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Sherman's expedition from Vicksburg to Meridian, Feb. 3, to March 6, 1864 [from the New Orleans, la., Picayune, July 27, 1904.]

By Gen. Stephen D. Lee.
In July, 1863, the Confederacy was cut in two by the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, including the Confederate garrison, composing the army of General Pemberton, which had been used to keep the Mississippi river closed to navigation, and to preserve communication between the States of the Confederacy on the east and west of the great river. At the close of the Vicksburg campaign, the river and its tributaries were almost in full and complete control of the Federal government, being protected so thoroughly from Cairo to New Orleans by the fleet of Admiral Porter, composed of heavy and light gunboats, that it was difficult for even an individual to get across. It was essentially free from annoyances, even of field batteries and riflemen on either bank.

About the time of the surrender of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, General Joseph E. Johnston, who had succeeded in collecting a Confederate army of 30,000 men near Jackson, Miss. (the present effective force being about 28,000 men), had moved towards Vicksburg to attempt its relief. He had arrived in the vicinity of Mechanicsburg, when, on July 4, he heard of the surrender of the city. He immediately retreated to the city of Jackson, arriving there July 7, and placed his army in the intrenchments surrounding the city from the river on the north to the river on the south. General Sherman followed with an army of about 50,000 men, arriving before [311] the city on the 9th of July. The two armies faced each other in the attitude of besieged and besieging, from the 9th to the night of the 16th day of July, when General Johnston, seeing his danger, crossed over Pearl river and marched towards Meridian, General Sherman pursuing beyond Brandon, Miss. It appears that it was General Sherman's intention at that time to crush the Confederate army, or drive it out of the State of Mississippi, and destroy the railroads. There was then a great drought and the heat was so intense that he decided to postpone further pursuit, and return to Vicksburg, intending at some future time to penetrate the State and drive out any Confederate forces that might be found. During these operations the Confederate army lost 600 men in killed, wounded and missing. The Federal army lost 1,122. The occupation of Jackson by Grant's army in May, 1863, began the cruel side of the war in the wanton destruction of private as well as public property, which destruction was emphasized especially by General Sherman in all his campaigns to the close of the war. He reported July 18, 1863:

“We have made fine progress to-day in the work of desolation; Jackson will no longer be a point of danger. The land is desolated for thirty miles around.” The destruction of private property ever marked the progress of General Sherman's armies. Raymond, Jackson and Brandon had already felt the shock, and monumental chimneys for the most part marked their former locations.

In the meantime General Sherman had carried most of his army to east Tennessee to assist General Grant in his operations against the Confederate army under General Bragg. He returned to Memphis January 10, 1864, and began at once to prepare an army to go into Mississippi from Vicksburg as far as Meridian, or Demopolis, Ala. His first step was to order that the Memphis and Charleston Railroad be abandoned. He had a large force guarding the Mississippi river, one division at Natchez, McPherson's 17th Army Corps at Vicksburg, Hurlbut's 16th Army Corps at Memphis, and about 10,000 cavalry in West Tennessee, including General W. Sooy Smith's command from middle Tennessee (about 40,000 effectives). With this large force and the great Mississippi gunboat and ironclad fleets operating with these troops, a diversion was to be made on Mobile Ala., by General Banks and Admiral Farragut. An expedition was also to ascend the Yazoo river from Snyder's Mill, consisting of five gunboats and five transports with several regiments of infantry. [312]

As stated, Generals Pemberton's and Gardner's Confederate forces had been captured, and there remained in observation of this large force in Mississippi two small divisons of Confederate States infantry—Loring at Canton, and French at Jackson—about 9,000 men, with several batteries. General Stephen D. Lee, with four brigades of cavalry, Stark's, Adams' and Ross', composing Jackson's Divison, and General S. W. Ferguson's Brigade, which had been drawn from northeast Mississippi, covering the country from opposite Yazoo City to Natchez, Miss. (over 300 miles), and numbering about 3,500 effectives. General Forrest was south of the Tallahatchie river in northwest Mississippi, picketing towards Memphis and the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, his force numbering about 3,500 men. The entire Confederate force in Mississippi did not exceed 16,000 men.

