moving east through central Mississippi.

Brig Gen W.S. Smith | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Brigadier General William Sooy Smith moved his Federal horsemen out of Collierville, Tennessee, to strike into Mississippi. Smith’s mission was to wreak havoc on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, defeat Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry, and link with Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee headed for Meridian. Smith had 7,000 troopers, 20 guns, and a train of supply and ambulance wagons.

As Smith’s Federals moved south toward Pontotoc, their advance was hindered by winter rain and mud, along with the swamps of northern Mississippi. Forrest was informed of the Federal approach and prepared his 2,500 troopers. He responded to his superiors warning that Smith might target the railroad: “Am preparing to meet that move as best I can.” Forrest estimated the enemy force to consist of “about 10,000 cavalry and mounted infantry.”

Meanwhile, Sherman’s 27,000 Federals continued their methodical eastward advance toward Meridian, the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in Mississippi. Opposing them was Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s 10,000-man Army of Mississippi, which had fallen back until it was outside Meridian. Polk still believed that Sherman’s ultimate target was not Meridian but the vital port city of Mobile, Alabama.

Advised of the threat that Sherman posed, President Jefferson Davis contacted General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia:

“Keep in communication with General Polk, and do what you can to assist him, either by sending him re-enforcements or joining him with what force you can. If possible the enemy should be met before he reaches the Gulf and establishes a base to which supplies and re-enforcements may be sent by sea.”

There was little that Johnston could do because he was being held in check by the Federal Army of the Cumberland around Chattanooga. He wired Polk, “I have no doubt that your cavalry, under its active commanders, will make the march to Mobile impossible to the enemy with such wagon trains as they must require.” But neither Johnston nor Polk knew that the Federals were mostly living off the land and therefore had few wagons to slow their march.

News that Sherman had stopped at Decatur on the night of the 11th contradicted Polk’s assumption that the Federals were headed to Mobile. Polk wrote Major General William W. Loring, one of his division commanders, “If this is true, then Sherman must be looking to move on Meridian and make a junction with the cavalry force (of Smith) moving on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.” Polk had directed his other division under Major General Samuel G. French to go to Mobile, but now he ordered those troops to wait at Meridian.

Major General Stephen D. Lee’s Confederate cavalry was supposed to try harassing Sherman’s flanks while keeping between the Federals and Polk’s Confederates. Lee reported, “I have burned all bridges, which I find retard their advancing very much.” Freezing temperatures also slowed the Federal advance. But none of this stopped the troops from laying waste to the railroad depot at Lake Station, which included destroying two locomotives, 35 railcars, over a mile of track, and all nearby factories, sawmills, and machine shops.

Back in northern Mississippi, W.S. Smith’s Federal troopers drove off 600 Mississippi militia on the 12th and continued southward. The Federals burned cotton and corn, and destroyed track on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad along the way. About 1,000 local slaves joined Smith’s cavalry on their journey.

Meanwhile, Sherman continued east, encountering light resistance along the way, before stopping on the night of the 12th about 30 miles west of Meridian. Confederate cavalry raided the small Federal wagon train near the cabin that served as Sherman’s headquarters and nearly captured the Federal commander before infantry rushed up to drive the raiders off.

Polk sent a message to Davis and Johnston: “He (Sherman) is to-night near Decatur, I am near Meridian. My cavalry under Lee has skirmished with him in front, flank and rear from the Big Black, and, Lee reports, with little effect. He moves very compactly… I see nothing left me but to fall back on Alabama and take advantage of events.”

The Federal advance resumed on the morning of the 13th. Loring, whose Confederates were stationed just west of Meridian, informed Polk, “I have examined carefully the position in front, and I do not regard any of them as tenable with the force under my command. Will you please inform me as soon as you are able to move, so that I may know what to do in any emergency.” Polk responded:

“I am inclined to doubt the correctness of the report as to the near approach of the enemy to-night, yet I see no reason why you may not act upon it. As I understand the matter, the enemy has to pass across Oktibbeha River at the place where there is a long bridge now prepared to be burned. The burning of the bridge ought to retard his progress at least a day.”

By day’s end, Sherman’s Federals reached Tallahatta Creek, about 20 miles from Meridian. Many of the troops expected to fight a major battle for the town the next day, but Polk had other ideas.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 373; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 397; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 463; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702

The Daring Escape from Libby Prison

February 9, 1864 – Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania plotted a remarkable escape from disease-ridden Libby Prison in Richmond.

Libby Prison | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Libby was a four-story warehouse situated near the James River that held captured Federal officers. This building housed about 1,200 men in extremely overcrowded, drafty, and damp conditions that invited the spread of illness and disease. Rose, who had been captured at the Battle of Chickamauga, worked with Major Andrew G. Hamilton, a Kentucky cavalry officer, to tunnel out of the prison from underground.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Rose estimated that digging a 50-yard tunnel to a warehouse shed beyond the compound fence could enable prisoners to escape undetected. Rose opened a hole in the fireplace on the building’s first floor, which enabled him to gain access to the basement. He enlisted the help of other officers to tunnel out from there, and each man was sworn to secrecy.

The men worked in shifts in the east section of the basement, which they called “Rat Hell.” They collected the dirt in spittoons and emptied them among the basement straw and rubbish. The work took several months to complete; the prisoners estimated the tunnel to be eight feet below ground and just wide enough for a man to crawl through.

Colonel Abel D. Streight, who had been captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest, was the ranking officer and became the first man to use the tunnel on the 7th. He emerged short of the fence, but the guards did not see him. The hole was plugged and the digging continued.

Two nights later, a loud music show covered the escape of six colonels, six lieutenant colonels, seven majors, 32 captains and 58 lieutenants. The escapees scattered throughout Richmond, and when guards noticed their absence, the city’s alarms were sounded.

Rose and 47 others were eventually recaptured, and two others drowned while trying to cross waterways. However, 59 managed to reach Federal lines, making this the largest and most sensational prison escape of the war.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 373; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 396; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 436-38; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 462-63; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-28