Tag Archives: Stephen D. Lee

The Battle of Utoy Creek

August 6, 1864 – Federal cavalrymen straggled back to their lines after a failed raid, and Major General William T. Sherman tried moving around the Confederates at Atlanta to cut their railroad line.

When most of Major General George Stoneman’s Federal cavalry was captured during operations outside Atlanta in late July, two brigades under Colonels Horace Capron and Silas Adams escaped. The two commands were initially separated, but they rejoined near Rutledge Station on the 1st and began moving to seize the river town of Athens. Meanwhile, a Confederate cavalry detachment under Colonel William C.P. Breckinridge pursued them.

Adams’s Federals demonstrated at Athens while Capron tried crossing the Oconee River farther above the town. When a guide misled him, Capron instead headed northeast to rejoin Sherman’s main Federal force. Capron gave his men and horses two hours of rest on the night of the 2nd, after riding 56 miles in one day.

Breckinridge’s Confederates attacked Capron’s camp just before dawn, scattering the Federals and the fugitive slaves they had collected during their expedition. Capron reported that the Confederates were “driving and scattering everything before them. Every effort was made by the officers to rally the men and check the enemy’s charge, but… a stampede now took place.”

Some Federals escaped using a bridge over Mulberry Creek, but the bridge collapsed and many men and horses drowned. The Confederates captured about 250 troopers, but Capron was among those who escaped. Sherman learned of these cavalry debacles from a Richmond newspaper. When survivors confirmed the story, Sherman offered this understatement to his superiors: “On the whole, the cavalry raid is not deemed a success.”

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

Sherman turned back to his infantry and artillery to capture Atlanta. Federal gunners began bombarding the city while Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, reinforced by Major General John M. Palmer’s XIV Corps, began moving from northeast of Atlanta toward Utoy Creek to the southwest, around Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee. This was another one of Sherman’s efforts to cut the railroad connecting Atlanta to East Point.

The Federals crossed Utoy Creek on the 4th but could not dislodge Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s Confederates from their fortifications. The next day, Schofield intended to try again but was delayed due to a command dispute with Palmer. Palmer believed that he outranked Schofield, and he resigned when Sherman backed Schofield. Palmer was later replaced as head of XIV Corps by Major General Jefferson C. Davis.

The delay allowed Major General William B. Bate’s Confederate division to strengthen the defenses and extend them southward to prevent a flanking maneuver. The Federals attacked on the 6th, but the delay proved fatal as they were unable to break the enemy line and reach the railroad. Schofield lost 306 men killed or wounded before disengaging in heavy rain. The Confederates lost less than 10.

Schofield extended his right flank along the Sandtown Road on the 7th, but the Confederates fell back to new defenses on a ridge near the railroad to meet them. Sherman notified Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “I do not deem it prudent to extend any more to the right, but will push forward daily by parallels, and make the inside of Atlanta too hot to be endured.”

Schofield’s Federals remained entrenched southwest of Atlanta while the guns bombarded the troops and civilians in the city.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 138-39; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 442, 444; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 479-83; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10266-76; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 257; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 552-53; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 405-06

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The Battle of Ezra Church

July 28, 1864 – General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee looked to attack one of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies while in motion and isolated from the rest of Sherman’s command.

The Federal Army of the Tennessee, led by Major General Oliver O. Howard, had been holding a line east of Atlanta. Sherman directed the force to shift to the west and south, to the other side of the Armies of the Ohio and the Cumberland. Howard’s ultimate objective was the intersection of two railroads (the Atlanta & West Point and the Macon & Western) at East Point.

Confederate General J.B. Hood | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Hood learned of Howard’s movement and developed a plan to ambush his army while it was in motion and isolated from the rest of Sherman’s Federals. Hood selected the crossroads at Ezra Church, west of Atlanta, to launch his surprise assault. Lieutenant General Stephen D. Lee’s corps was posted behind breastworks near the crossroads, facing north.

