Polk Almost Figures it Out (Again)

February 11, 1864 (Thursday)

Johnston would absolutely love to help you, but he's really busy not helping right now.
Johnston would absolutely love to help you, but he’s really busy not helping right now.

“Keep in communication with General Polk,” wrote President Davis to Joe Johnston, “and do what you can to assist him, eithe rby sending him re-enforcements or joining him with what force you can. If possible the enemy should be met before he reaches the Gulf and establishes a base to which supplies and re-enforcements may be sent by sea.”

Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate forces in Mississippi, was convinced that the Federal troops under William Tecumseh Sherman were headed for Mobile, Alabama. Though they numbered roughly 25,000, Polk placed their number nearer to 35,000. Either way, however, the relative handful of troops – no more than 10,000 – could do little to prevent the Union troops from doing pretty much whatever they pleased.

In his reply to Davis, Johnston shrugged it off. “General Polk’s cavalry ought to prevent such a march,” he fired back with no advice at all for how such a thing might be accomplished. To Polk, Johnston was full of questions, asking him where the enemy was located, who was commanding them, and if any were from Tennessee. The last was important, as Johnston was ever fearful that the Union forces under George Thomas would descend from Chattanooga to route him out of the hills around Dalton, Georgia.

“I have no doubt that your cavalry,” wrote Johnston to Polk in an unasked for follow up message, “under its active commanders, will make the march to Mobile impossible to the enemy with such wagon trains as they must require.”

Of course, Johnston failed to take into account the idea that Sherman, like Grant through Mississippi before him, had few wagons. There were no Federal supply lines to sever; Sherman and his men were living off the land, bringing the bitter war to the people.

Through the day, after receiving dispatches from scouts, General Polk began to rethink the notion that Sherman was headed for Mobile. At least, he reckoned, it might not be his first stop. Polk had learned that Sherman encamped near Decatur the night previous. “If this is true,” wrote Polk to General William Loring, commanding the troops in the field, “then Sherman must be looking to move on Meridian and make a junction with the cavalry force moving on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.”

The cavalry to which Polk was referring was that of Sooy Smith’s, which, on this date, was finally leaving Collierville, about 150 miles to the north, and moving swift for the Tallahatchie River.

Today's super approximate map.
Today’s super approximate map.

Earlier, under the assumption that Mobile was the objective, Polk hurried two brigades south with two others under Samuel French, about to follow. Instead, he was holding French at Meridian to see how this might work itself out. In the meanwhile, the four brigades of cavalry under S.D. Lee were to keep between Loring’s Division and Sherman’s troops. As for Polk, he was hurrying back to Meridian to oversee the removal of supplies. It was fairly obvious that if Sherman wanted Meridian, he might not have to fight for it, but he wasn’t going to get much for his troubles.

Portions of Lee’s cavalry were indeed keeping themselves between Sherman and Loring. “I have burned all bridges,” came one report, “which I find retard their advancing very much.”

As for the Union column moving on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry was between them and their intended. “Am preparing to meet that move as best I can,” reported Forrest, adding that the column had “about 10,000 cavalry and mounted infantry.” His own force had a quarter of that number.

All the while, General Sherman’s two corps marched east, though it was not a simple ordeal. The temperatures had dropped, and to keep themselves warm while the engineers repaired the bridges, the troops set fire to the pine forests on either side of the road. This was fine for the first corps, but by the time the second corps came through, dead and burning trees were falling across the road. And so the march was a slow one.

Still, the damage done was impressive. Apart from the forest fires, a detachment of Sherman’s troops gutted the railroad near Lake Station. Two locomotives were destroyed, along with thirty-five cars, a mile and a half of track, the depot, machine shops, sawmills, and much more. This was essential to Sherman, as he vowed to render the railroad completely unusable for the remainder of the war – however long that might be.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2, p 716-717, 718, 719; Rebellion Record, Vol. 8; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster. []
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Polk Almost Figures it Out (Again) by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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