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.
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.
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