After the successful conclusion of the Vicksburg Campaign, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman did not want to sit idle waiting for weather sufficient to support the upcoming spring campaign. Instead, he developed a plan to raid Meridian, about 150 miles from Vicksburg, and return in time to be ready for future operations. The Meridian Campaign not only succeeded in and of itself but also constituted an excellent proving ground for Sherman’s later March to the Sea.
Meridian was a key strategic point, lying roughly halfway between the Mississippi capital of Jackson and the cannon foundry and manufacturing center of Selma, Alabama. Meridian served as a storage and distribution center not just for the industrial products of Selma but also for grain and cattle from the fertile Black Prairie region just to the north. It also had a hospital on the edge of town, a prison, and the headquarters for several military ordnance, quartermaster, and paymaster activities. But what made Meridian most important was its location at the junction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and the Southern Railroad. On 3 February 1864 Sherman began his campaign against this tempting target “to break up the enemy’s railroads at and about Meridian, and to do the enemy as much damage as possible in the month of February, and to be prepared by the 1st of March to assist General [Nathaniel] Banks in a similar dash at the Red River country.”
Sherman knew that his success depended on speed. He would travel light, ordering, “Not a tent will be carried, from the commander-in-chief down.” He explained, “The expedition is one of celerity and all things must tend to that.” In spite of his overriding concern for speed, Sherman would not compromise in the size of his force. His army consisted of four divisions—two from Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s corps at Vicksburg and two from Maj. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut’s at Memphis—for a total of twenty thousand infantry plus some five thousand attached cavalry and artillery. Sherman’s Confederate adversary, Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, mustered a force just half that size, and his men were widely scattered, with a division each at Canton and Brandon and cavalry spread between Yazoo City and Jackson.
Polk was also handicapped by Sherman’s effective deceptions, which led Polk to believe that the Union general’s true objective was Mobile, Alabama. Sherman further played on Polk’s fears for the safety of Mobile by having Gen. Nathaniel Banks, commander of the Department of the Gulf at New Orleans, conduct naval maneuvers and foraging operations designed to “keep up the delusion of an attack on Mobile and the Alabama River.” By threatening Polk with feints, Sherman forced the Confederates to retain forces at Mobile that could have protected Meridian.
Sherman began his march from camps outside Vicksburg, with McPherson and Hurlbut advancing in separate columns to facilitate both speed and foraging. Confederate resistance was light, and Sherman refused to be distracted by minor skirmishes. By 9 February he was in Morton, having covered more than half the distance from Vicksburg to Meridian in less than a week. There he spent several hours tearing up the railroad track, using the usual method of burning crossties to heat the rails and then bending the metal into useless configurations dubbed “Sherman’s neckties.”
At Lake Station on 11 February Sherman destroyed “the railroad buildings, machine-shops, turning-table, several cars, and one locomotive.” By midafternoon on 14 February, his lead elements were in Meridian. By then, Confederate resistance had evaporated. Sherman had also ordered Brig. Gen. William Sooy Smith to move his large cavalry force from Memphis southeast to arrive at Meridian by 10 February. A combination of a slow start and the efforts of Confederate cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest prevented Smith from accomplishing his mission, and he was forced to return to Memphis. Although this frustrated Sherman, it did not deter him from his objective of destroying Meridian.
For five days Sherman dispersed detachments in four directions with instructions to “do the enemy as much damage as possible.” McPherson went to the south and west and destroyed 55 miles of railroad, 53 bridges, 6,075 feet of trestlework, 19 locomotives, 28 steam cars, and 3 steam sawmills. Hurlbut went north and east and wrecked 60 miles of railroad, 1 locomotive, and 8 bridges. Sherman reported, “10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction, with axes, crowbars, and with fire, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing the work as well done. Meridian, with its depots, store-houses, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists.” His work done, Sherman returned to Vicksburg on 28 February.
Considered in a vacuum, the Meridian Campaign was a huge success, but its effects stretched far beyond the Confederate war materiel Sherman laid to waste in Mississippi. Meridian served as small-scale rehearsal for Sherman’s later March to the Sea. Meridian showed Sherman that he could march through Confederate territory, destroy Confederate war-making infrastructure and will, and all the while live off the land. This larger impact marks the Meridian Campaign as an important milestone in the evolution of strategy and the Civil War’s relentless advance toward total war.
- Michael Ballard, Civil War Mississippi: A Guide (2000)
- S. M. Bowman and R. B. Irwin, Sherman and His Campaigns: A Military Biography (1865)
- Buck Foster, Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign (2006)
- John Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Quest for Order (1993)
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (1990)