Bishop Polk and His Preparations for Sherman (or Possibly to Retreat)

February 1, 1864 (Monday)

Bishop Polk
Bishop Polk

When Joe Johnston was begrudgingly placed in command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, Leonidas Polk, an Episcopalian bishop-turned general, took over the Army of Mississippi. It wasn’t a large army, to be sure, made up of but 12,000 infantrymen. Polk made his headquarters in Meridian, clear across the state, but his two divisions found themselves much closer to Vicksburg, from where the Yankees under William Tecumseh Sherman were rumored to be stirring.

Though speculation had been rampant that the Federals were planning a move, it was undecided whether their intentions lay against Mobile, Alabama or the interior of Mississippi. Lately, however, the latter seemed almost certain. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was convinced, at any rate.

“A gentleman just from Memphis says the enemy design moving a large force from Vicksburg on Jackson and contemplate rebuilding the railroad between those points and moving from Jackson on Mobile and Meridian,” he wrote to Polk the previous day. This theory was a tidy one, covering both possible points.

Polk wasn’t fully convinced, but believed that Sherman was up to something. “I am informed reliably it is his intention to make a forward movement from Vicksburg and Yazoo City in a few days,” wrote Polk to Richmond.

Between Vicksburg and Jackson, a distance of forty-five miles east to west, there ran a railroad, which crossed the Big Black River ten miles outside the Vicksburg defenses. The Pearl River, running east of Jackson, must be crossed should the Federals wish to move farther into Mississippi. They would also have to overcome the division under General Samuel French, which had been stationed in the village of Brandon, just east of Jackson, for some time now, watching for such a move. Twenty-five miles north of Jackson, and still on the west side of the Pearl, was the town of Canton. There, William Wing Loring’s Division was encamped.

This is an incredibly large map, but it gives you an idea of where everybody was at this point.
This is an incredibly large map, but it gives you an idea of where everybody was at this point.

Together, they made up nearly the whole of Polk’s Army of Mississippi. The only remaining forces were cavalry under Generals S.D. Lee and Forrest. While the former operated along the railroad between Vicksburg and Jackson, the latter was near Oxford, 160 miles north.

The railroad in question had been destroyed during the Vicksburg Campaign, but, according to Loring and Forrest, not nearly enough. Convinced that the Federals were about to launch an attack upon Jackson, both Loring and Forrest suggested that the railroad be annihilated “if it can be more effectually destroyed than it has been already.” This task would fall upon S.D. Lee’s cavalry, which Loring wished to center upon Jackson and Brandon to the east.

William Wing Loring
William Wing Loring

While Loring wanted the railroad wiped out west of Jackson, east of Jackson was another story. The bridge across the Pearl River had been destroyed, and Polk wanted Loring to see to it. A pontoon bridge would be alright, and Polk had sent for one, but he asked “Can you not sent out and press negroes on the east side Pearl River to hasten the completion of the trestles? This may become necessary.”

Polk, now fairly convinced that Loring and Forrest were correct, ordered Lee “to destroy the railroad from Vicksburg to Jackson immediately, beginning as far west as you can, and putting as many men upon it as you can employ. Let it be done thoroughly.” While S.D. Lee was readying his men for work, Loring was doing the same, and prepared to gather his forces at Canton for a probable move south. Whatever cavalry he had at his disposal would watch the crossings after they took to the road.

It was fully understood by Polk that he had not nearly enough men to confront the rumored 27,000 Yankees about to advance upon him. He requested extra cavalry from Joe Johnston at Dalton, Georgia, but Johnston had none to spare, most of it being in Eastern Tennessee. To make matters worse, Johnston recalled the one unit of his that Polk was using. It was clear that no help would come from Johnston. In fact, no help would come from anywhere.

The shifty stare of Samuel Gibbs French
The shifty stare of Samuel Gibbs French

And so General French would build up the defenses at Jackson, while Loring prepared himself in Canton. The following day, Polk would write to Mobile, Alabama, requested two additional brigades if it really seemed like the Federals were about to attack that particular port city.

Meanwhile, in Vicksburg, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered his army to prepare for the march. Nearly two full corps of men stepped off, leaving the defenses for campgrounds nearer to the Big Black River. Due to the work of a spy, Sherman knew the location of both Rebel divisions and even the cavalry. “General Polk seemed to have no suspicion of our intentions to disturb his serenity,” wrote Sherman in his memoirs. That wasn’t exactly true, of course (and by the time Sherman penned his book, he knew that fully well), but in action, at least, it was a realistic assessment.

And in Chattanooga, General George Thomas was about to launch a diversionary move against Joe Johnston. This was to keep Johnston from combining with Polk. The point wasn’t to dislodge Johnston – Thomas did not yet possess the strength to make such an attempt – but only to keep him occupied while Sherman plied his trade. 1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2, p637, 639, 640, 648, 650; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth. []
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Bishop Polk and His Preparations for Sherman (or Possibly to Retreat) by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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