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

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The Pomeroy Circular and Other Political Intrigues

February 6, 1864 – President Abraham Lincoln learned that a pamphlet was being circulated urging Republicans to replace him with another candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As the presidential campaign opened, the Republican Party was split between conservatives who backed Lincoln for a second term, and Radicals who wanted a candidate that would impose harsher war measures on the South. This split was clear in Congress, as Republicans spoke out both for and against Lincoln. Many Radicals, led by House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, favored Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to replace him.

Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s personal friend and part-time bodyguard, informed the president that “a most scurrilous and abominable pamphlet about you, your administration, and the succession,” endorsed by an Ohio congressman, was given to a prominent New York banker. Titled “The Next Presidential Election,” the paper urged Republicans to oppose “the formal nomination of Mr. Lincoln in State Legislatures and other public bodies.”

The pamphlet’s author asserted, “The people have lost all confidence in his ability to suppress the rebellion and restore the Union.” The Federals had failed to win the war due to the “vascillation (sic) and indecision of the President,” “the feebleness of his will,” and his “want of intellectual grasp.”

The writer declared, “Mr. Lincoln cannot be re-elected to the Presidency.” Because of this, a new candidate was needed, someone who was “an advanced thinker; a statesman profoundly versed in political and economic science, one who fully comprehends the spirit of the age.” The pamphlet was endorsed by Senator John W. Sherman and Congressman James Ashley, both from Chase’s home state of Ohio. The implication was clear: those who supported this document supported replacing Lincoln with Chase as the Republican presidential candidate.

Sen. Samuel Pomeroy | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Less than two weeks later, a committee of Radical Republicans led by Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas distributed a “strictly private” pamphlet of their own to the top Republicans throughout the northern states. In this document, the authors alleged that “party machinery and official influence are being used to secure the perpetuation of the present Administration,” and “those who believe in the interests of the country and of freedom demand a change in favor of vigor and purity.”

This pamphlet, which became known as the “Pomeroy Circular” (actually written by James M. Winchell), contained three arguments against Lincoln:

  • “Even were the re-election of Mr. Lincoln desirable, it is practically impossible against the union of influences which will oppose him.”
  • Should “he be reelected, his manifest tendency toward compromises and temporary expedients of policy will become stronger during a second term than it has been in the first.” The “war may continue to languish,” and “the cause of human liberty, and the dignity of the nation, suffer proportionately.”
  • The “‘one-term principle’ (is) absolutely essential to the certain safety of our republican institutions.” No president had been reelected since Andrew Jackson, 32 years before.

Then, directly naming Chase as the desired alternative, the authors inserted two arguments why the readers would “validate the honor of the republic” by backing him:

  • He had “more of the qualities needed in a President during the next four years, than are combined in any other available candidate.”
  • He had a “record, clear and unimpeachable, showing him to be a statesman of rare ability, and an administrator of the highest order,” as well as “a popularity and strength… unexpected even to his warmest admirers.”

The Pomeroy committee then urged the Republicans reading the circular to “render efficient aid by exerting yourself at once to organize your section of the country… for the purpose either of receiving or imparting information.”

When the Pomeroy Circular was published in the newspapers, it enraged Lincoln’s supporters. Former Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr., now Lincoln’s most vocal champion in the House of Representatives, charged that criticisms of administration policies had been “concocted for purposes of defeating the renomination of Mr. Lincoln” and of supporting “rival aspirants to the presidency.” Blair refuted the circular’s claims of Chase’s high character:

“It is a matter of surprise that a man having the instincts of a gentleman should remain in the Cabinet after the disclosure of such an intrigue against the one to whom he owes his position. I suppose the President is well content that he should stay; for every hour that he remains sinks him in the contempt of every honorable mind.”

Blair then highlighted charges of corruption in Chase’s Treasury Department, declaring that “a more profligate administration of the Treasury Department never existed under any government… the whole Mississippi Valley is rank and fetid with the frauds and corruptions of its agents… some of (whom) I suppose employ themselves in distributing that ‘strictly private’ circular which came to light the other day.” Democrats kept silent, delighted that the Republican Party seemed to be splitting in half in an election year.

Partly in response to the Pomeroy Circular, delegates to the Republican conventions in Indiana and Ohio endorsed Lincoln for a second term. Many Republican conventions, committees, legislatures, newspapers, and Union Leagues voiced loud support for Lincoln over Chase. Lincoln also exerted his political influence by seeing that the Government Printing Office suppressed any anti-Lincoln material. And government workers, most of whom had been hired by Lincoln, overwhelmingly supported him.