Sherman did not expect Hood to react to Howard’s movement so quickly, but Howard, who had been Hood’s classmate at West Point, knew better. As his Federals approached the Ezra Church crossroads, they were ordered to quickly build makeshift defenses, just before Lee launched his attack.

The Confederates assailed what they thought to be Howard’s vulnerable right flank, only to find it strongly defended by Major General John A. Logan’s XV Corps. Logan positioned his Federals at a right angle to the rest of Howard’s line to better defend against the assaults.

Ezra Church battle map | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Federals repelled three charges, inflicting heavy casualties in the process. Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s Confederate corps then came up on Lee’s left and tried turning the Federal right to no avail. Both Stewart and Major General William W. Loring, commanding a division under Stewart, were wounded. Howard feared that he would soon be outnumbered and called for reinforcements, but the Confederates disengaged before they arrived.

Had Sherman counterattacked the Confederate left, he could have destroyed the force and left Hood with just one last corps to defend Atlanta. However, Sherman did not recognize this opportunity due to an erroneous map.

Like the battles at Peachtree Creek and outside Atlanta, the Confederates sustained heavy losses that they could not replace. Hood lost as many as 5,000 men (and an estimated 18,000 since taking command), while Howard lost just 562. Hood’s other corps commander, Lieutenant General William Hardee, later said, “No action of the campaign probably did so much to demoralize and dishearten the troops engaged in it.”

Another desperate Confederate assault on an isolated Federal army had failed, but Hood at least prevented Howard’s Federals from reaching the Atlanta & West Point Railroad for now. Having lost up to a third of his army, Hood could now only act on the defensive, and he ordered his troops to withdraw to the fortifications outside Atlanta. From these defenses, the Confederates temporarily stopped Sherman’s drive down the west side of the city.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133-36; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 250-51; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 516, 526; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 82-84; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 440-41; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10244-54; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 476; Linedecker, Clifford L (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 98-99; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 547; 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. 754-55; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 327

Atlanta: The Federal Wheel Starts Turning

July 27, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman prepared to move his three armies around the west and south of Atlanta to try wresting that city from General John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee.

The Confederate attacks of the 20th and 22nd failed to destroy parts of Sherman’s Federal command, but they succeeded in keeping Sherman from reaching Atlanta from the north or east. Following the costly fight on the 22nd, both sides remained stationary in front of each other while their respective commanders pondered their next move.

Federal engineers completed construction on a bridge over the Chattahoochee River on the 25th. The 90-foot-high bridge spanned 760 feet and was built in just five days. This enabled the delivery of supplies to a base behind Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland on Peachtree Creek, north of Atlanta.

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

As Sherman developed a plan to get to Atlanta, he wrote his wife Ellen, “We have Atlanta close aboard, as the sailors say, but it is a hard nut to handle. These fellows fight like Devils and Indians combined, and it calls for all my cunning and strength.” President Abraham Lincoln wrote Sherman offering his “profoundest thanks to you and your whole Army for the present campaign so far.”

Sherman’s chief engineer, Captain Orlando Poe, concluded that the Confederate defenses on Atlanta’s perimeter were “too strong to assault and too extensive to invest.” Thus, Sherman decided to create a “circle of desolation” around the city. This would involve bombarding Atlanta and cutting off its four railroads, thereby starving it into submission.

The Federals already controlled the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which supplied them from Chattanooga. They had done extensive damage to the Georgia Railroad running east to Augusta, and the Atlanta & West Point running southwest into Alabama. Only the Macon & Western, running southeast to the Atlantic Coast, remained to supply the soldiers and civilians in Atlanta.

Laying partial siege to Atlanta, Sherman planned to shift his armies from north and east of the city to west and south in a counterclockwise movement. His objective was the intersection of the Atlanta & West Point and Macon & Western railroads at East Point, southwest of Atlanta.

