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Sherman's Meridian expedition and Sooy Smith's raid to West point.

A Review by General S. D. Lee.
In the October number of the Southern Historical Society Papers of 1879 is the address of General Chalmers before the Society at the White Sulphur Springs in August--his theme being Forrest and his campaigns. This address is a valuable contribution, and paints, with a comrade's partiality, the character and deeds of Forrest. General Chalmers, however, makes some statements and draws certain conclusions from which I feel compelled to dissent, and I think I am sustained by the facts of the case.

Lieutenant-General Polk was killed in battle. Forrest is dead. Is it necessary, when General Chalmers desires to eulogize Forrest, that he should censure Polk? I think it a duty to give my version of Sherman's Meridian expedition to do General Polk justice. General Chalmers dwells almost entirely on the operations in which he personally took an active part. He forgets that while Forrest was encountering seven thousand (7,000) Federal troops another cavalry command, in the same State, at the same time, no larger than his own, was encountering twenty-six thousand (26,000) [50] infantry; and that possibly General Polk, commanding the Department, and directing both bodies of troops, could see and comprehend more than was within the scope of his (Chalmers') vision--General Polk being cognizant of all the surroundings, and General Chalmers having only a limited field of observation. The prominent position of General Chalmers will pass his utterances into history unless controverted.

The paragraph alluded to reads as follows: “Thus ended Sherman's effort to crush Forrest and set free the large number of men required to hold him in check. Mississippi, with its immense stores of corn and beef, was still held, and the railroads soon repaired to feed our army in Georgia. But the student of military operations will be puzzled to understand how Sherman, with four divisions of infantry and a small force of cavalry, crossed such streams as the Big Black and Pearl rivers, and passed through the centre of Mississippi, in the face of two divisions of infantry and four splendid brigades of well-equipped and well-drilled cavalry, under West Point officers, almost without firing a shot, while a man who could not well drill a company, with three thousand (3,000) cavalry, one-half raw troops, saved the State by defeating General Grant's Chief of Cavalry with seven thousand (7,000) picked troops.”

The expedition of Sherman from Vicksburg to Meridian, Mississippi, in February, 1864, with an army of twenty-six thousand men, supported by W. Sooy Smith's cavalry raid from Collierville, Tennessee (near Memphis), to West Point, Mississippi, with seven thousand picked men, has been regarded by competent military critics as one of the very singular and erratic moves of that Federal General, who, ranking next to Grant among Federal Generals, can point to no pitched battle of his own risk and conception in a four years war, to sustain his reputation.

In July, 1863, the Confederacy was cut in two by the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, including the Confederate States armies used in keeping closed the Mississippi river. This great river — and even most of its tributaries — was in the full and complete control of the Federal Government, being policed from Memphis to New Orleans so thoroughly that it was difficult for even an individual to cross. It was essentially free from annoyance, even of field batteries and riflemen. This was fully comprehended by General Sherman, who previously, by General Grant's direction, had penetrated Mississippi beyond Brandon, pushing [51] General Joe Johnston and his small force almost to Meridian. Raymond, Jackson and Brandon had already felt the “Sherman torch,” and monumental chimneys marked the localities of these towns. The country from Vicksburg to Brandon had already been laid waste and desolated, and beyond Brandon towards Meridian was a poor, piney-woods country, destitute of supplies for either army. Notwithstanding this condition of affairs (well known to Sherman), there remained at Natchez a large division of Federals under General Davidson; at Vicksburg, McPherson's Seventeenth army corps; at Memphis, Hurlbut's Sixteenth army corps, and about ten thousand cavalry under his command, including General W. S. Smith's in West Tennessee--amounting in all to about forty thousand effectives, guarding the Mississippi bank of the river, and not including the immense gunboat fleet on the river itself. Pemberton's and Gardner's Confederate States armies having been captured, there remained in observation of this large force in Mississippi two small divisions of Confederate States infantry, Loring at Canton, and French at Morton — about nine thousand men. S. D. Lee, with four brigades of cavalry — Stark and Ross of Jackson's division and Ferguson's and Adams' brigades — covering the country from opposite Yazoo City to Natchez, numbering about three thousand five hundred (3,500) effectives.

Forrest was south of Tallahatchie river in northwest Mississippi, picketing towards Memphis and the Memphis and Charleston rairoad; his command being principally at Panola, Abbeville, Oxford and Grenada — his aggregate force for duty being about thirty-five hundred (3,500) in the four brigades of Jeff. Forrest, Bell, McCullough and Richardson. The entire Confederate force in Mississippi not exceeding sixteen thousand (16,000).

