Tag Archives: Stephen D. Lee

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 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: 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

The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou

December 29, 1862 – Major General William T. Sherman launched a costly attack on fortified Confederate defenses northeast of Vicksburg.

Sherman’s Federals had advanced downriver from the Mississippi to the Yazoo to threaten Walnut Hills, also known as Chickasaw Bluffs. They numbered 32,000 men in four divisions, and they held positions in the swamps and bayous below the bluffs, most notably Chickasaw Bayou. About 14,000 Confederates under Generals Carter L. Stevenson, Stephen D. Lee, and Martin L. Smith defended the bluffs. They were aided by high ground, a clear view of any attackers, and heavy artillery guarding all viable approaches.

Sherman planned to send Brigadier General George W. Morgan’s division across the swampland to penetrate the Confederate center, with support from Brigadier General Frederick Steele’s division and Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron. Brigadier General A.J. Smith’s division would launch a separate attack as a diversion.

Sherman expected support from Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal department commander who was to lead an overland advance to prevent Confederates at Grenada, Mississippi, from reinforcing the bluffs. However, the Confederate destruction of the Federal supply depot at Holly Springs prevented Grant from supporting Sherman. Grant also could not notify Sherman because Confederates had cut the telegraph lines.

Action began with a four-hour artillery duel that caused little damage on either side. During that time, Morgan’s assault was delayed when engineers had problems bridging a stream. Morgan then repositioned his men in fear of a Confederate attack. Sherman rode to the front and showed Morgan exactly where he was to advance, deploying two brigades in front with the rest of his division and Steele’s in support. Sherman said, “We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else.”

Battle Map | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The two Federal brigades charged at noon, running to the base of the bluffs where they were easily shot down and repulsed by heavy Confederate artillery and rifle fire. The swampy terrain prevented the Federals from answering with artillery of their own. A.J. Smith’s diversion was also beaten back without any gains. Sherman planned to attack again, but heavy fog rolled in, preventing another repulse and more deaths.

The Federals sustained 1,776 casualties (208 killed, 1,005 wounded, and 563 missing), while the Confederates lost just 207 (63 killed, 134 wounded, and 10 missing). Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, singled out several regiments from Georgia (the 40th, 42nd, and 52nd), Tennessee (3rd, 30th, and 80th), and Louisiana (the 17th, 26th, and 28th) for their valor in this engagement.

Sherman blamed Morgan for the failure. He planned another attack the next day but realized it would be futile and called it off. He then looked to continue moving up the Yazoo to attack the Confederate left, but reinforcements arrived to strengthen the defenses on the bluffs. The Federals remained positioned in front of the bluffs until New Year’s Eve, when Sherman finally conceded defeat and asked for a truce to bury his dead.

When northerners learned of the defeat, they likened it to Fredericksburg and mourned yet more lost men. Both Grant and Sherman endured heavy criticism for the battle and the destruction of the Federal supply base at Holly Springs, which turned Grant’s overland effort to capture Vicksburg into more of a disaster than Admiral David G. Farragut’s attempt to take the city in July.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 91, 127; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18299-307; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 247-49; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8646; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 510; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 245-46; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 301-02; 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. 578-79; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 132; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 170-71; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 138-39; 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), Q462