Category Archives: Mississippi

The Battle of Brice’s Crossroads

June 10, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest scored one of his greatest victories against the Federal effort to stop his Confederates from harassing Major General William T. Sherman’s supply lines.

Brig Gen S.D. Sturgis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Sherman, the Federal commander in the Western Theater, ordered Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis to lead a force into northern Mississippi to find and destroy the railroads useful to Forrest’s Confederate command. Forrest had continuously harassed Sherman’s supply line on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, and Sherman wanted him eliminated once and for all.

Sturgis left Collierville, Tennessee, with 8,100 infantry and cavalry, along with 400 artillerists and 22 guns. His specific instructions were to “proceed to Corinth, Mississippi, by way of Salem and Ruckersville, capture any force that may be there, then proceed south, destroying the Mobile and Ohio Railroad to Tupelo and Okolona, and as far as possible toward Macon and Columbus.”

Major General Stephen D. Lee, the new Confederate commander of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, directed Forrest to leave his Tupelo, Mississippi, headquarters and raid the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad with 2,200 cavalrymen and six guns. But before Forrest could cross the Tennessee River, he received urgent orders to turn back and face Sturgis, whose Federals were advancing on Ripley, Mississippi.

Unsure where Sturgis might attack, Forrest’s troopers rode back and took positions between Tupelo and Corinth. Sturgis’s first objective was the Mobile & Ohio Railroad running through Tupelo, but he had no reliable information on Forrest’s whereabouts and could expect no help from civilians. Moreover, the Federals did not reach Ripley until the 7th due to heavy rain and mud. They had advanced just 50 miles in a week, and their supply train was so far behind the main column that the men were reduced to half-rations.

Sturgis held a council of war to decide whether to turn back due to the incessant rain and delays. Sturgis’s officers recommended pressing forward regardless, and Sturgis obliged. The Federals headed southeast from Ripley the next day. Forrest had initially thought they were moving to reinforce Sherman, but the southeastern movement compelled him to guess they were targeting Tupelo instead. He therefore began planning to attack the Federals before they got there.

Brig Gen N.B. Forrest | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

On the night of the 9th, the Federals camped about nine miles northwest of Brice’s Crossroads, a heavily forested area about 20 miles north of Tupelo. Forrest issued orders for his three columns to converge at the crossroads and block Sturgis’s advance. Forrest would be close to his supply base while Sturgis’s supplies were still coming up. Forrest also had civilians providing him with key information on the Federal movements. Forrest said:

“I know they greatly outnumber the troops I have at hand, but the road along which they will march is narrow and muddy; they will make slow progress. The country is densely wooded and the undergrowth so heavy that when we strike them they will not know how few men we have.”

The rain stopped on the 10th, giving way to extreme heat and humidity. Taking the heat and mud into account, Forrest guessed that the Federal cavalry would come up first, which he could defeat before the Federal infantry arrived. Sure enough, Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson’s 3,300 Federal cavalrymen were in the lead, knocking back the Confederate pickets, crossing Tishomingo Creek, and reaching Brice’s Crossroads at 9:45 a.m.

A small Confederate force arrived, which Grierson pushed east down the road to Baldwyn about a mile. The rest of Forrest’s command arrived around 11:30 and turned the tide, pushing the Federals back to Brice’s. Grierson called for Sturgis to bring up the infantry, but when the troops finally came up at 1:30 p.m., they were exhausted from hurrying to the front and hungry from being on half-rations.

Both sides held their ground and traded fire until Forrest’s troopers worked their way around both Federal flanks, and Confederate artillery poured canister into the enemy line. Sturgis contracted his line into a semicircle around the crossroads, facing east.

Confederates attacked the bridge over the Tishomingo around 3:30 p.m., and although they were repulsed, they caused enough confusion among the Federals for Sturgis to order a withdrawal. The Confederates continued attacking the Federals as they funneled onto the Tishomingo bridge, causing them to flee in panic and leave most of their wagons and guns behind.

Some Federal officers called on Sturgis to counterattack, but he replied, “For God’s sake, if Mr. Forrest will let me alone, I will let him alone! You have done all you could, and more than was expected… Now all you can do is to save yourselves.”

