Category Archives: Mississippi

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

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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

Sherman’s Meridian Campaign Begins

February 1, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s campaign to advance from Vicksburg to Meridian in Mississippi began.

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

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.

Confederate General Leonidas Polk | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

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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. 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