This was the condition of affairs in January, 1864. The concentration of troops at Vicksburg and the marshaling of 10,000 cavalry in west Tennessee was duly observed and reported to General Polk, commanding in Mississippi. Spies reported the force as consisting of an army of four divisions of infantry with the usual complement of artillery and a brigade of cavalry, making an army of over 26,000 men, to move from Vicksburg early in February. Another column of 7,000 cavalry, under General W. Sooy Smith, was to move from west Tennessee direct to Meridian to meet the army under General Sherman from Vicksburg near that point, and then the combined forces to go either to Selma or Mobile, as might be indicated. General Sherman was to hold Lee's Confederate cavalry and any infantry in his front, and General W. Sooy Smith was to engage Forrest with his cavalry force, which outnumbered Forrest by double as many men.

To meet the enemy, General Lee concentrated his cavalry in front of Vicksburg, along the Big Black river and near the Yazoo river. On January 28th, the Yazoo river expedition began to move. Federal cavalry advancing on the Yazoo City road from Snyder's Bluff on the Yazoo. This force was met by Ross' Texas Brigade and driven back. On February 3rd, Federal infantry began crossing the Big Black river at the railroad crossing and six miles above, at Messenger's ferry, distant from Vicksburg twelve or fifteen miles, and rapidly drove in the cavalry pickets on the two roads leading to Clinton. Early on the morning of February 4th, there was severe skirmishing on both roads, the enemy deploying their force in the open country and steadily driving back the brigades of Adams and [313] Stark in their front, their troops being in full view. The day's operations, in causing the enemy to develop their forces from actual observation, from prisoners, scouts and other sources, in flank and rear of their columns, fixed the force as consisting of two corps of infantry and artillery (16th and 17th), commanded respectively by Generals Hurlbut and McPherson, and a brigade of cavalry under Colonel Winslow. The entire force was about 26,000 effectives, with a comparatively small wagon-train for such an army. The Yazoo river expedition started about the same time, and it was intended to divide and hold a part of Lee's Confederate cavalry, so that no concentration could be made against General W. Sooy Smith's column; who was ordered to start about the time General Sherman started from Vicksburg. The two expeditions displayed the two great resources General Sherman had to bring against the small force of Confederates in Mississippi.

An incident near the old battlefield of Baker's creek is worthy of being recorded. The enemy's infantry deployed was moving forward gradually, pressing back Adams' Brigade, dismounting and fighting them in a swamp. While thus engaged the Federal brigade of cavalry came charging down on their rear and flank, and on their lead horses. The moment was critical, as Adams was almost too hotly engaged to withdraw on short notice. The two escort companies of General S. D. Lee and W. H. Jackson alone were mounted and near at hand, 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 against the Federal brigade and hold them in check. It was a choice command, fearlessly led, and it did the work assigned it, but with the loss of the noble leader and many of his followers. The dash saved Adams' Brigade, which was retired mounted, and moved over Baker's creek. At the same time Griffith's Arkansas regiment was thrown into the woods near the bridge, thus permitting the two escort companies to sweep over the bridge, when gradually pressed back by the superior numbers of the Federal cavalry following, and just as the Federal infantry had got through the swamp and were moving towards the bridge. The Federal advance was checked by artillery across Baker's creek, which also enabled the Arkansas regiment to get over the bridge.

