Here’s a look at events in the Civil War 150 years ago this week.
I’ve been thinking. Keep in mind that I’m an amateur and haven’t studied this in any depth, but my impression is that Grant and Sherman probably did intend to continue the Meridian campaign into Alabama, likely aiming for Selma’s factories and perhaps even Mobile.
Yes, General Sherman did point out that he didn’t have much time (he was to assist General Banks in the upcoming Red River campaign) and he did produce a letter that seemed to prove otherwise (21). Still…his force was vastly out of proportion to the resistance they were likely to face in Mississippi. Why did he bring along so many men?
Some historians say he was practicing his “March to the Sea.” It makes sense until you realize it’s the wisdom of hindsight. In early February 1864, no one had any idea the Union would ever be doing such a thing.
We now know that US victories over Vicksburg and Chattanooga in 1863 were turning points in the war, but at this time 150 years ago, Confederate military prowess was still considered to be a serious obstacle and Grant was too new a commander yet for his successes to be considered anything but luck.
There are other things, too.
I can think of no other reason why Grant would call off the hunt for CS General Longstreet in East Tennessee, especially with spring coming, other than to tie up General Johnston’s army in Dalton, Georgia (see February 12, below) with a feint.
Johnston would, of course, immediately move into Alabama if Sherman continued on past Meridian. The Army of Tennessee was much bigger than Sherman’s force – big enough to stop him, unless Johnston could be distracted by US General Thomas’s demonstration.
I could be wrong, but I think that’s what Grant was trying to do.
This is not necessarily to say – as his partisan supporters do – that CS General Nathan Bedford Forrest is the reason why Sherman stopped at Meridian, although his battle against US General Sooy Smith (see next week) was a major Confederate victory, even if it came at great personal cost to Forrest.
Smith started late and that alone might have bollixed up Grant’s timing.
We’ll never know for sure, though, because Grant and Sherman immediately saved face by going with the story that Meridian was the primary goal after Sooy Smith was defeated.
Other: “President Lincoln tries to rescue 6 horses from the White House stables during a fire. He is unsuccessful.” (5, including quote) “A newspaper reports, ‘[Mr.] Cooper, the President’s private coachman, left the stable to get his supper about 8 o’clock, and he was first notified of the fire by the President himself, who discovered the smoke…The building…contained…six horses, all of which were burned to death…One of these ponies was all the more highly prized, in consequence of having once been the property of Willie, the deceased son of Mr. and Mrs. President Lincoln.” Hours later, Lincoln is weeping as he stands in the East Room, looking at the still-burning stable. (4, including quote)
Military events: Meridian campaign: US General Sooy Smith sets out from Collierville, moving slowly due to rain. (22)
CS General Chalmers is ordered to concentrate his force at Oxford, “and this movement was made, but not finally, until several skirmishes occurred in front of Wyatt and Abbeville, in which the Federals were foiled in apparent efforts to pass the river at those points, the most persistent of which (at Wyatt) was by Faulkner’s Kentuckians during the night of the 13th.” (3, including quotes)
C.S. General Stephen Lee: “At Newton station, on the 11th, the three cavalry brigades met, Ferguson having been ordered there from the front by General Polk. General [Stephen] Lee here became convinced that General Polk was mistaken, and ordered Ferguson to return to Sherman’s front, while he, with Adams and Starke, moved on the flank of the enemy at Decatur. The enemy was found moving with every possible precaution; his trains perfectly and judiciously guarded; no foraging parties out, and his large infantry force ready to punish any ill-advised attempt on his column. On the 12th, seeing a road unguarded, Colonel Robert Wood’s Mississippi cavalry was ordered to make a dash at some wagons, and see what could be done. He disabled quite a number of wagons, and for a little while created quite a panic; but in a few moments the infantry of the enemy advanced from both directions, and Colonel Wood was recalled.”
Military events: Meridian campaign: As Sherman and his men continue toward Meridian, they skirmish this day at Wall Hill, Decatur and Chunky Station. (15)
East Tennessee operations: US General Grant suspends the campaign against CS General Longstreet and orders General Thomas to make a demonstration toward CS General Johnston’s forces in Dalton, Georgia. (6)
Military events: Meridian campaign: There is minor fighting at Tunnel Hill as General Sherman nears Meridian. (15) In northern Mississippi, General Chalmers establishes a position in Oxford. (3) General Stephen Lee: “On the 13th, General Polk ordered the cavalry to move to the north of Sherman’s line of march, as he proposed to evacuate Meridian and march with his infantry towards Demopolis, Alabama.”
