February 6, 1864 (Saturday)
“General Sherman’s command, composed of McPherson’s and Hurlbut’s corps, left Vicksburg on the 3d in two columns via the railroad bridge and Messinger’s. On the 4th, McPherson met the enemy (Wirt Adams’ brigade) and skirmished as far as Bolton. On the 5th, Hurlbut’s column encountered Starke’s brigade of cavalry at Joe Davis’ plantation and drove it through Clinton toward Canton. Same day McPherson pushed Wirt Adams into and beyond Jackson. General Sherman occupied Jackson on the 6th, and will cross Pearl and enter Brandon on the 7th, and so on. He reports three small brigades of cavalry and Loring’s division of infantry up toward Canton, and French’s division of infantry to his front at or near Brandon.” – Telegraphed by General William Tecumseh Sherman from Jackson, Mississippi, captured on this date.
Sherman’s message rang wide to officers at Vicksburg, Natchez, and Memphis. It was also sent to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, General Grant, and Admiral David Dixon Porter. His tramp to Mississippi’s capital was swift and relentless, crossing nearly half the state in a matter of three days. Of course, he was hardly finished.
From his impromptu headquarters in Jackson, he wrote to General James Tuttle, commanding the reserve troops held along the Big Black River, much closer to Vicksburg. He ordered that the diversion up the Yazoo River should be continued for at least a month. This was to keep busy a brigade of Confederate cavalry who might otherwise be nipping at his heels and destroying lines of communication.
Though all was going well enough, Sherman expressed slight concern over his own cavalry under Sooy Smith. They were to leave the Memphis area to meet his column at Meridian, but as of this date, they had not yet embarked. “The delay,” wrote Sherman, “may compel me to modify my plans a little, but not much.”
Thus far, the Rebel cavalry under S.D. Lee had battled with Sherman’s forces, but a couple of thousand horse soldiers could hardly withstand 25,000 infantrymen. Still, he was certain that the Confederates were not running for their lives. “I think the enemy will meet us at some point between this and Meridian, with General Polk in command, with Loring’s and French’s divisions and the entire cavalry force of General Stephen D. Lee, composed of Wirt Adams’, Starke’s, Ferguson’s, and Ross’ brigades of cavalry.”
Sherman’s forces didn’t exactly have the day off, but the march through Jackson was light. “Roads are excellent,” reported Sherman. “We find some corn and meat, but Jackson and country are desolate enough.” Jackson itself, already suffering the pangs of war, was made to suffer further.
He was surprised to see the railroad fully functional, seeing as how he laid waste to it only nine months prior. He ordered that any and all public property be destroyed, but admonished his men not to harm private property. The retreating Confederates had taken everything that a fleeing army might need, including an abundance of sustenance from private citizens. Large swaths of the city had already been burnt the previous summer. Large swaths were again on fire, including at least twenty private homes. This was suspicious in that they were almost all mansions obviously owned by Jackson’s elite, slave-holding class. Most of the denizens had fled long before Sherman’s columns entered their streets.
Before Sherman could push on, the pontoon bridge across the Pearl River had to be rebuilt. This task was assigned to Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, Sherman’s Chief Engineer. He selected a site about 100 yards downstream from the Confederate’s bridge. “Operations commenced about 10am by the collection of necessary material,” wrote the Captain, “which was found in abundance along the shore, and taken from the wreck of the bridge above. Several good pontoons were found in the drift, about 200 yards below, and one very fine one was found in the woods near the old railroad bridge, launched, and brought up to site of new bridge by a detail from the Third Brigade, First Division.”
After five hours of toil, the bridge was completed and the Third Brigade, First Division cautiously crossed the span. Soon, however, it was discovered that the Rebels burned two other bridges a couple of miles farther. And so here, on marshy, wet ground, they would camp and the temperatures would plummet. The rest of the army remained in and around Jackson, with plans to cross the following day.
The Confederate infantry had retreated fifteen miles east to Brandon, while the cavalry moved nearly twenty miles north to Canton, where they would await the passing of Sherman’s army. Nobody was really certain where Sherman was headed. Perhaps Jackson was his final objective, or maybe it was Mobile or Meridian. Certain that the Federals were not headed to Canton, Rebel cavalry commander S.D. Lee sent a message to General Samuel French at Brandon, warning him to watch the crossings at the Pearl River.
General Leonidas Polk, overall commander of the Confederate Army of Mississippi, was in Mobile, Alabama, overseeing preparations in the port when he learned that Sherman’s men had advanced so far into the state. Returning to his headquarters in Meridian, he vowed to join Generals French and William Wing Loring in the field as soon as possible. He also ordered four brigades to be sent from Meridian as reinforcements, though failed to explain why they had not been sent much earlier.
In the field, while French’s small division held Brandon, Loring, who had been in Canton, was doing his best to make for Morton, twenty miles to the east. By nightfall, he was compelled to stop seven miles short.
From his camp near Canton, General S.D. Lee espied the telling red glow illuminating the night sky. Writing to Loring the next morning, he grimly confided: “I scarcely think the camp-fires of the enemy would have made such a glare.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p215; Part 2, p340-341, 683, 685, 690; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Two Wars by Samuel French; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster. [↩]