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.
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.
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