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Chapter 7:

General Sherman relates that in the Winter following the battle of Chattanooga, he conceived the idea of a movement eastward from the line of the Mississippi to penetrate the interior, and so break up railroads, and paralyze the rebel forces in that section, as to release a large body of troops for the coming campaign from Chattanooga.

Marching from Vicksburg February 3d, 1864, his columns reached Meridian on the 14th, remained there till the 20th, causing much destruction of roads, rolling-stock, stores, and manufacturing establishments of value to the enemy, and arrived at Canton, near Vicksburg, on his return, February 26th:

Much more had been expected at the North from the preparations made for the movement, and the statements circulated as to its object. It was the general belief that the expedition was to penetrate as far east as Selma, one of the interior points of greatest value to the enemy, and also turn upon Mobile. This impression was current at General Grant's headquarters and at Washington, and General Grant himself had written to Halleck, under date of January 15th, 1864, in the same letter which unfolded his plan for the general Spring campaign as follows:

‘I shall direct Sherman, therefore, to move out to Meridian with his spare force—the cavalry going from Corinth, and destroy the railroads east and south of there so effectually that the enemy will not attempt to rebuild them during the rebellion. He will then return, unless the opportunity of going into Mobile with the force he has, appears perfectly plain.’


And writing on the same subject to Thomas at Chattanooga, on the 19th of January, he said:

He (Sherman) will proceed eastward as far as Meridian at least, and will thoroughly destroy the roads east and south from there, and, if possible, will throw troops as far east as Selma; or, if he finds Mobile so far unguarded as to make his force sufficient for the enterprise, will go there. To cooperate with this movement you want to keep up appearances of preparation of an advance from Chattanooga. It may be necessary even to move a column as far as Lafayette.

This, it will be observed, was written by the General who ordered the Meridian expedition to an officer whom he desired. to cooperate with it.

So, while General Sherman insists that he had no intention of going through to Mobile, and that he wanted Banks to keep up a show of attack in that direction, it is evident that Grant had such a move in mind for him when the orders for the expedition were given.

The general verdict of failure which met Sherman on his return, called for prompt excuse, and the best at hand was found in the fact that the cavalry force from Memphis, under General Sooy Smith, had not reached Meridian as was intended.

The Memoirs give this version of General Smith's operations:

At Memphis I found Brigadier-General W. Sooy Smith with a force of about twenty-five hundred cavalry, which he had, by General Grant's orders, brought across from Middle Tennessee, to assist in our general purpose as well as to punish the rebel General Forrest, who had been most active in harassing our garrisons in West Tennessee and Mississippi. * * * * * * A chief part of the enterprise was to destroy the rebel cavalry commanded by General Forrest, who were a constant threat to our railway communications in Middle Tennessee, and I committed this task to Brigadier-General W. Sooy Smith. General Hurlbut had in his command about seven thousand five hundred cavalry, scattered from Columbus, Kentucky, to Corinth, Mississippi, and we proposed to make up an aggregate cavalry force of about seven thousand “effective” out of these and the twenty-five hundred which General Smith had brought with him from Middle Tennessee. With this force General Smith was ordered to move from Memphis straight for Meridian, Mississippi, and to start by February 1st. I explained to him personally the nature of Forrest as a man, and of his peculiar force; told [91] him that in his route he was sure to encounter Forrest, who always attacked with a vehemence for which he must be prepared, and that, after he had repelled the first attack, he must, in turn, assume the most determined offensive, overwhelm him, and utterly destroy his whole force. I knew that Forrest could not have more than four thousand cavalry, and my own movement would give employment to every other man of the rebel army not immediately present with him, so that he (General Smith) might safely act on the hypothesis I have stated.

Having completed all these preparations in Memphis, being satisfied that the cavalry force would be ready to start by the 1st of February, and having seen General Hurlbut with his two divisions embark in steamers for Vicksburg, I also reembarked for the same destination on the 27th of January. * * * * The object of the Meridian expedition was to strike the roads inland, so to paralyze the rebel forces, that we could take from the defense of the Mississippi River the equivalent of a corps of twenty thousand men, to be used in the next Georgia campaign; and this was actually done. At the same 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. Sooy Smith did not fulfill his orders, which were clear and specific, as contained in my letter of instructions to him of January 27th, at Memphis, and my personal explanations to him at the same time. Instead of starting at the date ordered, February 1st, he did not leave Memphis till the 11th, waiting for some regiment that was ice bound near Columbus, Kentucky; and then, when he did start, he allowed General Forrest to head him off and to defeat him with an inferior force near West Point, below Okalona, on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.

We waited at Meridian till the 20th to hear from General Smith, but hearing nothing whatever, and having utterly destroyed the railroads in andaround that junction, I ordered General McPherson to move back slowly toward Canton. With Winslow's cavalry and Hurlbut's infantry I turned north to Marion, and thence to a place called “Union,” whence I dispatched the cavalry farther north to Philadelphia and Louisville, to feel as it were for General Smith, and then turned all the infantry columns toward Canton, Mississippi.

‘On the 26th we all reached Canton, but we had not heard a word of General Smith, nor was it until sometime after (at Vicksburg) that I learned the whole truth of General Smith's movement and of his failure. Of course I did not, and could not, approve of his conduct, and I know that he yet chafes under the censure. I had set so much store on his part of the project that I was disappointed, and so reported officially to General Grant. General Smith never regained my confidence as a soldier, though I still regard him as a most accomplished gentleman and a skillful engineer. Since the close of the war he has appealed to me to relieve him of that censure, but I could not do it, because it would falsify history.’