This was the condition of affairs in January, 1864. About January 23d the spies in Vicksburg reported that Sherman would soon leave Vicksburg for the interior with an army of at least four divisions of infantry. This information was at once reported to Lieutenant-General Polk, commanding the Department, who discredited such a movement — saying it was impossible, as such an expedition had no objective point which could hurt the Confederacy, excepting Mobile or Selma, and a march over the country could not benefit or advance the cause of the Federals. He further said a concentration near Selma or Mobile (by virtue of interior lines) could readily crush such an ill-advised movement should it be attempted; and to these views he steadily adhered. It was [52] soon apparent that the spies had reported correctly. Adams' brigade of cavalry was drawn from the vicinity of Natchez; Ferguson was placed between Canton and Big Black, covering Loring, and Ross near the Yazoo river above Mechanicsburg. The Big Black was picketed heavily towards the railroad bridge and Messenger's ferry, six miles above.

On January 28th a gunboat expedition, accompanied by three regiments of Federal infantry, ascended the Yazoo river. On same date Federal cavalry moved from the direction of Vicksburg towards Mechanicsburg, on road to Yazoo City. This force was met by Ross, and defeated and driven back in numerous skirmishes from January 28th to February 5th, when they retired towards Vicksburg. One of these affairs is worthy of special mention. Two regiments, the Sixth and Ninth Texas, and two guns of King's battery met and repulsed near Liverpool three Federal regiments of infantry twice, driving them to the gunboats — the Texans drawing their six-shooters and charging the enemy when they were within twenty paces. On the evening of February 3d, Federal infantry commenced crossing Big Black river at the railroad bridge, and at Messenger's ferry (which they always kept picketed strongly), distant from Vicksburg twelve or fifteen miles, and rapidly drove in our pickets on the two roads leading towards Clinton. Early on the morning of the 4th, there was severe skirmishing on both of the roads; the enemy deploying his force in the open country, and steadily driving back the brigades of Adams and Starke in their front, their troops being in full view. This day's operations, from actual observation and from information derived from scouts and prisoners, both on the flank and rear of the enemy, fixed Sherman's force as consisting of two corps (of two divisions each), commanded by Major-Generals McPherson (Seventeenth corps) and Hurlbut (Sixteenth corps); a brigade of cavalry, under Colonel Winston; about forty pieces of artillery, with a considerable wagon train. The entire force was estimated at twenty-six thousand (26,000) effectives. The skirmishing on this day was handsomely done, as the large force of the enemy was visible to almost every member of the Confederate States command.

An incident near the old battlefield of Baker's creek is worthy of being recorded. The enemy, deployed, was moving forward. Adams' brigade, dismounted, was hotly contesting their advance through a swamp. While thus engaged, a Federal brigade of cavalry came charging down on their flank and on their led horses. [53] The moment was critical, as Adams was almost too hotly engaged to withdraw on the short notice. The two escort companies of Generals S. D. Lee and W. H. Jackson alone were mounted — numbering about ninety men all told. Major W. H. Bridges, of Texas, was temporarily connected with the command — an officer for just such an emergency. He was ordered to lead the two companies, and check the advancing Federals. It was a choice command, fearlessly led, and did the work assigned it, but with the loss of the noble leader and many of his followers. The charge saved Adams' brigade, which was retired, mounted and moved over Baker's creek. Griffith's Arkansas regiment was thrown into the woods near the crossing, thus permitting the two companies to sweep over the bridge when gradually pressed back by the superior numbers engaging them, and punishing the Federals for following too closely.

On the 5th the cavalry was steadily pushed back to Jackson, where it arrived about dark, passing out on the road towards Canton, to enable General Loring's infantry division to cross Pearl river from Canton, moving towards Morton on the Jackson and Meridian railroad; Ferguson's brigade, moving on the road from Clinton towards Madison station, on the railroad from Jackson to Canton, to more completely cover Loring's march. A regiment was sent to keep in front of the enemy, in case he moved towards Brandon and across Pearl river.

As soon as it was ascertained that Sherman was crossing at Jackson, Adams, Starke and Ferguson were crossed over Pearl riverFerguson placing himself in front of the enemy, and Jackson, with his two brigades, moving on his flank at Brandon and Pelahatchie stations. At the same time, Ross was ordered to abandon the Yazoo country and join his command operating against Sherman. Jackson did his work well, forcing the enemy to abandon all foraging and confine his march to one road. On the night of the 9th, while in rear of the enemy, General Polk directed all the cavalry to move and get between Sherman and the Mobile and Ohio railroad on the south, to cover that road and permit troops to be sent to Mobile, as he believed Mobile to be Sherman's destination and not Meridian. At Newton station, on the 11th, the three cavalry brigades met, Ferguson having been ordered there from the front by General Polk. General 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 [54] 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. 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. 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. Sherman started on his return to Vicksburg February 20th.