On February 5th the Confederate cavalry was gradually pressed back to Jackson, where it arrived about dark, passing out on the road towards Canton, to enable General Loring's infantry division [314] to cross Pearl river from Canton, moving towards Morton, on the Jackson and Meridian railroad; a regiment was also sent across Pearl river to cover the front of the enemy, if they tried to cross Pearl river at Jackson. This regiment was also to destroy the pontoon bridge over Pearl river. General French, with two small brigades at Jackson, and General Loring at Canton, had been advised to cross Pearl river, owing to the large forces of the Federal army, and their rapid advance. As soon as it was ascertained that General Sherman was crossing Pearl river at Jackson, General Loring, who had marched towards Pearl river from Canton, crossed and united his division with General French's near Morton, on the Jackson and Meridian Railroad. Ferguson's Brigade covered Loring's command on the Clinton and Canton road. General Lee also crossed with two brigades of Jackson's Division (Adams' and Stark's) and with Ferguson's Brigade, which was sent to get in front of the enemy and cover the retreat of General Loring's two divisions. Jackson, with Adams' and Stark's Brigades, was ordered to operate on the flank and rear of the enemy on his march at Brandon and Pelahatchie stations. General Ross, who was operating on the Yazoo river, was ordered to abandon his operations there and march to join his division under General W. H. Jackson.

As soon as General Polk was fully advised of the large force under General Sherman, and of the column which was to move from the north, he decided that his force was too small to give battle. He had drawn a part of the Mobile garrison to Meridian as a re-enforcement, but considering Mobile as the most important place in his department, and fearing that Sherman would move towards Mobile instead of Meridian to meet Admiral Farragut and General Banks, he ordered General Lee on February 9 to move all his cavary from the rear and the north of Sherman's line of march to the south, to protect the Mobile and Ohio railroad, so that he could return the troops he got from Mobile, and could also be able to reenforce that point, if necessary, with additional troops. He could not understand why Sherman had Meridian as his objective point. General Polk at the same time ordered General Ferguson's Brigade from the front of General Sherman's advance to the south, in order also to protect the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. General Lee, on arriving at Newton Station, on the 11th of February, met General Ferguson. He at once saw that General Sherman was going to Meridian and not to Mobile, and caused General Ferguson to retrace his steps and again get in front of General Sherman. [315]

In the meantime General Sherman, after crossing Big Black river on two different roads, advanced rapidly to Jackson, arriving there on the morning of February 6th. He crossed Pearl river on the 6th and 7th of February, and pressed out towards Brandon on the road to Meridian, arriving at Brandon on February 7th, at Morton February 7th, and at Meridian February 14th at 3 P. M., the Confederate infantry and cavalry gradually falling back before him.

General Lee made a dash at some wagons near Decatur. The enemy was found moving with every precaution, their trains perfectly and judiciously arranged with each brigade, no foraging parties out, and their large infantry force ready to punish any ill-advised attempt on their column. Colonel R. C. Wood's Mississippi Regiment disabled about twenty wagons, but could not bring them off, as the infantry advanced on him from the front and the rear of the column. This was found to be the case wherever an attempt was made by the cavalry to impede the march.

On the 13th General Polk ordered General Lee to again get to the north of General Sherman's line of march, as he proposed to evacuate Meridian and march with his infantry towards Demopolis, Ala. The enemy arrived at Meridian at 3 P. M., February 14th, the Confederate cavalry retiring towards Marion station. On this date (February 14th) General Polk issued an order placing Major-General Stephen D. Lee in command of all the cavalry west of Alabama. That officer at once put himself in rapid communication with General Forrest, who was then concentrating his command near Starkville, Miss., to check the large cavalry force which had left Collerville, on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, and was rapidly moving southward in the direction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and towards the great prairie region. For some reason this cavalry force of 7,000 men had delayed a week in starting to join General Sherman.

From February 15th to 20th, General Sherman, while at Meridian, was engaged in destroying the railroad in every direction, north, south, east and west, for this purpose placing two divisions of infantry on each road. The road was destroyed for twelve miles in each direction, making a destruction of about fifty miles of railroad. Attempts to stop the work were made by the cavalry, but the enemies' force was too large for it. In addition to destroying the railroads, they destroyed the city of Meridian, burning most of the houses, depots, hotels, boarding houses, and those near them. On February 20th, General Sherman began his return march to [316] Vicksburg. One of his corps took the road on which he came through Decatur to Hillsboro, the other marching from Lauderdale Station, on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, by Union to Hillsboro, the latter corps feeling northward, hoping to hear of or find General W. Sooy Smith's command; which Sherman had ordered to join him at Meridian about the 10th of February. The cavalry brigade (with General Sherman) was also detached as far north as Louisville and Philadelphia, and circled west and south through Kosciusko to Canton. The two corps met at Hillsboro and moved across Pearl river to Canton, marching on two separate roads. They remained at Canton several days, devastating and destroying the town and country for miles, and then returned to Vicksburg.

