The Battle of Meridian was less of a battle than a campaign of destruction wrought upon the town of Meridian, Mississippi from February 14 - 20, 1864 by Federal troops commanded by Major General William T. Sherman.
Prelude to the Battle
Sherman Returns to Mississippi
Following the Federal breakout from Chattanooga in November 1863, Major General William T. Sherman returned to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sherman intended to destroy Southern infrastructure in the area, freeing up troops to move east and to take part in his upcoming Atlanta Campaign.
Sherman Strikes Out for Meridian
Sherman left Vicksburg on February 3, 1864, with 20,000 soldiers headed for Meridian, Mississippi, an important Confederate rail center and military outpost. To augment his force, Sherman ordered Brigadier General William Sooy Smith to lead a cavalry force of 7,000 troopers from Memphis, Tennessee, and to join him at Meridian.
Polk Abandons Meridian
As Sherman’s main force of 20,000 soldiers moved toward Meridian, the Confederate commander in the area, Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, began concentrating troops for the city’s defense. Ultimately, however, Polk decided that he could not hold off a federal assault, so he evacuated Meridian on February 14. Sherman entered the city on the same day and settled in to await Smith’s cavalry.
Smith Fails to Show
As events unfolded, Smith never reached Meridian. After delaying the start of his advance ten days beyond Sherman’s ordered date of departure, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry defeated Smith and his force at the Battle of Okolona on February 22. Forrest forced Smith to retreat into Tennessee, preventing his merger with Sherman.
Wipe the Appointed Meeting Place Off the Map
Unaware of Smith’s troubles, Sherman waited at Meridian for his arrival from February 14 through February 20. During that period, Sherman ordered his troops “to wipe the appointed meeting place off the map.” His soldiers responded by destroying over 100 miles of railroad and burning anything that might be of value to the Southern cause. When Sherman left Meridian to return to Vicksburg, he reportedly stated that “Meridian, with its depots, storehouses, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists.”
Aftermath of the Battle
The Union victory at the Battle of Meridian resulted in no recorded casualties. They are unknown or nonexistent, as there was no real combat. Sherman succeeded in temporarily destroying some significant Southern transportation facilities, but in less than one month, the Confederates restored railroad traffic.
On a grander scale, the Battle of Meridian or the Meridian Campaign was significant because it presented Sherman with the opportunity to implement and to perfect the concept of “total war,” which he would later use in Georgia and the Carolinas.