The Confederates chased and harassed the Federals all the way back to Memphis. This was one of Forrest’s most remarkable victories of the war. His men captured 176 wagons and 16 guns while sustaining 492 casualties (96 killed and 396 wounded).

This was one of the Federals’ most embarrassing defeats in the Western Theater, as Sturgis was routed by a force a third of his size. The Federals lost 2,240 men (223 killed, 394 wounded, and 1,623 captured). However, Sturgis did prevent Forrest from wreaking havoc on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, which Forrest had planned to do before having to come back to face the Federals in northern Mississippi.

After this failed expedition, Sturgis remained in Memphis “awaiting orders.” When Sherman learned of the defeat, he exclaimed, “There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead!”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 173; Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 79; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 520; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 189-90; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 418, 422-23, 425; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7626-36, 7647-87, 7698-718, 7784-94; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 447, 450-51, 453-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 512-13, 515-16, 519, 521; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 748; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 346; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 729-30

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The Battle of Okolona

February 22, 1864 – Confederate horsemen caught up to withdrawing Federal cavalry and clashed in northern Mississippi.

Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Brigadier General William Sooy Smith’s 7,000 Federals continued their withdrawal toward Memphis the day after skirmishing with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 2,500 Confederates near West Point. Forrest pursued, and near dawn his advance elements attacked Smith’s rear guard in “the prairie,” an open field about four miles south of Okolona. As Confederate reinforcements joined the fray, they charged and drove the Federals through town.

Smith organized a defense line a mile north of Okolona, but another Confederate charge broke it. The Federals fell back another mile and tried making a stand, only to be pushed back again. Smith finally halted his troopers in woods on Ivey’s Farm, about seven miles northwest of Okolona.

The Confederate cavalrymen dismounted and charged the new Federal line, but they were repulsed; Forrest’s brother, Colonel Jeffrey E. Forrest, was killed in the assault. General Forrest had two horses shot out from under him during the fight. The Confederates charged a second time while trying to turn Smith’s right flank, but this failed as well.

Smith then ordered a counterattack, but the numerically inferior Confederates fought it off. They also repulsed a second countercharge, using their sabers when they ran out of ammunition. Smith finally ordered his troopers to continue withdrawing toward Pontotoc. Forrest did not pursue due to exhaustion and lack of ammunition. The 11-mile running skirmish was over.

This was one of Forrest’s greatest victories (despite losing his brother), having beaten an enemy force nearly three times his size. He lost 110 men (25 killed, 75 wounded, and 10 missing) at Okolona and 144 total in the three-day span of February 20-22. The Confederates seized three stands of colors.

Smith lost 388 men (54 killed, 179 wounded, and 155 missing) at Okolona. His troopers nearly faced starvation on their return to Tennessee because they had ravaged the countryside coming into Mississippi. Smith reported that his men had captured 200 Confederates, freed about 3,000 slaves, and burned 2,000 bales of cotton.

However, Smith failed to link with Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee at Meridian, and Sherman had to call off his advance on Selma, Alabama, as a result. For this, Sherman called Smith’s effort “unsatisfactory.” By the end of February, Sherman was back at Vicksburg and Smith was back at Collierville, the starting points of their two-pronged expedition into north and central Mississippi.

The Federal high command next looked to conquer western Louisiana and eastern Texas, and secure that region’s 500,000 cotton bales. Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, directed Sherman to send 10,000 troops to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf, which would be conducting the campaign. Sherman would then meet with Grant to develop plans to capture Atlanta.

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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. 377-79; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 963; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 401-03; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 467-69; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702

Northern Mississippi: Smith’s Incursion

February 21, 1864 – Brigadier General William Sooy Smith’s Federal cavalry troopers experienced trouble reaching the main Federal army in Mississippi due to opposition from Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates.

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

While the Federal Army of the Tennessee’s march from Vicksburg to Meridian had been a resounding success, Smith’s ancillary cavalry expedition was not. Smith led his 7,000 troopers out of Collierville, Tennessee, on the 11th, 10 days behind schedule and one day after he was supposed to have linked with the Federal army at Meridian. Once Smith and the army joined forces, they were to continue moving east and capture the important factory town of Selma, Alabama.