On the evening of February 17th, General Polk ordered Lee to leave only one regiment to observe Sherman, and to move with every disposable man, unite with Forrest near Starkeville, Mississippi, and to beat a Federal cavalry force, estimated by Forrest at eight thousand, and moving from Memphis towards Meridian. Lee put his four cavalry brigades in motion on the morning of the 18th--Ross having joined him the day before in the vicinity of Marion station. Lee's command reached Line creek (Forrest's headquarters), north of Starkeville, on the morning of February 23d, where Forrest had been on the 22d, and it was found that the enemy's cavalry (under W. Sooy Smith) had commenced a hurried retreat twenty-four hours previously. Lee had been led to believe by Forrest that the Federal cavalry was superior in numbers to their united commands, and that the difficulty was in avoiding a general engagement till his arrival. [55]

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 PointForrest retiring across the Sookatouchie, in accordance with his understanding with Lee, to avoid an engagement till his arrival.

Jeff. Forrest commmenced fighting Smith with his brigade on the 18th February, towards Aberdeen.

Forrest soon divined Smith's intentions at Wyatt, and concentrated his command at West Point, where they commenced to arrive on February 17th--the average march of his brigades being about 92 miles, while Smith marched double that distance before meeting Forrest in the vicinity of West Point. On February 20th, at West Point, Forrest received a dispatch from Lee, saying he would arrive on the 22d. Smith, at West Point, the same day heard of this dispatch, and also had it confirmed from prisoners and deserters taken in the evening of that day, when Forrest was retiring across the Sookatouchie stream. He (General Smith) determined at once to retreat rapidly before Lee joined his forces with Forrest, and to draw Forrest after him. Forrest, with his usual perception and vigor, at once comprehended a change of programme in Smith's plans, and commenced one of his headlong pursuits, following Smith to vicinity of Pontotoc. Considerable skirmishing took place in the pursuit, and at Okalona Forrest captured six guns.

On February 24th Lee ordered General W. H. Jackson, with his division and Adams' and Ferguson's brigades, to move towards Canton, and harass Sherman, then on his return march to Vicksburg. This duty was well done, Jackson killing and capturing a considerable number of the enemy and taking twenty wagons. The last of Sherman's forces recrossed the Big Black on March 4th, not forgetting the “Sherman torch” at Canton as a memento to the defenceless citizens.

Lee's official report estimates the loss inflicted on the enemy by [56] his command during the campaign at 300 killed and wounded and 400 prisoners. The Federal loss by Sherman is 21 killed, 68 wounded, 81 missing. Forrest's estimate of the loss inflicted by his command on the enemy is 600 killed and wounded and 300 prisoners. Federal General Smith's official report places his loss from Forrest's command at 47 killed, 152 wounded and 120 missing. Total loss, 319.

The movement and concentration by Forrest at West Point showed caution and great sagacity. He felt doubtful of meeting Smith successfully and overcoming his 7,000 men with his 3,500, and he felt that he must overcome this disadvantage. His point of concentration was far to the southeast and in front of several almost impassable swamps, in a pocket formed by several streams, where he could offer formidable resistance, and be near enough to receive assistance from General Polk, if he could furnish it. He could have concentrated at a shorter distance, at Pontotoc, Houston or Okolona, but he might have been interfered with before he was ready, and the country was not so suitable for defence as that selected.

Smith commenced his retreat before Forrest offered him any serious resistance, and because he knew of Lee's near approach and junction with Forrest. In his official report, Smith says, of his retreating from West Point: “Exaggerated reports of Forrest's strength reached me constantly, and it was reported that Lee was about to reinforce him with a portion or the whole of his command.” He also says: “Under these circumstances, I determined not to move my encumbered command into the trap set for me by the Rebels.” Again: “I would have lost my entire command, and of course could have rendered him (Sherman) no assistance.” Again: “Information since obtained fully justifies the decision to retire before Forrest's force from West Point. General Sherman's expeditionary force had withdrawn from Meridian before my arrival at West Point, on a line that could not have been known to me, cut off, as I was, from any communication with him. Forrest's force is ascertained to have been rather above than below my estimate. Chalmers was moving with two brigades by way of Houston to my rear, while Lee, with from three to four thousand men, was ordered up to join Forrest in front.” Again: “Our march [retreat] was so rapid that the enemy could not outstrip and intercept us, which he constantly endeavored to do.”