As the Pomeroy Circular made national headlines, Chase wrote Lincoln maintaining he had “no knowledge of the existence of this letter before I saw it in the (Constitutional) Union.” He admitted that he had consulted with politicians urging him to run for president, but he never led anyone to believe that he would seriously seek the office. Chase then offered to resign: “I do not wish to administer the Treasury Department one day without your entire confidence.”

Through his contacts, Lincoln was well aware that Chase was working with Radicals to conduct an informal campaign to oust him from the presidency. Winchell later asserted that Chase not only had prior knowledge of the Pomeroy Circular, but he had approved its publication. Responding to Chase’s letter, Lincoln wrote: “Yours of yesterday in relation to the paper issued by Senator Pomeroy was duly received; and I write this note merely to say I will answer a little more fully when I can find the leisure to do so.”

After keeping Chase waiting for six days, Lincoln sent a longer response on the 29th:

“On consideration, I find there is really very little to say. My knowledge of Mr. Pomeroy’s letter having been made public came to me only the day you wrote; but I had, in spite of myself, known of its existence several days before. I have not yet read it, and I think I shall not… Whether you shall remain at the head of the Treasury Department… I do not perceive occasion for a change.”

Lincoln stated that he was “not shocked, or surprised” by the circular because his backers informed him about Pomeroy’s committee beforehand. Lincoln explained, “I have known just as little of these things as my own friends have allowed me to know. They bring the documents to me, but I do not read them–they tell me what they think fit to tell me, but I do not inquire for more.”

The president then told Chase that he had nothing to do with Blair’s attack on him in Congress. By refusing Chase’s offer to resign, Lincoln shrewdly kept him at the Treasury Department, where he could keep close tabs on his activities, and where Chase could not openly run for president.

Many of Chase’s backers acknowledged that the Pomeroy Circular did more harm than good for him, including Congressman (and future U.S. President) James A. Garfield, who conceded, “It seems clear to me that the people desire the re-election of Mr. Lincoln.”

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 513; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 376; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10160, 10236, 10247-59, 10270-81, 10493; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 103-04; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 941-44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 401; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 606; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 467-68; 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. 714-15; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 591; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

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

Davis Urges Suspension of Habeas Corpus

February 3, 1864 – President Jefferson Davis delivered a message to Congress asking for the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By this time, Federal military forces had begun various campaigns that included looting, pillaging, and plundering private property in the South. This had caused widespread disorder that required attention from the Confederate government. Consequently, Davis requested the same authorization that President Abraham Lincoln had assumed (without congressional consent) to apprehend and jail citizens suspected of disloyalty without trial.

In his message, Davis noted the “discontent, disaffection, and disloyalty” pervading the Confederacy, partly due to the demoralizing effects of Federal military occupation. Davis also alleged that such sentiments were rising among those who “have enjoyed quiet and safety at home.” He stated that suspending the writ was necessary to combat the rising number of Federal occupiers and Confederate dissidents, both of which tended to demoralize the people and encourage potential race wars between slaves and masters. Davis wrote:

“Must the independence for which we are contending, the safety of the defenseless families of the men who have fallen in battle and of those who still confront the invader, be put in peril for the sake of conformity to the technicalities of the law of treason?… Having thus presented some of the threatening evils which exist, it remains to suggest the remedy. And in my judgment that is to be found only in the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.”

Although the Lincoln administration had suspended the writ long ago and jailed thousands of anti-war dissidents without trial, this concept was still controversial for the Confederacy, which had been founded on the principle that states’ rights checked a potentially overreaching national government. As such, many members of the Confederate Congress opposed Davis’s request. Conversely, supporters argued that such a measure was necessary to suppress draft opposition and other “disloyal” practices.

After nearly two weeks of acrimonious debate, Congress finally approved authorizing Davis to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. The bill included a specific list of treasonable offenses, thus limiting Davis’s ability to act arbitrarily as much as possible. To further appease detractors, Davis only had suspension power until August 2.

Nevertheless, fierce critics remained, including Davis’s own vice president, Alexander Stephens of Georgia. Stephens declared that “constitutional liberty will go down, never to rise again on this continent” if Davis was empowered to suspend the writ. He called the bill a “blow at the very ‘vitals of liberty’” and accused Davis of–

“… aiming at absolute power… Far better that our country should be overrun by the enemy, our cities sacked and burned, and our land laid desolate, than that the people should thus suffer the citadel of their liberties to be entered and taken by professed friends.”

Despite opposition from Stephens and both of Georgia’s Confederate senators, the state legislature approved a resolution supporting this and all laws designed to win the war. Even so, the opposition to suspending the writ of habeas corpus remained so strong that Davis rarely exercised the power.