In the meantime, February 17th, General Lee, under orders from General Polk, left only a few regiments to watch the army of General Sherman at Meridian and moved with all of his disposable force northward to unite with General Forrest in an attempt to crush the column under General Smith, estimated by General Forrest at 7,000 men. Lee put his four cavalry brigades (Ross had joined him the day before in the vicinity of Marion Station), in motion on the morning of February 18th, and reached the Line creek north of Starkville, and nine miles southwest of West Point, on the morning of February 22d. It was found that the enemy had begun a hasty retreat early on the morning of February 21st. General Forrest, as soon as he knew the probable destination of this column, concentrated his command in the vicinity of Starkville, and on the 20th had a part of his force at West Point, one brigade being in front of the town. He had up to this time offered no opposition to the advance of the Federal cavalry. He intended avoiding a battle until the arrival of General Lee's force, which was rapidly approaching, and he offered slight opposition at West Point, retreating across Sookartonichie creek, three miles from West Point. General Forrest knew that General Smith's force of 7,000 well equipped cavalry would outnumber his command when united with General Lee's, and he believed also that there would be trouble in avoiding a battle before the junction of the two commands.

General Sooy Smith began his march with the cavalry (7,000) and an infantry brigade on February 10th, a week later than General Sherman had expected him to start. Under cover of the advance of his infantry, he moved eastward with his cavalry to New Albany, then towards Pontotoc, and to within a few miles of Houston, where [317] he moved due east to Okolona; he then moved south down the Mobile and Ohio Railroad to Prairie station (fifteen miles north of West Point), where he concentrated his command. On February 20th, he moved his entire command to the vicinity of West Point. Here he encountered the first Confederate brigade drawn up in line of battle a mile out of the city. After a slight skirmish the brigade retired before him through the city, and on the road towards Starkville over Sookatonichie creek,. General Smith, on arriving at West Point (February 20th), heard of the approach of General Stephen D. Lee's cavalry from the direction of Meriden, and had it confirmed from prisoners and deserters taken on the evening of the same date, when Forrest was retiring, and being followed across the Sookatonichie, to await the arrival of General Lee's command.

General Smith, although he had fought no battle, and had met with no opposition to amount to anything on his march from Collierville to West Point, suddenly determined to retreat, and issued orders for his command to begin the return march early on the morning of the 21st of February. He says in his official report: ‘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.’ To cover his retreat, he moved one of his brigades towards Sockatonichie creek and attacked a part of General Forrest's command on February 21st. The fight lasted about two hours, when Forrest, with his usual perception and vigor, began to believe a change of operation had occurred in his front, and with a regiment and escort he began a headlong charge, breaking through and driving the enemy before him. He found that Smith was rapidly retreating northward. He at once had all his command rushed to the front in pursuit, overtaking the enemy near Okolona, where he began crowding him, and gradually driving him from position to position, capturing six pieces of artillery; this pursuit was kept up to near Pontotoc, on February 22d and 23d, where it was abandoned except by a small force. General Forrest had about exhausted his ammunition, and could follow the enemy no farther. The retreat was very rapid, the itinerary and reports showing that in the first day's retrograde movement (February 21st), a part of the command marched thirty-seven miles and had to remount with captured horses, abandoning many of their exhausted stock. It is difficult to understand his headlong retreat, except that the enemy was fearful of being cut off by the cavalry getting in their rear. It is difficult now to speculate as to the results had [318] Smith not retreated. It was a great disappointment to Generals Lee and Forrest. Their united forces numbered a little less than 7,000 effectives, while Smith had that number. With a soldier's pride the Confederate commanders looked forward to the greatest cavalry battle of the war, where 14,000 cavalry were to meet in deadly conflict on one field. It was arranged that as soon as General Lee arrived, Forrest was to take his entire force to the rear of Smith and cut off his retreat, while Lee was to battle in front, and in front and rear the battle was to be fought to a final issue. It was a great disappointment when it was found that the Federal general not only declined battle, but made one of the most headlong, hasty retreats during the war, before an inferior force in pursuit, not numbering over 2,500 men.