Major S. L. Woodward, United States army, who was Adjutant-General on General Grierson's staff in this expedition, the General [57] being second in command to General Smith, under date of March 20th, 1879, from Fort Davis, Texas, writes: “When in the vicinity of West Point, Mississippi, or in the pocket formed by the junction of the Tombigbee, Houlka and Sookatouchie rivers, this brigade being in advance, met, engaged and repulsed a force which we supposed to be under General Forrest, driving them across Sookatouchie, when, being considerably ahead of General Smith and the rest of the command, and it being nearly dark, General Grierson halted, and immediately prepared a crossing of the stream to be used in the advance. General Smith soon arrived, and placed the whole command in camp. During the night considerable movement was heard in the enemy's camp on the opposite side of the river, and a number of prisoners and deserters were brought in. These were taken to General Smith, who questioned them. He (General Smith) was very sick during the night, his mind at times bordering on delirium, and he sent for General Grierson, and told him he was very sick, and that he (Grierson) would have to take command. He then asked General Grierson what he would do in the morning. The reply was that he would proceed towards Meridian. General Smith then said, ‘No! that will never do. General Stephen D. Lee is in front of us with his whole force, including infantry and artillery.’ He (Smith) immediately reassumed the direction of affairs, gave orders for a retrogade movement at dawn, and directed General Grierson to hold the rear with this brigade heretofore mentioned. There is no doubt that General Smith learned from the deserters, whom he interviewed, that you had reinforced Forrest, and that his orders for the retreat were on that account. The engagement of the first day was but a sharp skirmish, in which only a part of one brigade was engaged; the opposing force was easily repulsed, and there was no reason whatever why we should have retreated before the force which was then in front of us. General Grierson's recollection of the affair coincides with mine, and I have from his own lips the report of the conversation herein related between himself and General Smith.”

In the official report of General S. D. Lee, dated Tuscaloosa, Alabama, April 18th, 1864, is the following, viz: “The enemy, on reaching West Point, heard of my approach on the 21st, and immediately commenced their retreat. Forrest on the 22d, in the evening, commenced the pursuit, and caught up with the rear guard, inflicting severe punishment on them, capturing six pieces of artillery and many prisoners. My command was much disappointed at the result of this action, having anticipated a fight with their own arm of the service and with equal numbers.” [58]

These extracts are given to show that Smith's retreat was caused by the movement of Lee to reinforce Forrest, in obedience to the orders of Lieutenant-General Polk, Department commander.

These are the facts, as understood by the writer, connected with Sherman's Meridian expedition and W. Sooy Smith's cavalry raid from Memphis to West Point, Mississippi.

Lieutenant-General Polk, in the exercise of a wise discretion, determined from the first not to fight Sherman, if his army was as large as represented, for he felt that he was too weak to inflict a telling blow unless he was considerably reinforced. He determined to let Sherman expend himself in the piney woods, unless he moved to the Tombigbee river towards Selma, or towards Mobile, in which case he expected to receive assistance from Johnston's army in Georgia, and to crush Sherman. The movement of troops for this purpose (Hardee's corps) was at the time in progress.

General Polk's orders to Lee, operating against Sherman, plainly showed he did not want Sherman materially interfered with, but rather encouraged to move as far as he would. 'Tis true, Sherman's march was skillfully conducted, and he gave Lee but little opportunity to hurt him. In fact, Lee could only keep in his foragers and stragglers, and aid him in keeping compact while in motion.

General Polk, in carrying out his plan, at once seized the opportunity offered by W. S. Smith's cavalry expedition against Forrest, to order Lee's entire cavalry force to leave Sherman in his loneliness, and to unite with Forrest and beat Smith before he could reach Meridian, while he (Polk) was at the same moment arranging a similar concentration for Sherman's benefit, as soon as Smith was discomfited. Both Sherman and Smith displayed sagacity on this occasion. Smith, in his candor, says he retreated to avoid falling “into the trap set for me by the Rebels.” While Sherman, to cover his discomfiture, protests in his book that he never had any idea of either Mobile or Selma, but, as on a previous occasion (December, 1863, at Chickasaw bayou), he lays all the blame on a subordinate. The two campaigns, as to conceptive development and results, are quite similar from a military standpoint.