It would not have falsified history, however, if General Sherman had said, that instead of waiting for a regiment which was ice bound near Columbus, Ky., General Smith, by General Sherman's personal and positive directions, was awaiting the arrival of Warring's entire brigade of cavalry, composed of the Fourth Missouri, Second New Jersey, Seventh Indiana, Nineteenth Pennsylvania, and a battery of the Second Illinois Cavalry.

Further than this General Smith was distinctly informed by Sherman, before the departure of the latter, that it would be necessary to wait for this brigade in order to make up the requisite force with which to meet Forrest. General Sherman also assured him that his own movement on Meridian and the contemplated operations there did not of necessity depend upon a junction with the cavalry from Memphis. And this is shown to have been General Sherman's view, when he himself reached Meridian four days after the date he had fixed for his own and General Smith's arrival at that point, by the order he then issued. This was dated eight days after the time mentioned for a union of the forces there, and declares that all the objects of the expedition had been fully attained:

[special field orders no. 20.]

headquarters Department of the Tennessee, Meridian, Miss., February 18th, 1864.
1. Having fulfilled, and well, all the objects of the expedition, the troops will return to the Mississippi River to embark in another equally important movement.

2. * * * * The march will begin on the 20th instant, and the corps commanders will not pass Union and Decatur until they have communicated with each other by couriers across at these points. * * * *

4. The march should be conducted slow; about fifteen miles per day, and in good order. * * * * There is no seeming danger, but every precaution should be taken against cavalry dashes at our trains. * * * *

By order of Major-General W. T. Sherman,

L. M. Dayton, Aid-de-Camp.

From General Smith's report, it appears that Warring's brigade did not reach him until the 8th. It had marched two hundred and fifteen miles, over a country covered with snow and ice, and been obliged to cross rivers, where in some [93] instances it was necessary to build boats to ferry the command, and where at times the men were compelled to dismount and harness the horses to the artillery and the ammunition wagons in order to draw them through. Three days would seem scarcely enough to refit a brigade after such a march, but in that time it again started under General Smith.

A vigorous campaign was then made against Forrest, and pushed as far as was prudent or possible. The delay in starting had made it impracticable to reach General Sherman at Meridian, by the time he had set for returning, and so General Smith withdrew to Memphis. As a result of his expedition, he reported between one and two million bushels of corn destroyed, two thousand bales of cotton burned, thirty miles of railroad destroyed, three thousand horses and mules, and fifteen hundred negroes brought out of the enemy's country, besides the forage and subsistence taken for his mounted force of seven thousand.

General Sherman in his report of the Meridian expedition, made a few days after his return to Vicksburg, maintained that he had accomplished all he undertook, notwithstanding the delay in General Smith's movements.

This portion of his report is as follows:

I inclose herewith my instructions to General Smith, with a copy of his report, and must say it is unsatisfactory. The delay in his starting to the 11th of February, when his orders contemplated his being at Meridian on the 10th, and when he knew I was marching from Vicksburg is unpardonable, and the mode and manner of his return to Memphis was not what I expected from an intended bold cavalry movement. * * * * I returned (to Canton) from Vicksburg, on the 6th inst., found all my army in, and learned that General Smith had not started from Memphis at all till the 11th of February, had only reached West Point, and turned back on the 22d, the march back to Memphis being too rapid for a good effect.

‘Nevertheless, on the whole, we accomplished all I undertook.’

General Smith, at the time of this expedition, was Grant's chief of cavalry, and when he was temporarily placed under the orders of Sherman for the Meridian campaign, he was engaged, in conjunction with other troops, in watching and operating against Forrest's command. He made full report to [94] General Grant of his operations under Sherman, and was commended for what he accomplished. As an evidence that General Sherman himself had lost no confidence in him, he was retained by that officer as chief-of-staff, when he succeeded Grant in command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, and was entrusted with the work of organizing the cavalry force for the Atlanta campaign, continuing active in the field during the first three months of that movement, when disabling sickness compelled him to leave the service. And yet General Sherman now writes: ‘General Smith never regained my confidence as a soldier.’

The reports on file in the War Department regarding General Smith's movement are voluminous. His instructions contain no mention of February 1st being the day absolutely fixed for his starting, as now claimed in the Memoirs, and the reasons, both for the delay, and the subsequent return to Memphis, are of such a character as to fix no stain upon his record.

The Memoirs, in fixing the force with which he was to move at ‘about seven thousand,’ show that General Sherman expected General Smith to wait for Warring's brigade, since, without it, his force would only have numbered about five thousand. Instead of Forrest's strength being then estimated in Memphis at ‘not more than four thousand cavalry,’ it was believed to be, and in fact was, fully six thousand. Instead of being defeated at West Point ‘with an inferior force,’ General Smith was not defeated there at all; and further, he moved back from that place partly because the rebel cavalry force, which Sherman had not kept employed in his own front, was moving to join Forrest against him.

But aside from this expected reenforcement of the enemy the various reports disclose abundant reason for turning back from West Point. The force in General Smith's front was fully equal to his own, and was posted behind a river which became impassable when so held. The enemy's left was covered by a swamp and river, and a movement in that direction was impracticable, while his right was protected by the [95] Tombigbee River which General Smith could not cross. His command was encumbered with a large body of negroes that he had gathered up in pursuance of orders and was in honor bound to protect. A rebel brigade was moving to the rear to occupy a strong point in his line of retreat. At this time General Sherman was retiring from Meridian, and had it been possible for General Smith to advance beyond West Point it would have been a move upon Polk's whole army, resulting in utter defeat.

General Smith penetrated further into the enemy's territory than General Sherman, and, in proportion to the strength of his command, inflicted heavier losses upon the enemy than Sherman.

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