In the first week of Smith’s incursion into northern Mississippi, his men averaged less than half the projected 25 miles per day, even though they only met minor resistance from Forrest’s Confederate horsemen. Part of Smith’s delay involved tending to the fugitive slaves flocking to his command for protection. The Federals also made frequent stops to destroy farms and railroads. Smith finally reached Okolona, Mississippi, on the 18th.

Major General William T. Sherman, overseeing the destruction of Meridian, stated “that in consequence of hearing nothing from General Sooy Smith he may change somewhat his former plans.” He canceled the planned drive on Selma and ordered his forces to prepare to return to Vicksburg.

Sherman’s Federals began pulling out of Meridian on the 20th. During their 17-day rampage through Mississippi, they sustained just 170 casualties (21 killed, 68 wounded, and 81 missing). The troops slowly moved northwest toward Canton, while Sherman dispatched scouts to try finding Smith’s lost cavalry in northern Mississippi.

During this time, Forrest assembled his 2,500 Confederates at West Point, about 30 miles south of Smith’s Federals at Okolona. Advance elements of both forces began clashing between the two towns on the 19th, as Forrest developed a plan to draw the Federals into West Point and trap them between the narrow stretch of land between Oktibbeha Creek and the Tombigbee River.

Elements of Smith’s force skirmished with part of Forrest’s command at Prairie Station, about 15 miles north of West Point, on the 20th. As the Federals tried pushing south toward the town, more Confederates joined the fray, including a brigade led by Forrest’s brother, Colonel Jeffrey E. Forrest, near Aberdeen. Smith knocked the Confederates back, and his men entered West Point just as General Forrest hoped.

Smith began doubting the wisdom of occupying West Point, especially after receiving word that Major General Stephen D. Lee’s Confederate cavalry was coming to reinforce Forrest. Citing illness, Smith turned command over to the next ranking officer, Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson. But when Grierson planned to continue southward, Smith resumed command and ordered his men to withdraw northward the next day. Smith sought to protect his supply train and the growing number of slaves following his troopers.

Colonel Forrest’s men pursued and met up with Smith’s Federals on the morning of the 21st. The Confederates staged a fighting withdrawal, pulling the Federals farther south into the narrow stretch of land where General Forrest hoped to trap them. The Confederates then counterattacked, but the Federals put up a stiff resistance and repulsed two charges.

Sensing that this was a “trap set for me by the rebels,” Smith ordered a withdrawal, despite outnumbering the enemy two-to-one. The Federals formed a rear guard and withdrew across the Oktibbeha. This ensured that Smith’s cavalry would not link with Sherman’s army. General Forrest arrived with the rest of his force and ordered a pursuit that continued into the next day.

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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. 375-76; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 926-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 400-01; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 466-67; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702

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

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

Meridian: Federals Move Out of Jackson

February 7, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal Army of the Tennessee began marching out of war-torn Jackson, heading east toward the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in Mississippi.

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

Major General James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps of Sherman’s army moved out of Jackson on the morning of the 7th. The Federals crossed the Pearl River on pontoon bridges and headed toward Major General Samuel G. French’s 3,000 Confederates, which had fallen back from Jackson to Brandon.

Colonel C.C. Wilbourn, commanding Confederate cavalry in front of Brandon, reported, “The enemy have crossed the river and are driving my men in on both the upper and lower Jackson roads. They are fighting me altogether with small arms.” Colonel Edward Winslow’s Federal horsemen easily drove Wilbourn’s small force off. French then abandoned Brandon and moved to join with Major General William W. Loring’s 6,000 Confederates near Morton.

Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, urged Major General Stephen D. Lee to link his cavalry with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troopers, about 150 miles north of Jackson, and wreak havoc on Sherman’s supply line. They did not know that Sherman’s men were living off the land and had no supply line to disrupt.

McPherson’s Federals entered Brandon and immediately set about destroying everything considered useful (or otherwise) to the Confederate war effort. A correspondent for the New York Tribune reported:

“The houses of prominent rebels were burned. Every horse and mule that could be found was seized upon, and the number became so great that a special detail was made to care for them. In fact, everything of an edible nature was levied upon and made an item in our commissariat. Thousands of blacks came into our lines. The railroad track was torn up, and every wagon, bridge, and depot was burned.”

Sherman had issued orders not to disturb private property, but most officers did not enforce them. Meanwhile, Polk relayed information he received from one of his scouts about the Federals: “They do not try to conceal that their destination is Meridian, to cut our communication with Mobile.”

