Tag Archives: Meridian Campaign

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

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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

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

Sherman Targets Meridian

January 10, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman, the new commander of the Federal Army of the Tennessee, arrived at Memphis to discuss his upcoming campaign against Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s Confederate Army of Mississippi.

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

In December, Sherman had proposed clearing Confederate guerrillas from the Yazoo and Red rivers in Mississippi and Louisiana. But as the new year began, that plan changed. At Memphis, Sherman shared his new plan with Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding XVI Corps. Sherman’s army, consisting of two corps (Hurlbut’s and Major General James B. McPherson’s XVII) garrisoned throughout the region, would move across central Mississippi from the Mississippi River to confront Polk, whose 10,000-man army was stationed near Meridian.

Sherman next wrote McPherson, “Now is the time to strike inland at Meridian and Selma. I think Vicksburg is the point of departure from the (Mississippi) river.” Sherman would pull 20,000 white troops from the garrisons at Fort Pillow, Memphis, Corinth, and other posts, and replace them with black troops. Sherman wrote, “Keep this to yourself, and make preparations.” Sherman demanded strict secrecy or else the Confederates might hurry reinforcements to Polk. This included severely restricting the number of newspaper correspondents in his military department.

Sherman then met with Brigadier General William Sooy Smith, who commanded 2,500 Federal cavalry troopers clearing “the country of the bands of guerrillas that infested” Middle Tennessee. Smith’s force would be expanded and assigned to confront Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 3,500 Confederate horsemen, which were currently heading into Mississippi to gather new recruits and join Polk.

Within two weeks, Smith’s force had been bolstered to 7,000 troopers in two divisions. They would advance southeast from Memphis, plundering along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad line from Okolona to Meridian while looking to confront Forrest.

Sherman arrived at Vicksburg aboard the gunboat Juliet on the 29th. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck explaining his plan to launch Smith against Forrest and the railroad while the main force moved east from Vicksburg to Meridian. A third force would move up the Yazoo River and threaten Grenada as a diversion.

Sherman wrote Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, “All things favorable thus far for movement on Meridian.” The official Federal mission was to inflict so much destruction on the railroads in Mississippi “that the enemy will not attempt to rebuild them during the rebellion.”

To McPherson, Sherman made it clear that he intended to wage war on civilians: “Let the commanding officer impress on the people that we shall periodically visit that country and destroy property or take it, as long as parties of Confederate troops or guerrillas infest the river banks.” Sherman directed his men to seize farmers’ cotton and give it to Federal ships that had been fired upon by Confederate partisans.

Sherman stated that civilians along the Yazoo must know “that we intend to hold them responsible for all acts of hostility to the river commerce,” because they now must–

“… feel that war may reach their doors. If the enemy burns cotton we don’t care. It is their property and not ours, but so long as they have cotton, corn, horses, or anything, we will appropriate it or destroy it so long as the confederates in war act in violence to us and our lawful commerce. They must be active friends or enemies. They cannot be silent or neutral.”

The Federals were not to bring any provisions with them on the march, “for the enemy must not only pay for damages inflicted on our commerce but for the expenses incurred in the suppression.”

To divert attention from Sherman’s expedition, Grant directed Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, to advance on General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia. Thomas was not to bring on a general battle, but rather just keep Johnston occupied so he could not reinforce Polk.

Sherman learned that keeping his plans secret would be more difficult than anticipated. Forrest reported to Polk on the 31st, “A gentleman just from Memphis says the enemy design moving a large force from Vicksburg on Jackson and contemplate rebuilding the railroad between those points and moving from Jackson on Mobile and Meridian.” Nevertheless, Sherman’s campaign of destruction began as scheduled in February.

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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. 358, 362; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 923; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 391; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 457-58