The Federal armies were arranged in a rough semicircle, with Thomas’s army north of Atlanta, Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio to Thomas’s left (northeast), and Major General John A. Logan’s Army of the Tennessee to Schofield’s left (east). Sherman intended to shift Logan’s army to Thomas’s right, so that the semicircle ran from north to west.

Before Sherman began, he had to choose a permanent commander for the Army of the Tennessee. Logan had temporarily taken command after Major General James B. McPherson was killed on the 22nd. Many officers and men wanted to keep Logan, but Thomas protested that Logan was not a professional soldier. The ranking corps commander was Major General Joseph Hooker, but Sherman detested him. He therefore chose Major General Oliver O. Howard as the new commander.

Hooker protested being passed over by the officer he blamed for his disastrous defeat at Chancellorsville in May 1863. He submitted his resignation, calling the decision “an insult to my rank and services.” Thomas, Hooker’s corps commander, “approved and heartily recommended” that Sherman accept Hooker’s resignation, and Sherman quickly complied. Sherman’s decision caused resentment among supporters of both Hooker and Logan.

Major General Alpheus Williams temporarily replaced Hooker in command of Thomas’s XX Corps. Ironically, Hooker’s permanent replacement was Major General Henry W. Slocum, who had despised Hooker ever since Chancellorsville. Williams held command until Slocum arrived from Vicksburg. Howard was replaced in command of Thomas’s IV Corps by Major General David S. Stanley.

Once Howard’s army shifted to the right, Schofield’s and Thomas’s would follow suit, moving along the Chattahoochee River toward East Point. Sherman also dispatched two Federal cavalry forces to harass the Confederate flanks and attack the Macon & Western Railroad from both the east and west.

Meanwhile, Hood remained poised to attack when the opportunity presented itself. Apprised of the Federal moves, he dispatched Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry to stop the Federal troopers. He then assigned two of his corps under Lieutenant Generals Alexander P. Stewart and Stephen D. Lee (newly arrived from Mississippi to take over from Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham) to stop the Federals from threatening the railroads southwest of Atlanta.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-33; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 250-51; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 439-40; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10108-118, 10129-70; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 474-76; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 369-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 545-47; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 746-47

The Battle of Tupelo

July 14, 1864 – Federal forces held off an assault from Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry, but Forrest remained a major threat in the region.

As July began, Forrest’s troopers continued disrupting Federal lines of supply and communication in northern Mississippi and western Tennessee. Major General William T. Sherman, the overall Federal commander in the Western Theater, directed Major General Cadwallader C. Washburn, commanding at Memphis, “to make up a force and go out and follow Forrest to the death, if it costs 10,000 lives and breaks the Treasury.”

Gen A.J. Smith | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Washburn assigned Major General Andrew J. Smith to lead this latest expedition. It was hoped that Smith would have more success than Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis did in June. Smith’s command consisted of 14,200 men that included a black infantry brigade, a cavalry division under Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson, and six guns.

Smith was to “pursue Forrest on foot, devastating the land over which he passed or may pass, and make him and the people of Tennessee and Mississippi realize that, although (he is) a bold, daring, and successful leader, he will bring ruin and misery on any country where he may pause or tarry. If we do not punish Forrest and the people now, the whole effect of our past conquests will be lost.”

The Federals left La Grange, Tennessee, on the 5th and moved south into Mississippi, clashing with Forrest at Ripley two days later. After driving the Confederates off, Smith directed his men to burn the town courthouse, along with many churches and private homes. The Federals continued leaving destruction in their wake as they crossed the Tallahatchie River and swept through New Albany.

Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Smith’s men reached Pontotoc on the 11th, where they met increased resistance. Meanwhile, Forrest gathered a force of about 6,000 Confederates at Okolona to the south. Major General Stephen D. Lee, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, had ordered Forrest not to provoke a battle until Lee could bring up reinforcements, so Forrest waited at Okolona in hopes of luring Smith into an ambush.

Lee had received word that Federal forces were going to move east from New Orleans to attack Mobile. He therefore planned to hurry 2,000 Confederates to reinforce Forrest, and then once Smith was defeated, Lee would send these troops to defend Mobile.

