February 1, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s campaign to advance from Vicksburg to Meridian in Mississippi began.
Sherman’s march was to be preceded by Brigadier General William Sooy Smith leading 7,000 Federal cavalry troopers out of Colliersville, Tennessee, west of Memphis. Smith’s troopers were to raid southward to Pontotoc, Mississippi, cripple the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, and move through Okolona. Sherman issued orders for Smith to move out on the 1st, but Smith experienced lengthy delays.
Sherman planned to move about 27,000 men 120 miles east from Vicksburg to Meridian, the largest railroad center still in Confederate hands in Mississippi. Sherman hoped to deny essential provisions to Confederate troops by eliminating the state’s railroads and devastating the countryside. Smith’s command was to link with Sherman’s at Meridian on the 10th, and from there they would continue east along the railroad to the Confederate manufacturing center of Selma, Alabama.
Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, had just 13,500 men scattered among various garrisons to oppose Sherman. Polk forwarded the latest information about Sherman to his superiors at Richmond: “I am informed reliably it is his intention to make a forward movement from Vicksburg and Yazoo City in a few days.”
Polk had two infantry divisions:
- Major General Samuel G. French’s 3,000 men were stationed at Brandon, east of the state capital of Jackson.
- Major General William W. Loring’s 6,000 men were posted at Canton, north of Jackson.
Polk also had two cavalry divisions:
- Major General Stephen D. Lee’s 2,000 troopers patrolled the railroad between Vicksburg and Jackson.
- Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 2,500 troopers were stationed near Oxford to the north.
Believing that the Federals were targeting Jackson again, Forrest recommended wrecking the railroad west of Jackson “if it can be more effectually destroyed than it has been already.” East of Jackson, Confederates were trying to repair the railroad bridge over the Pearl River. Polk asked his commanders, “Can you not send out and press negroes on the east side (of) Pearl River to hasten the completion of the trestles? This may become necessary.”
Polk then acted upon Forrest’s intelligence and directed Lee “to destroy the railroad from Vicksburg to Jackson immediately, beginning as far west as you can, and putting as many men upon it as you can employ. Let it be done thoroughly.”
Meanwhile, French strengthened Confederate defenses at Jackson, even though Polk knew his army was no match for Sherman’s Federals. To ensure that Polk could expect no reinforcements, the Federals at Chattanooga began moving to demonstrate against the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia.
Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal naval squadron on the Mississippi River, granted Sherman’s request to move up the Yazoo River and divert attention from Sherman’s offensive. Four gunboats headed up the Yazoo on the 3rd and destroyed a Confederate shore battery at Liverpool. Retreating Confederates destroyed one of their steamers to prevent its capture.
Sherman’s Federals left Vicksburg that same day. They moved in two columns, with Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut’s XVI Corps leaving north of town and Major General James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps leaving east of Vicksburg. Colonel Edward Winslow’s four cavalry regiments rode ahead of the infantry. Sherman had previously arranged to have two bridges built across the Big Black River; McPherson’s men crossed at the railroad, while Hurlbut crossed north at Messinger’s Ferry.
Lee’s Confederates did not challenge the Federal crossings; instead they gathered near Bolton Depot, about 10 miles east of the river, and prepared to block the roads to Clinton. As the Federals resumed their advance the next day, they were met by Brigadier General William Wirt Adams’s Confederate horsemen. Adams unsuccessfully attacked Winslow’s left flank as McPherson deployed his infantry in line of battle near the old Champion’s Hill battlefield. A soldier named Lucius W. Barber recalled:
“We advanced one mile uninterrupted and then came upon a brigade of Wirt Adams’ rebel cavalry. It was strongly posted in the woods across the open space in front of us. Without any delay, we opened fire upon them, which they returned. They being concealed in the woods had the advantage, but we had good backing and did not hesitate to attack them.”
The Federals charged and drove the Confederates off. The Confederates regrouped, but the Federals charged and drove them off again. Barber wrote:
“The rebs had taken a position just beyond a dwelling house where lived a widow with three small children. She came to the door to see what was going on when a ball struck her, killing her instantly. When our boys got there, they found her form rigid in death, lying in a pool of her own life’s blood. Her little children were clinging frantically to her, not realizing that she was dead. General Sherman caused a notice to be immediately posted on the house, specifying the manner of her death and ordering the premises to be held as sacred. I do not know from which side the shot was fired that killed her.”
McPherson reported that his men drove the Confederates back 10 miles, “easily and steadily over a very broken country, with little loss on our side.” On Sherman’s left, Hurlbut’s corps advanced to Bolton Depot, where Confederate cavalry and artillery blocked their path on the plantation of President Jefferson Davis’s brother. Hurlbut deployed his men, who scattered the Confederates just as easily as McPherson’s had done.
That night, McPherson reported that Winslow’s cavalry drove the Confederates “across the creek east of Bolton, the bridge saved, and my command bivouacked near the junction of the Clinton, Bolton, and Raymond Roads.” However, McPherson noted that “the enemy occupied a good position on the hills on the east side of the creek, and everything indicated that they intended to contest the ground stubbornly.” Skirmishing would resume the next day.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 366-67; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 924; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 394-95; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 460-61; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702