Now let us examine into the object and result of this campaign-General Sherman, in his book, says: “The object of the Meridian expedition was to strike the roads inland, so to paralyze the Rebel forces, that we could take from the defence of the Mississippi river the equivalent of a corps of twenty thousand men, to be used in the next Gorgia campaign, and this was actually done. At the same [59] time, I wanted to destroy General Forrest, who, with an irregular force of cavalry, was constantly threatening Memphis and the river above, as well as our routes of supply in Middle Tennessee. In this we failed utterly, because General W. S. Smith did not fulfill his orders, which were clear and specific. . . . I waited at Meridian till the 20th to hear from General Smith, but hearing nothing whatever, and having utterly destroyed the railroads in and around that junction, I ordered General McPherson to move slowly back towards Canton.”

It is necessary for General Sherman to explain the object, for otherwise it might not be discovered by the military student. He did “strike the roads inland,” but did not “utterly destroy them.” Major George Whitfield, now at Columbus, Mississippi, in twenty-six working days had the trains on the Mobile and Ohio railroad running the same through Meridian as before Sherman's trip. Major Pritchard, in about the same working time, had the other road in running order. There was no infantry in Mississippi to receive supplies from these roads, and the cavalry did not need them. The “Rebel forces” were not “paralyzed,” but kept out of the way to let the General enjoy the breezes of the piney woods. The 9,000 Confederate infantry which was in Mississippi was only observing the large Federal force (40,000). Of course the Federals could have moved 20,000 out of this number (40,000) from the fortified posts of Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Natchez and Memphis, without any serious danger, to be used in the next Georgia campaign. Sherman says this was actually done. It could have been done without his Meridian expedition. Does the General forget that the Confederate infantry (Loring and French), which was in Mississippi at the time of his expedition, was also in Johnston's army when his 20,000 men were moved there from the Mississippi river. They got there, too, by moving on interior lines, while his had to move on exterior lines.

He says hefailed utterlyto destroy Forrest. So what was the military gain by his expedition? He “utterly failed” to paralyze the Confederate States forces, the infantry moving to counteract the movement of Federal troops for the Georgia campaign.

Sherman, so far as his and Smith's expeditions were concerned, was completely outgeneraled by Polk and Forrest.

There were other objects and results of these two expeditions not deemed fit for record in General Sherman's book. The track of Sherman and Smith was marked by the wanton destruction of private property — burning houses, &c. Sherman alone carried [60] back to Vicksburg about three hundred wagons more than he started with. These wagons and their teams he took from an impoverished and already desolated country, and the very poorest (pecuniarily) class of people, living in the thin piney-woods country through which he passed. Over 10,000 bales of cotton and 2,000,000 bushels of corn were burned. Over 8,000 slaves, mounted on as many mules (stolen), belonging to citizens of the country, were carried off. A Federal writer estimates the damage at $50,000,000. As over three-fourths of this was private property, the future historian may possibly ask, Was this and the towns burned (Meridian, Canton, &c.) the warfare of the civilization of the nine-teenth century waged against those who had a few years before been brothers, and among whom General Sherman had lived and derived his livelihood?

General Smith, in his official report, seemed to attach more importance to taking care of the captured and refugee slaves flocking to him, to make soldiers out of them after his return to Memphis, than executing the essence of his orders. He was so encumbered, that with his 7,000 splendid cavalry, he permitted Forrest, while he was retreating, to run him out of Mississippi with 3,500 men, and lacked the vim to turn on him and seriously check him.

The “student of military operations,” alluded to by General Chalmers, owes it to himself to look into this campaign, and he may find some reasons for General Polk's action. He, too, may discover that both Polk and the “four splendid brigades of well-equipped and well-drilled cavalry, under West Point officers,” did a duty in causing General Smith to retreat; also, that General Polk is entitled to the credit of saving the State of Mississippi as well as General Forrest. 'Tis true General Sherman “crossed such streams as the Blg Black and Pearl rivers, and passed through the centre of Mississippi” to Meridian, about one hundred and fifty miles; but the facts and the official reports show that General Chalmers is mistaken about its being done “almost without firing a shot.” An examination of the casualties, both Confederate and Federal, will show very little difference in the damage done by the two cavalry commands of Forrest and Lee. Sheman's 26,000 men were met by Lee at the Big Black, and fought every day till its arrival at Meridian, in such manner as was deemed best for the interest of the Confedracy. Smith, with his 7,000 cavalry, marched about one hundred and eighty miles, crossing numerous streams, before any of Forrest's command met him, although by interior [61] lines his four brigades only had to march an average distance of ninety miles, just one-half of what Smith marched. Forrest did right in not striking him till he did, and displayed splendid generalship. Had General Chalmers been in front of General Sherman, he possibly might have seen enough to make him deal more leniently with Polk and the Confederate troops operating against Sherman.

S. D. Lee. Columbus, Mississippi, December 20th, 1879.

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