Meanwhile, Smith thwarted Forrest’s ambush by turning instead toward Tupelo, 15 miles east on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Grierson’s cavalry rode ahead of the main Federal body to wreck railroad tracks north and south of the town. The Federals repelled harassing attacks on their flanks and rear before stopping on the night of the 13th on a low ridge at Harrisonburg, two miles west of Tupelo.

Earlier on the 13th, Lee arrived at Okolona with his reinforcements to join with Forrest. Lee took command of the combined force of 8,000 men and led it in pursuit of Smith. The Confederates arrived opposite the Federal positions at Harrisonburg that night. Forrest said to Lee:

“The enemy have a strong position, have thrown up defensive works and are vastly our superior in numbers and it will not do for us to attack them under such conditions. One thing is certain, the enemy cannot remain long where he is. He must come out, and when he does, all I ask or wish is to be turned loose with my command. I will be on all sides of him, attacking day and night. He shall not cook a meal or have a night’s sleep, and I will wear his army to a frazzle before he gets out of the country.”

Gen S.D. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lee rejected this plan because it would take too long, and he needed to hurry his troops to Mobile. Lee instead opted to launch an all-out assault on the numerically superior enemy force in the morning. An erroneous report from a Confederate scout stating that the Federals were preparing to retreat further emboldened Lee to attack.

On the morning of the 14th, Lee had trouble getting his men into line, which caused delays. The Confederates finally advanced at 7 a.m., but the attacks were disjointed and piecemeal, and the Federals easily beat them back with concentrated artillery and small arms fire. The Confederates never got within 30 yards of the enemy line.

Lee ordered a halt to the attack after two hours. Both sides continued skirmishing, and the Federals burned several buildings in the town that night. In a rare victory over Forrest, the Federals sustained 674 casualties (77 killed, 559 wounded and 38 missing), while the Confederates lost 1,347 men (210 killed, 1,116 wounded, and 41 missing). Forrest was among the wounded, shot in the foot. Rumors spreading among the Federals that Forrest was dead were quickly dispelled.

Smith could have counterattacked the next day and destroyed the Confederate force, but he learned that his men had just one day’s rations left because most of the food had spoiled in the heat, and he was short on ammunition. He therefore followed up his tactical victory by withdrawing east through Tupelo. Lee directed Forrest to pursue the Federals.

Forrest’s Confederates chased Smith back into Tennessee but were repeatedly thwarted by his rear guard. The Federals returned to La Grange on the 20th, where they boarded trains to Memphis. Smith reported to Washburn the next day, “I bring back everything in good order, nothing lost.”

Smith kept Forrest away from Sherman’s supply line on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, but he did not destroy Forrest’s command as ordered. Sherman wrote that Smith should “pursue and continue to follow Forrest. He must keep after him till recalled… It is of vital importance that Forrest does not go to Tennessee.” Smith immediately began preparing for another campaign.

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References

Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 765-66; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 516; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 433, 436-37, 439; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10672-755; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 465, 467-70, 472; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 534-35, 537-40, 544-45; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 748; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 694

The Battle of Brice’s Crossroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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

The Fall of Meridian

February 14, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal Army of the Tennessee completed its destructive march through central Mississippi by arriving at the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in the state.

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

As the Federals resumed their eastward march on the 14th, Sherman issued orders to his commanders on what their men should do once they reached Meridian:

“The destruction of the railroads intersecting at Meridian is of great importance, and should be done most effectually. Every tie and rail of iron for many miles in each direction should be absolutely destroyed or injured, and every bridge and culvert completely destroyed… The troops should be impressed with the importance of this work, and also that time is material, and therefore it should be begun at once and prosecuted with all the energy possible. The destruction of the buildings must be deferred until the last moment, when a special detail will be made for that purpose.”

Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate Army of Mississippi, had ordered his troops to abandon Meridian, but before they left, they dumped felled trees on the roads to slow the Federal advance. They also destroyed the bridges over Tallahatta Creek and the Oktibbeha River. Federal engineers and laborers rebuilt the bridge over the Tallahatta that morning. Then, as Sherman reported:

“At the Tallahatta, 20 miles from Meridian, we found the road obstructed with fallen timber, and satisfied the enemy was trying to save time to cover the removal of railroad property from Meridian, I dropped our trains with good escorts and pushed on over all obstructions straight for the Oktibbeha, where we found the bridge burning.”

Colonel Edward Winslow’s Federal cavalry led the advance across the Oktibbeha, where they pushed the small Confederate rear guard through Meridian. A Federal infantry division led by Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith came up, with Winslow and Smith arguing over whether the cavalry or the infantry should be the first to enter the town. Winslow won, telling Smith, “I believe this cavalry would charge the Gates of Hell if I tell them,” and leading his troopers into Meridian. Smith’s infantry followed, as a soldier named John Ritland recalled:

“Again we marched on with the firm resolution in our hearts to do or die; and again we were halted, this time to receive orders not to fire a shot, meanwhile, continuing our interminable marching, as if there was no end. Almost unaware we found ourselves marching through a deserted town with here and there some negroes reported, but not a sign of the enemy. Upon asking where they might be, the negroes reported, ‘They’re all gone. They began going yesterday. Some went last night, and the rest this morning.’ They had divided and their destinations were Mobile and Richmond. We occupied the city without a shot.”

Sherman entered the town that night. The next morning, he issued a proclamation to his troops, congratulating them for–

“… their most successful accomplishment of one of the great problems of the war. Meridian, the great railway center of the Southwest, is now in our possession, and by industry and hard work can be rendered useless to the enemy and deprive him of the chief source of supply to his armies. Secrecy in plan and rapidity of execution accomplish the best results in war, and the general commanding assures all, by following their leaders fearlessly and with confidence, they will in time reap the reward so dear to us all–a peace that will never again be disturbed in our country by a discontented minority.”

The Confederates fell back to the east side of the Tombigbee River. Polk’s ultimate destination was Demopolis, Alabama, while he moved about $12 million worth of supplies to Selma and Mobile. His cavalry, led by Major General Stephen D. Lee, did its best to harass Sherman’s Federals but could do little in the face of such overwhelming numbers.

The next day, the Federals began destroying the town in earnest, wrecking railroad tracks, locomotives, factories, sawmills, machine shops, public buildings, and private homes, while the Confederates were powerless to save the civilians from such devastation. Sherman reported on the 20th: “For five days 10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction… Meridian, with its depots, store-houses, arsenals, hospitals, offices, hotels and cantonments no longer exists.”

In the 11-day, 140-mile campaign from Vicksburg to Meridian, the Federals obliterated 115 miles of railroad track, 61 bridges, and 20 locomotives in pursuit of Sherman’s goal to ensure that the Mississippi railroads could not function for the rest of the war.

Sherman informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that his troops had taken “some 500 prisoners, a good many refugee families, and about 10 miles of negroes,” while inflicting so much damage that it was “simply impossible for the enemy to risk anything but light cavalry this side of Pearl River…” He also wrote:

“My movement to Meridian stampeded all Alabama. Polk retreated across Tombigbee and left me to smash things at pleasure, and I think it is well done… We broke absolutely and effectually a full hundred miles of railroad… and made a swath of desolation 50 miles broad across the State of Mississippi which the present generation will not forget.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 925-26, 934; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 397-98; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 464; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488

Meridian: Federals Continue Moving East

February 11, 1864 – Federal cavalry finally began moving out of Tennessee to support Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals moving east through central Mississippi.

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

Brigadier General William Sooy Smith moved his Federal horsemen out of Collierville, Tennessee, to strike into Mississippi. Smith’s mission was to wreak havoc on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, defeat Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry, and link with Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee headed for Meridian. Smith had 7,000 troopers, 20 guns, and a train of supply and ambulance wagons.