The Federal forces resumed their eastward advance the next day, as French, Loring, and Lee joined forces at Morton to make a stand. Some skirmishing occurred between the advancing Federals and Lee’s retreating troopers at Coldwater Ferry. Seeing that they lacked the numbers to stop the enemy, the Confederates abandoned Morton that night and fell back eastward once more.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General William Sooy Smith was preparing to lead his Federal cavalrymen out of Tennessee to wreak havoc on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, destroy Forrest’s Confederates, and link with Sherman. He was supposed to have left on the 1st, but he was waiting for an additional brigade to join him from Union City.

The third part of Sherman’s offensive, led by Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval squadron, continued its diversionary probe up the Yazoo River. The fleet captured Yazoo City along the way.

Back in central Mississippi, Sherman’s Federals briefly skirmished with the Confederate rear guard before entering Morton on the 9th. Repeating their destruction of Jackson and Brandon, they burned nearly everything in their path. East of Morton, Polk arrived from Mobile to join his army in the field. Believing that Sherman’s ultimate target was Mobile, Polk wired the commander there, “The enemy, estimated at 35,000 infantry, with 60 pieces of artillery, moved to-day from Morton in the direction of Mobile.”

Polk directed French to go to Newton and load his men on trains bound for Mobile. Lee’s cavalry would “cover Newton until the troops leave there, and cover the Mobile and Ohio Railroad until they pass down.” French was to fall back to Meridian. Lee disagreed with Polk’s assessment that Sherman was headed for Mobile, but he complied with orders nonetheless.

Back near Memphis, the 2,000 Federal cavalrymen under Colonel George E. Waring arrived to reinforce W.S. Smith’s command on the 10th. Smith prepared to finally move out the next day, 10 days after he was scheduled to begin. He expressed confidence that his 7,000 troopers could defeat Forrest’s 2,500 horsemen, vowing “to pitch into Forrest wherever I find him.” Smith tried explaining his tardiness to Sherman:

“I fear this delay will rob me of the opportunity of accomplishing the work assigned to me; but it has been unavoidable by any effort that I could make, and I will now do all that I can. My command is in splendid condition, and all the information that I have been able to get–and it is quite full, and, I think, reliable–justifies me in waiting for the brigade from above. I will hurt them all I can, and endeavor to open direct communication with you at the earliest possible moment. Weather beautiful; roads getting good.”

Forrest, whose command was camped along the Tallahatchie River, guessed that Smith would target Okolona, a railroad hub about 55 miles southeast of Forrest’s Oxford headquarters. He set up defenses along the river and issued orders to his commanders: “Do not allow your command to engage a superior force. Fall back to the river and defend the crossings. The enemy will attempt to move on our right by the way of Ripley, and from Collierville toward Okolona.”

Brigadier General James Chalmers, commanding Forrest’s left at Panola, was to be “prepared to move at a moment’s notice.” Chalmers wrote Forrest, “Will try to deceive the enemy into the belief that we are evacuating to induce them to come on.” Forrest approved, but instructed Chalmers not to use his artillery “unless compelled.”

Unbeknownst to Forrest or Chalmers, Smith had sent an infantry brigade under Colonel William McMillen on a diversionary advance toward Chalmers while Smith’s main force crossed the Tallahatchie en route to Okolona. Unbeknownst to Smith, he would be moving directly toward the point that Forrest expected.

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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. 371-73; 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, 927; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 396; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 462-63; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488

Meridian: Sherman Targets Jackson Again

February 5, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal Army of the Tennessee continued its drive through central Mississippi and approached the state capital of Jackson, which had been captured and ransacked twice before.

The Federal advance resumed, consisting of 27,000 men in two wings: Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut’s XVI Corps on the left (north), and Major General James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps on the right (south). The only obstacle in the Federals’ path was Brigadier General William Wirt Adams’s cavalry brigade of about 2,500 Confederates.

Adams dismounted his men and pulled up his two guns to try destroying the bridge over Baker’s Creek. The Confederate artillerists were “offering the most determined and stubborn resistance, maintaining their position to the last moment.”