Military events: Meridian campaign: CS General Polk orders the evacuation of Meridian and withdraws his forces into Alabama. General Sherman captures Meridian and starts a five-day effort to completely destroy the town’s usefulness to the Confederacy. (15) As Sherman describes it in his memoirs:
We at once set to work to destroy an arsenal, immense storehouses, and the railroad in every direction. We staid in Meridian five days, expecting every hour to hear of General Sooy Smith, but could get no tidings of him whatever. A large force of infantry was kept at work all the time in breaking up the Mobile & Ohio Railroad south and north; also the Jackson & Selma Railroad, east and west. I was determined to damage these roads so that they could not be used again for hostile purposes during the rest of the war.
In northern Mississippi, the Federal column has been moving northward around the river toward Pontotoc, “fully confirming Forrest’s forecast as to its ultimate objective – the rich prairie region at and south of Okolona.” General Chalmers sets out in the late afternoon for Houston, 45 miles southwest of Oxford, keeping on the US column’s right flank. In the meantime, General Forrest heads for Grenada with a brigade, his escort and artillery, directing his brother (who is at Grenada with a thousand men) to move on West-Point and the Mobile & Ohio railroad and to establish a line of couriers to Houston, to keep communications open with Chalmers. (3, including quote)
General Stephen Lee: “The enemy arrived at Meridian at 3 P. M. on the 14th of February–the Confederate cavalry retiring north towards Marion station. On this date (14th February), General Polk issued an order placing Major-General S. D. Lee in command of all the cavalry west of Alabama, and that officer at once put himself in communication with General Forrest. From the 15th to the 20th, Sherman, while at Meridian, was engaged in destroying the railroads north, south, east and west; for this purpose placing two divisions of infantry on each road. The roads were destroyed for twelve miles in every direction from Meridian. Attempts to stop the work were made by the cavalry, but the enemy’s force was too large to hinder him.”
Military events: Indian Ocean operations: The CSS Alabama leaves the Comoros and heads for Cape Town south through the Mozambique Channel. Per Captain Semmes, “My ship is weary, too, as well as her commander, and will need a general overhauling by the time I can get her into dock. If my poor service shall be deemed of any importance in harrassing and weakening the enemy, and thus contributing to the independence of my beloved South, I shall be amply rewarded.” (10, including quote)
Military events: Meridian campaign: There is skirmishing near Meridian at Lauderdale Springs. (15)
In northern Mississippi, though heavy rains have slowed his march, General Chalmers reaches Houston. (3)
General Forrest, per Wyeth, informs General Polk that the US troops under Smith are heading for a junction with General Sherman; that they’re about 10,000 strong and have some 30 artillery pieces; and they’ve crossed the Tallahatchie River at New Albany. Forrest has withdrawn south of the Tallahatchie, posting observers to watch the Federal crossings, and heads for Grenada, then to travel cross-country from there to Starkville. (9)
This quote from General Stephen Lee (21) really is forward-looking to next week’s events, which even the author of The Longest Day calls one of Forrest’s greatest battles: “The Federal General Smith left Collierville, on the Mobile and Ohio railroad, near Memphis, February 11th, marching towards Oxford. At Wyatt, on the Tallahatchie, with a brigade of infantry, he attempted a crossing; at the same time moving with all his cavalry in the direction of New Albany, on the Yallabusha river, where, without opposition, he crossed, and moved south through Pontotoc to within a few miles of Houston, when he moved almost due east to Okalona, which he took without resistance. He then moved south again down the Mobile and Ohio railroad to Prairie station, where he concentrated his command, and on the 20th moved on and through West Point — Forrest retiring across the Sookatouchie, in accordance with his understanding with [General Stephen] Lee, to avoid an engagement till his arrival.”
Siege of Charleston, South Carolina: Some time during the night of February 16-17,the CSS Hunley attacks and sinks the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor. The Hunley’s crew then signal their comrades ashore that the mission has been a success, but then after that at some point – perhaps with the explosion of the Housatonic – the submersible sinks, taking all its crew down with it.
(2) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).
(3) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).
(4) The Lincoln Log timeline.
(6) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.
(9) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).
(10) Captain Raphael Semmes and the CSS Alabama, US Naval Historical Center.
(12) The Siege of Charleston, “The State.” (South Carolina)
(13) Friends of the Hunley.
(15) The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War.” (2002) David J. Eicher.
(17) The Pictorial Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the War of the Rebellion…, Richard Miller Devens (1866).
(18) Rosser’s Raid.
(19) Memoirs of W. T. Sherman – The Meridian Campaign.
(20) The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War. James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., 1995.
(21) “Sherman’s Meridian expedition and Sooy Smith’s raid to West point. A Review by General S. D. Lee,” in Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 8., Reverend J. William Jones, Ed.
Categories: American Civil War