Submitted by C.J. Johnson
Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, known for his “March to the Sea” via Georgia in 1864, entered the Mississippi railroad center of Meridian on February 14, 1864. Meridian would be a proving ground for Sherman, and a trial run for his march through Georgia. The city was at a key location, between Jackson, Mississippi and the industrial area of Selma, Alabama, which included a cannon foundry, as well as storehouses of grain.
Sherman intended to have his troops travel fast and light, in order to stay ahead of the Rebels, throwing them off their timetables. The National Park Service says, “From Vicksburg, Mississippi, Sherman launched a campaign to take the important railroad center at Meridian and, if the situation was favorable, push on to Selma, Alabama, and threaten Mobile.
Sherman ordered Brig. Gen. William Sooy Smith to lead a cavalry force of 7,000 men from Memphis, Tennessee, on February 1, 1864, south through Okolona, along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, and meet the rest of the Union force at Meridian. [Smith didn’t make it to Meridian, as Nathan B. Forrest met him at Okolona. Forrest won that fight, and Smith headed back to Memphis.]
With the main force of 20,000 men, Sherman set out on the 3rd for Meridian, but made feints toward various other locations. To counter the threat, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered troops to the area from other localities. The Confederate commander in the area, Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, consolidated a number of commands in and around Morton, but lost his nerve and retreated rapidly eastward.
Cavalry units commanded by Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Lee periodically skirmished with Sherman’s force. As Sherman approached Meridian, he met stiffer resistance from combined forces but steadily moved on. Polk finally realized that he could not stop Sherman and evacuated Meridian on the 14th, removing some railroad rolling stock to McDowell’s Bluff. Sherman’s troops entered Meridian the same day and began destroying railroad track, continuing their work until the 19th. Smith never arrived at Meridian. Sherman left Meridian on the 20th, headed west by way of Canton, looking for Smith and his force… Sherman had destroyed some important Confederate transportation facilities but had to forget his aspirations for continuing into Alabama.” Sherman returned to Vicksburg with a victory at Meridian.
Later, General Sherman later wrote: “For five days, 10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction… Meridian, with its depots, storehouses, arsenals, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists.” For the short time he was in the area, Sherman confirmed his troops could survive on the move, do damage to the Rebel war effort, and deal a blow to the Southern population as well. He would use these newly honed skills when he headed through Georgia.
As for the Confederates, they repaired the damaged rails in a month’s time, but they could not quickly replace the lost locomotives.