However, passage of the law prompted William W. Holden to suspend publication of his Unionist newspaper, the Raleigh (North Carolina) Standard. Many Confederate officials had targeted Holden as a traitor for urging southerners to rejoin the Union, and Davis could have ordered him arrested and jailed without charges.

Holden declared that “if I could not continue to print as a free man I would not print at all.” Holden then announced that he would oppose Governor Zebulon Vance in the upcoming election, but Vance turned many of Holden’s supporters against him by accusing him of treason.

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References

Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 331; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 950; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 394, 398; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 460-61, 465; 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. 435, 692-93, 697-98; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

Pickett’s New Bern Campaign

February 2, 1864 – Confederates captured one of the largest Federal ships on the North Carolina coast, but their main mission was more difficult to accomplish.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederates in North Carolina, sought to take back New Bern, one of the largest cities in the state, because the Federal warehouses there could feed Confederates in both North Carolina and Virginia through the winter. Pickett planned to advance on New Bern with three infantry columns, supported by Commander John T. Wood’s naval flotilla on the Neuse River.

As the month began, Pickett had moved within striking distance of the town, with the Federals unaware of his approach. Pickett traveled with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s division as it came upon Batchelder’s Creek from the northwest. Federal advance units destroyed the bridges over the creek before retreating. Hoke’s men made makeshift bridges out of nearby logs and drove the Federals back into town. The Confederates halted on the night of the 1st, as Pickett awaited word from his other two columns and Wood’s navy.

Pickett’s second column, led by Brigadier General Seth M. Barton, advanced from the southwest with orders to destroy railroad tracks and telegraph lines along the way. The march was slowed by rain and mud, and locals warned Barton that the Federal defenses outside New Bern were “of the most formidable character, deemed by the enemy impregnable.” As Barton advanced, he came upon an unexpected line of Federal forts south of the Trent River. He reported:

“I was therefore unprepared to encounter obstacles so serious, and was forced to the conviction that they were insurmountable by any means at my disposal. Had it even been practicable to carry the fortifications on the south side of Trent, the possession of them would have been useless for the accomplishment of our object.”

Meanwhile, Pickett’s third column under Colonel James Dearing stopped at Fort Anderson, northeast of New Bern, where Dearing judged the fort too strong to take. Wood’s naval cutters began moving down the Neuse as planned, but two of Pickett’s three columns had not reached their objective in this operation, which relied on the precise execution of all its elements to succeed.

Pickett continued waiting to either receive word from his other column commanders or hear gunfire to the south. Hoke later wrote, “We remained in front of New Berne all day Tuesday (the 2nd) waiting Barton’s move, when, much to my disappointment, a dispatch was received from him stating that it was impossible for him to cross the creek.”

Federals soon discovered the Confederate presence, ruining the element of surprise. Pickett urged Barton to join forces with Hoke, but Barton stated he would have to try finding another place to cross the river. Pickett reported, “Thus, the earliest possible moment at which he could have joined me would have been the evening of the 3rd instant. I could not have attacked before the 4th instant.”

Infuriated, Pickett ordered a general withdrawal. He blamed Barton for the failure, but he also blamed General Robert E. Lee, who had devised the three-pronged plan. Pickett wrote, “Had I have had the whole force in hand, I have but little doubt that we could have gone in easily taking the place by surprise.”

But as it stood, this was a Confederate failure. The Petersburg (Virginia) Register reported simply that “the place was stronger than we anticipated.” Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer, commanding the Federals at New Bern, called his losses during Pickett’s operation “trifling.”

Cmdr J.T. Wood | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile on the Neuse, Wood’s flotilla continued downriver as planned. Using muffled oars, the boats quietly came upon the U.S.S. Underwriter, a four-gun sidewheel steamer and the largest Federal ship in the area. The Federals discovered the approaching boats at 2:30 a.m. on the 2nd, when they were within less than 300 feet of the Underwriter. The alarms were sounded, but the Federals could not depress their guns low enough to fire on the attackers.

The Confederates boarded the vessel and engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Acting Master Jacob Westervelt, commanding the Underwriter, was killed in the fighting. The Confederates captured the vessel, but they could not get her steam up, and the Federal shore batteries began firing on her. Wood ordered the ship burned to prevent recapture.

Wood relayed the valor of the Confederate marines to Colonel Lloyd J. Beall, Confederate Marine Corps commandant. Lieutenant George W. Gift, an officer in the Confederate flotilla, declared, “I am all admiration for Wood. He is modesty personified, conceives boldly and executes with skill and courage.” Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory called this action a “brilliant exploit,” and Wood later received the thanks of the Confederate Congress. But the Federals still held New Bern.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-94; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 365-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 459-60; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 477, 524

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

Confederates Forage in West Virginia

January 31, 1864 – Confederate forces scoured the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia to feed the armies, while Federals in the region began panicking at their presence.