Both Adams and Colonel Peter Starke’s brigade to the north fell back toward Clinton, trying to slow the Federals long enough for infantry to come up in support. Starke abandoned the plantation belonging to President Jefferson Davis’s brother Joe. When the Federals nearly crumpled Starke’s flank, the Confederates were forced to abandon Clinton as well. Starke withdrew to the east first, with Adams covering him. But then Federal troops moved around Adams’s flank and appeared in his rear. According to Adams:

“Advancing a six-gun battery at the same time with a strong infantry support to a commanding elevation on my front and left, and two 20-pounder Parrotts in my front, he opened a rapid and vigorous fire of artillery, pushing forward at the same time a strong line of skirmishers under cover of a wood from the column moving past my right. As the enemy showed no inclination to advance in my front, and my artillery was seriously endangered by the column turning my position, I ordered the artillery and supports to withdraw, following with the remainder of the command.”

Adams’s troopers narrowly escaped capture as they fled east to join the remaining Confederates. Meanwhile, Major General Samuel G. French’s 3,000 Confederate infantry defended the state capital of Jackson, farther to the east. He had called on Major General William W. Loring to bring his division of 6,000 Confederates down from Canton to support him, and Loring had agreed to start moving that morning.

Major General Stephen D. Lee, commanding cavalry that included the brigades of Adams and Starke, advised both French and Loring to abandon Jackson and withdraw east to Brandon, over the Pearl River. Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana from Mobile, directed Loring and French to “detain the enemy as long as possible from getting into Jackson.”

With the Federals taking control of Clinton, French replied, “It is impossible to comply. Loring will cross (the Pearl) above and I am across on this side. Lee will swing to the left and harass the enemy in flank and rear.” By day’s end, French’s Confederates were heading for the Pearl River as Sherman’s Federals entered Jackson from the west. French wrote:

“I found the Federal troops in possession of the western part of the town, so we turned round and had a race with their troops for the (pontoon) bridge and ordered it taken up. As the end was being cut loose one of Gen. Lee’s staff officers sprung his horse on the bridge and cried out that Lee’s force was in the city and would have to cross here. We soon threw some of the plank into the river and knocked the bottoms out of the boats. Lee got out of the city by the Canton road. Under fire of their batteries, in the dark, the infantry marched for Brandon.”

Their path to the Pearl blocked, Lee’s troopers headed to Canton, 20 miles north of Jackson, and waited for the Federals to pass. Loring had abandoned Canton earlier that day and fled toward Morton, 20 miles east. Lee warned French and Loring that the Federals would soon look to cross the Pearl River. Polk, learning that the Federals had taken Jackson once more, hurried to his Meridian headquarters to oversee operations.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

The next day, Sherman telegraphed his progress thus far to his superiors:

“General Sherman’s command, composed of McPherson’s and Hurlbut’s corps, left Vicksburg on the 3d in two columns via the railroad bridge and Messinger’s. On the 4th, McPherson met the enemy and skirmished as far as Bolton. On the 5th, Hurlbut’s column encountered Starke’s brigade of cavalry at Joe Davis’ plantation and drove it through Clinton toward Canton. Same day McPherson pushed Wirt Adams into and beyond Jackson. General Sherman occupied Jackson on the 6th, and will cross Pearl and enter Brandon on the 7th, and so on. He reports three small brigades of cavalry and Loring’s division of infantry up toward Canton, and French’s division of infantry to his front at or near Brandon.”

The Federals continued marching into Jackson that day, with Sherman noting, “Roads are excellent. We find some corn and meat, but Jackson and country are desolate enough.” This was the third time that Sherman led Federal troops into Jackson, and it still bore the scars of having its businesses, factories, public buildings, and private homes destroyed last year. Sherman ordered all public buildings burned again.

Sherman also learned that Brigadier General William Sooy Smith’s 7,000 Federal cavalry, which had been ordered to leave Memphis and meet Sherman’s forces at Meridian, had not left yet. Sherman said, “The delay may compel me to modify my plans a little, but not much.” Expecting a fight, Sherman stated, “I think the enemy will meet us at some point between this and Meridian, with General Polk in command, with Loring’s and French’s divisions and the entire cavalry force of General Stephen D. Lee…”

As Lee warned, the Federals quickly began building pontoon bridges over the Pearl River to continue their eastward advance.

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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. 368-69; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 395; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 461; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488