General Stephen D. Lee, as soon as he learned from dispatches from General Forrest of the rapid and headlong retreat of General W. S. Smith and his cavalry back towards Memphis, put his cavalry command again in motion to overtake General Sherman's command on its way to Vicksburg. General W. H. Jackson overtook the enemy in the vicinity of Sharon, Madison county. He found the enemy desolating and destroying the country in every direction. He soon drove in all foraging parties and confined their movements to one or two roads and a limited area. General Sherman's army recrossed Big Black river, March 6th, on its way to Vicksburg. The official reports show that in the three columns, Sherman's, Smith's and the Yazoo river expedition, the Federals lost in killed, wounded and missing, 912 men, and that General Forrest lost 144 men, and General Stephen D. Lee 279 men, or only 423 men in all. These reports also show that Gen. Lee's cavalry was in the saddle actively engaged from February 1st to March 4th, and that the command marched from 600 to 800 miles during that time.

It is difficult to understand the military object of Sherman's campaign. He says it was ‘to strike the roads inland, so as to paralyze the Rebel forces, that we could take from the defense of of the Mississippi river the equivalent of a corps of 20,000 men to be used in the next Georgia campaign, at the same time I wanted to destroy General Forrest, etc.’ He did destroy over fifty miles of railroads, but he did not destroy Forrest, although his column of 7,000 men was the best equipped veteran cavalry that ever went into the field, and outnumbered Forrest's freshly raised men two to one. The railroads in twenty-six working days were thoroughly repaired and in as good running order as they were before [319] his campaign, and this work was done by Major George Whitfield and Major Pritchard, of the Confederate Quartermaster Department.

The campaign, however, did demonstrate how few troops the Confederacy had, and that it was a mere shell, all the fighting men being in the armies at the front, and only helpless women and children and negroes occupied the interior; that the few troops in Mississippi had to fall back until the armies at the front could be awakened to meet any new army not in front of the main armies; that General Sherman could easily, at almost a moment's notice, take 30,000 men from the garrisons on the Mississippi river and move into Mississippi. General Sherman was outgeneraled by General Polk, and the expedition was devoid of military interest, but was most remarkable as bringing out clearly the harsh and cruel warfare waged against the Confederacy. General Sherman, in his official report, says he ‘made a swath of desolation fifty miles broad across the State of Mississippi, which the present generation will not forget.’ In his orders to General W. S. Smith, he tells him ‘to take horses, mules and cattle, and to destroy mills, barns, sheds, stables, etc.,’ and to tell the people ‘it was their time to be hurt.’ He literally carried out his plan to ‘make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war as well as the organized armies.’ The reports of the Confederate commanders show that with the above-given license the enemy regarded nothing in the way of property, public or private, as worthy to be spared. General Stephen D. Lee, in his official report says:

‘On the line of march the enemy took or destroyed everything, carried off every animal, 8,000 negroes, burnt every vacant house, destroyed furniture, destruction was fearful.’

The track of the Federal column was marked by wanton destruction of private property, cotton, corn, horses, provisions, furniture and all that could be destroyed. The people were left in absolute want. A Federal correspondent who accompanied Sherman, estimated the damage at $50,000,000, and three-fourths of this was private property, Meridian, Canton and other towns being almost totally destroyed. It is painful now, when we are again a reunited and prosperous people, and the worst memories of the war have been relegated to the past, to recall this sad recollection, but the truth of history demands that the facts be given as they really were.

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