Major General Benjamin F. Kelley commanded the Federal Department of West Virginia from Cumberland, Maryland. His main responsibilities included guarding the supply routes through the Shenandoah and Luray valleys from Confederate raiders. This became especially important this winter because General Robert E. Lee sent forces into the region to forage for the Army of Northern Virginia.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

These Confederate forces comprised the new Shenandoah Valley District, led by Major General Jubal Early. They consisted of two infantry brigades and cavalry units led by Generals Fitzhugh Lee, Thomas L. Rosser, John D. Imboden, and Albert Jenkins. Kelley reported on the 3rd, “It now appears that Lee has detached a large force and sent them into the valley. If General (George G.) Meade (commanding the Army of the Potomac) would send a strong cavalry force into the Luray Valley, it would be an important movement to us.”

Fitz Lee’s cavalry threatened a Federal outpost at Petersburg, but, as Fitz reported, “The greater part of my ammunition being wet, owing to starting in a snow and rainstorm, and having no artillery, I decided not to attack them, and moved upon their line of communication toward New Creek Depot.” In Hardy County, the Confederates captured Kelley’s supply train and 250 heads of cattle before moving toward New Creek.

Stopping within striking distance of New Creek on the night of the 4th, Lee wrote, “Marched at 4 o’clock next morning in a hail storm, and though a point was reached within six miles of the depot, on account of the sufferings of my men and the impassibility of the mountain passes to my smooth-shod horses was unable to proceed farther.” Lee’s troopers soon fell back to Harrisonburg.

Meanwhile, a portion of Early’s command advanced from Strasburg but was forced to stop at Fisher’s Hill due to extreme weather and impassable roads. But this did not stop the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, J.W. Garrett, from panicking at the prospect of a Confederate army operating in the Valley. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “It is stated that General (Richard) Ewell is in the valley with 20,000 men.” He asked Halleck “to judge whether considerable re-enforcements are not required to prevent disasters.”

Halleck in turn contacted Meade: “It is now reported that Ewell’s corps is in the Shenandoah Valley. Have you any information to that effect? I think another brigade should be sent here… for transportation to Harper’s Ferry.” Meade responded:

“Our scouts have returned from the valley and report that Early’s command, consisting of five brigades of infantry, estimated at 7,000, together with Lee’s, Rosser’s, Imboden’s, and Jenkin’s cavalry, and some artillery, passed down the valley about Friday last with the intention of making a raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad…”

Meade then objected to Halleck’s request:

“I am still of the opinion that the operations against Early, to be effective, should be from the Railroad and defensive, and the character of the season and roads, together with the difficulty of procuring supplies, after exhausting those carried with them, will render nugatory any effort made from this army to cut off Early’s retreat…”

Meade contended that defensive operations against Early “would require a smaller detachment than an independent movement into the valley.” Halleck replied that one brigade should “probably be sufficient to supply General Kelley’s wants.” Meade then shared a more optimistic report: “Further examination of scouts… would lead to the conclusion that the infantry of Early’s command in the lower valley was only two brigades and some detached regiments.”

Operations remained limited through most of January. On the 28th, Early accompanied a Confederate force heading west from New Market in search of forage and cattle. The force consisted of Rosser’s Laurel Brigade of cavalry, an infantry brigade under Brigadier General Edward L. Thomas, and an artillery battery. The next day, the Confederates scattered Federal skirmishers and entered Moorefield. While there, Early and Thomas received word that a Federal supply train was moving toward Petersburg. Early directed Rosser and Thomas to capture the train.

The Confederates moved out on the morning of the 30th. They advanced across Branch Mountain and drove off a Federal force guarding the gap. They spied the train at Medley, protected by Federal infantry and cavalry. Rosser sent his 400 men forward, but the Federals knocked them back. The Confederates advanced again, this time supported by a cannon. They hit the Federals in front and on the left flank, sending them fleeing in panic. The Confederates seized the 95 wagons left behind, which were filled with supplies.

Rosser entered Petersburg the next day and seized more provisions and munitions. While Thomas’s infantry occupied the town, Rosser’s cavalry continued north down Patterson’s Creek in search of cattle and sheep. When Rosser learned that Federal reinforcements were approaching, he led his men to Moorefield, relinked with Thomas, and returned east toward the Shenandoah Valley.

The raiders netted 80 Federal prisoners, 95 supply wagons, 1,200 cattle, and 500 sheep while sustaining just 25 casualties. The troopers of Rosser’s brigade demonstrated their admiration of his leadership by reenlisting after the raid.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 387, 393; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 453; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 644-45