February 14, 1864 (Sunday)
In their retreating, the Confederates under Leonidas Polk had destroyed bridges and felled trees across the same roads that the Federals led by William Tecumseh Sherman were tramping. Before them worked the Pioneers, axing trees, rebuilding bridges, and corduroying roads. Helmed by Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, the Federal pioneers rose before dawn to rebuild the bridge across Tallahatta Creek, twenty miles west of Meridian, Mississippi. The infantry followed at 9am, though this day, like the last, was one of constant starts and stops.
The reason for this spasmodic movement was, of course, the downed trees. General Sherman was doing his best to quicken the pace. Writing his official report, he recalled the road conditions. “At the Tallahatta [River], 20 miles from Meridian, we found the road obstructed with fallen timber,” wrote Sherman, “and satisfied the enemy was trying to save time to cover the removal of railroad property from Meridian, I dropped our trains with good escorts and pushed on over all obstructions straight for the Oktibbeha, where we found the bridge burning.”
While en route to the Oktibbeha River, Sherman was already making plans on how to handle Meridian once captured. Having a fairly good idea that the Rebels would not turn and give fight, the enemy played no part at all in his machinations.
“The destruction of the railroads intersecting at Meridian,” explained Sherman, “is of great importance, and should be done most effectually. Every tie and rail of iron for many miles in each direction should be absolutely destroyed or injured, and every bridge and culvert completely destroyed.” To ensure this was carried out, he ordered Stephen Hurlbut’s Sixteenth Corps to take the north and east, while James McPherson’s Seventeenth Corps handled the south and west.
“The troops should be impressed with the importance of this work,” he continued, “and also that time is material, and therefore it should be begun at once and prosecuted with all the energy possible.”
As for the town of Meridian itself, Sherman was determined to wring from it all the supplies he could. “The destruction of the buildings must be deferred until the last moment,” he instructed, “when a special detail will be made for that purpose.” This must have been a difficult order to follow, as his men had grown used to wreaking quick and unforgiving destruction upon whatever Mississippi town they were passing through.
Before even the Pioneers, Federal cavalry under Col. Edward Winslow probed east, finding their way to the burned out bridge at Okatibbee Creek, just over two miles west of Meridian. General Polk had ordered it set to burning the day previous, and now, in mid-morning, only the glowing embers remained. Undaunted, Winslow’s troopers splashed through the shallow creek. Soon after crossing, Winslow spied elements of Rebel cavalry drawn up in a line awaiting their arrival.
No Confederate believed they could put a stop to Sherman’s advance, but slowing it as long as possible wasn’t such a bad idea. Winslow threw a regiment forward, and then another, and soon a division of Northern infantry led by A.J. Smith joined the fray. The Rebels were driven off, riding as they could through the town, leaving it at last to the Federals.
Just who would enter first was up to debate. General Smith, who had just caught up with the cavalry thought it most proper that the infantry be the first to reach the campaign’s ultimate objective. Col. Winslow, however, disagreed. Just as Winslow was about to order a final charge which would lead his men into town, Smith warned him off: “Colonel, you had better halt your men and let my Indianans and Iowans charge at them.” Winslow most assuredly disagreed. “I believe this cavalry would charge the Gates of Hell if I tell them,” was all he said before riding forward and joining his men in the charge that ultimately flushed the Rebels from the town.
The infantry followed not long later, but it was the cavalry that first laid claim to Meridian. Though the cavalry may had been first, the infantry was most memorable. With banners snapping in the crisp air, and a band played its patriotic strains, the men disregarded Sherman’s orders and began to burn the town. Though only a gun works, barracks and a few workshops were hit, it was enough to keep the Southern residents sheltered in their basements, fearing if their house might be next.
John Ritland, a soldier on the march, wrote in his memoirs:
‘Again we marched on with the firm resolution in our hearts to do or die; and again we were halted, this time to receive orders not to fire a shot, meanwhile, continuing our interminable marching, as if there was no end. Almost unaware we found ourselves marching though a deserted town with here and there some negroes reported, but not a sign of the enemy. Upon asking where they might be, the negroes reported, “They’re all gone. They began going yesterday. Some went last night, and the rest this morning.” They had divided and their destinations were Mobile and Richmond. We occupied the city without a shot.’
Sherman entered the town that night and established his headquarters. He decided to rest his men, most of whom were in or very near to Meridian. At this point, he was unsure how long he would have to remain in the town, and wanted to preserve the abandoned buildings to house his troops.
That night, he constructed a message of congratulations to his men, which was released the following day. Sherman congratulated and thanked his men “for their most successful accomplished of one of the great problems of the war. Meridian, the great railway center of the Southwest, is now in our possession, and by industry and hard work can be rendered useless to the enemy and deprive him of the chief source of supply to this armies. Secrecy in plan and rapidity of execution accomplish the best results in war, and the general commanding assures all, by following their leaders fearlessly and with confidence, they will in time reap the reward so dear to us all – a peace that will never again be disturbed in our country by a discontented minority.”
Meanwhile, Leonidas Polk and his Confederates retreated east toward Demopolis, fifty miles away. It would take several days to reach. He ordered his two divisions under William Wing Loring and Samuel French to encamp on the eastern side of the Tombigbee River. As for his cavalry, he placed everything west of Alabama under the command of S.D. Lee. For days, Lee would try his best to nip at Sherman’s troops, hoping as ever to find a weakness.
Though Meridian was securely in Federal hands, to the north, Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest was about to face off against Sooy Smith’s Union cavalry, two weeks late in stepping off to aid Sherman.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p175, 187, 217, 366; Part 2, p738, 768; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster. [↩]