Events Leading Up to the Meridian Campaign
Following the Federal breakout from Chattanooga in November 1863, Major General William T. Sherman returned to Vicksburg, Mississippi, with his Army of the Tennessee to attend to some unfinished business. With the approval of Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman intended to launch a brief campaign to destroy Southern infrastructure in the area, thus freeing up troops to move east to take part in his upcoming Atlanta Campaign.
Sherman’s Goal and Strategy
Sherman’s primary target was Meridian, Mississippi, about 150 miles east of Vicksburg. At the juncture of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad with the Southern Railroad, Meridian was the largest remaining Confederate railroad center in the state.
To accomplish his goal, Sherman developed a three-pronged strategy.
- He would lead roughly 25,000 soldiers out of Vicksburg, laying waste to the countryside and living off of the land as they advanced toward Meridian. (Special Field Orders, No. 11, Department of the Tennessee).
- Simultaneously, Brigadier General William Sooy Smith would lead a cavalry force of 7,000 troopers south from Memphis, Tennessee, and join forces with Sherman at Meridian on February 10, 1864. (Message from W.T. Sherman to William Sooy Smith).
- Finally, the Union army and naval forces in adjacent areas would implement a series of feints designed to keep the Confederates guessing about Sherman’s intended target.
On February 3, 1864, Major General James B. McPherson and his 17th Army Corps and Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut and his 16th Army Corps departed from Vicksburg in two columns under Sherman’s command. Roughly 5,000 cavalry troopers and artillerists accompanied Sherman’s 20,000 infantrymen. Believing that the success of the campaign hinged upon speed, Sherman instructed his men to travel light. He ordered that “Not a tent will be carried, from the commander-in-chief down.”
Opposing Sherman, Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, had fewer than 10,000 Confederate troops under his command, including about 3,000 stationed at Meridian, commanded by Major General Samuel G. French. The rest were scattered around the state.
Fall of Jackson, Mississippi
Polk’s cavalry initially offered minimal resistance to Sherman’s large force, skirmishing with his leading elements on February 3–5. Leaving a path of destruction in their wake, the Yankees entered the state capital at Jackson on February 5, 1864, and then continued their march east toward Meridian.
Meanwhile, Polk was reluctant to mobilize a larger force to stop Sherman because Major General Nathaniel Banks and his troops in the Department of the Gulf were engaging in naval maneuvers feigning an attack on Mobile Bay on the state’s southern border along the Gulf of Mexico.
By February 9, 1864, Sherman’s soldiers entered the town of Morton, about halfway between Vicksburg and Meridian, where they spent several hours destroying railroad tracks. Two days later, at Lake Station, they mangled more track and demolished “the railroad buildings, machine-shops, turning-table, several cars, and one locomotive.”
Destruction of Meridian
Faced with Sherman’s overwhelming numbers, Polk ordered the evacuation of Meridian, and the Yankees occupied the railroad hub on February 14, 1864. Still awaiting Sooy Smith’s cavalry, Sherman spent the next five days wreaking havoc on the town and adjacent areas. Deploying his men in four directions, Sherman ordered them to “do the enemy as much damage as possible.” By the time the destruction ended, as Sherman later reported to Grant, that:
for five days 10,000 men worked with a will in that work of destruction, with axes, crowbars, sledges, clawbars, and with fire, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing the work well done. Meridian with its depots, store-house, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists.
Battle of Okolona
While the Yankees laid waste to Meridian and the nearby environs, Sherman waited in vain for Smith’s arrival. As events unfolded, Smith never reached Meridian. After delaying the start of his advance ten days beyond Sherman’s ordered date of departure, he encountered Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry near Prairie Station, Mississippi, on February 20. After skirmishing near West Point the next day, Forrest’s troopers routed the Bluecoats on February 22 at the Battle of Okolona. The Confederate victory forced Smith to fall back into Tennessee, preventing his unification with Sherman.
Unaware of Smith’s troubles, Sherman remained at Meridian until the morning of February 20 when he began his return to Vicksburg, arriving there on March 4. Three days later, Sherman reported to Grant that:
Our march out and in from Vicksburg was well accomplished; we beat the enemy wherever he opposed or offered resistance. We drove him out of Mississippi, destroyed the only remaining railroads in the State, the only roads by which he could maintain an army in Mississippi threatening to our forces to the main river. We subsisted our army and animals chiefly on his stores, brought away about 400 prisoners and full 5,000 negroes, about 1,000 white refugees, about 3,000 animals (horses, mules, and oxen), and any quantity of wagons and vehicles.
Sherman also reported that his army suffered 170 casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) during the brief campaign. Smith lost 388 troopers during his encounters with Forrest.
Outcome of the Meridian Campaign
Human losses for the Confederacy are unknown, but historians estimate that Sherman’s troops destroyed 115 miles of railroad, 61 bridges, 1,852 miles of trestle work, twenty locomotives, twenty-eight railroad cars, and three sawmills. Rebel soldiers repaired most of the damage to the railroads and bridges within a month. The locomotives, however, were nearly irreplaceable and the restoration projects siphoned away resources that the Confederacy sorely needed elsewhere.
On a grander scale, the Meridian Campaign was significant because Sherman proved that his army could operate independently and live off of the land deep within enemy territory while engaging in total war. Sherman’s operations served as a modest rehearsal for his later successful “March to the Sea” in Georgia (November 15, 1864–December 21, 1864) and his subsequent Carolinas Campaign (February–April 1865).