As Smith’s Federals moved south toward Pontotoc, their advance was hindered by winter rain and mud, along with the swamps of northern Mississippi. Forrest was informed of the Federal approach and prepared his 2,500 troopers. He responded to his superiors warning that Smith might target the railroad: “Am preparing to meet that move as best I can.” Forrest estimated the enemy force to consist of “about 10,000 cavalry and mounted infantry.”

Meanwhile, Sherman’s 27,000 Federals continued their methodical eastward advance toward Meridian, the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in Mississippi. Opposing them was Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s 10,000-man Army of Mississippi, which had fallen back until it was outside Meridian. Polk still believed that Sherman’s ultimate target was not Meridian but the vital port city of Mobile, Alabama.

Advised of the threat that Sherman posed, President Jefferson Davis contacted General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia:

“Keep in communication with General Polk, and do what you can to assist him, either by sending him re-enforcements or joining him with what force you can. If possible the enemy should be met before he reaches the Gulf and establishes a base to which supplies and re-enforcements may be sent by sea.”

There was little that Johnston could do because he was being held in check by the Federal Army of the Cumberland around Chattanooga. He wired Polk, “I have no doubt that your cavalry, under its active commanders, will make the march to Mobile impossible to the enemy with such wagon trains as they must require.” But neither Johnston nor Polk knew that the Federals were mostly living off the land and therefore had few wagons to slow their march.

News that Sherman had stopped at Decatur on the night of the 11th contradicted Polk’s assumption that the Federals were headed to Mobile. Polk wrote Major General William W. Loring, one of his division commanders, “If this is true, then Sherman must be looking to move on Meridian and make a junction with the cavalry force (of Smith) moving on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.” Polk had directed his other division under Major General Samuel G. French to go to Mobile, but now he ordered those troops to wait at Meridian.

Major General Stephen D. Lee’s Confederate cavalry was supposed to try harassing Sherman’s flanks while keeping between the Federals and Polk’s Confederates. Lee reported, “I have burned all bridges, which I find retard their advancing very much.” Freezing temperatures also slowed the Federal advance. But none of this stopped the troops from laying waste to the railroad depot at Lake Station, which included destroying two locomotives, 35 railcars, over a mile of track, and all nearby factories, sawmills, and machine shops.

Back in northern Mississippi, W.S. Smith’s Federal troopers drove off 600 Mississippi militia on the 12th and continued southward. The Federals burned cotton and corn, and destroyed track on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad along the way. About 1,000 local slaves joined Smith’s cavalry on their journey.

Meanwhile, Sherman continued east, encountering light resistance along the way, before stopping on the night of the 12th about 30 miles west of Meridian. Confederate cavalry raided the small Federal wagon train near the cabin that served as Sherman’s headquarters and nearly captured the Federal commander before infantry rushed up to drive the raiders off.

Polk sent a message to Davis and Johnston: “He (Sherman) is to-night near Decatur, I am near Meridian. My cavalry under Lee has skirmished with him in front, flank and rear from the Big Black, and, Lee reports, with little effect. He moves very compactly… I see nothing left me but to fall back on Alabama and take advantage of events.”

The Federal advance resumed on the morning of the 13th. Loring, whose Confederates were stationed just west of Meridian, informed Polk, “I have examined carefully the position in front, and I do not regard any of them as tenable with the force under my command. Will you please inform me as soon as you are able to move, so that I may know what to do in any emergency.” Polk responded:

“I am inclined to doubt the correctness of the report as to the near approach of the enemy to-night, yet I see no reason why you may not act upon it. As I understand the matter, the enemy has to pass across Oktibbeha River at the place where there is a long bridge now prepared to be burned. The burning of the bridge ought to retard his progress at least a day.”

By day’s end, Sherman’s Federals reached Tallahatta Creek, about 20 miles from Meridian. Many of the troops expected to fight a major battle for the town the next day, but Polk had other ideas.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 373; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 397; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 463; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702