February 9, 1864 (Tuesday)
The day previous had been one of marching. General Sherman’s two corps made their way east from Brandon, Mississippi toward Morton, where two divisions of Confederates under William Wing Loring and Samuel French were more or less arrayed to resist them. As the Yankees drew closer, General Loring came up with the plan to place French’s Division west of the town, while the cavalry under S.D. Lee played upon the Federals’ flanks. His own division would be nearby as support.
Confederate General Leonidas Polk was in command of both, but had been in Mobile, Alabama preparing the port city for a suspected attack. The attack, he now suspected, would come from Sherman. Deducing that the true aim of the easterly Federal advance was Mobile, Polk sent two brigades en route to Loring’s defensive position in Morton to Mobile, instead.
Loring’s plan to resist Sherman was quickly given up when he realized that he was grossly outnumbered. S.D. Lee’s cavalry could find no practicable means of disrupting the Union march and any attempt to break up the supply line back to Vicksburg was fruitless since Sherman was living off the land and had no such supply line. And so Loring decided to fall back thirty miles to the town of Newton, and meet up with the two brigades that were coming as reinforcement, not realizing that those were the same two brigades Polk had dashed off to Mobile. That night, the Rebels built myriad campfires and retreated into the darkness.
On the morning of this date, Col. Edward Winslow’s Union cavalry entered the former Confederate works, finding only a small rearguard and sixty or so deserters. All had expected a battle, but the morning delivered little more than a scrap with cavalry. The infantry followed, entering the town of Morton around midday. There James McPhearson’s Corps rested while the troops under Stephen Hurlbut took the lead, both encamping near the town.
Before sleep, however, Sherman’s men wreaked their typical destruction upon Morton. The railroad bridges, newspaper printers, recruiting offices, and mansions of wealthy Southerners were put to the torch. Pillaging and robbery were the rule of the day, and General Sherman did little, if anything, to curb the practice.
While the day was one of relative calm for the Federals, Polk and his Rebels were in a panic. Just as they were marching east of Morton, Polk finally joined his army in the field. At a council of war that afternoon, he decided to divide his already small force. French’s Division would tramp to Newton and catch a train to Mobile, so convinced was he that Sherman was headed in that direction. French would take overall command in the port city. Loring was ordered to continue his retrograde movement to Meridian, and if necessary, fall back into Alabama. Polk even sent a message to Mobile, warning that “The enemy, estimated at 35,000 infantry, with sixty pieces of artillery, moved to-day from Morton in the direction of Mobile.”
As for S.D. Lee’s cavalry, they were to “cover Newton until the troops leave there, and cover the Mobile and Ohio Railroad until they pass down.” He was reminded that he also must send a small force to cover Loring. Currently, he was a few miles behind Sherman’s troops, doing little more than discouraging stragglers and keeping the foragers from foraging. Lee would receive Polk’s order late that night, taking issue with the idea that Sherman was headed to Mobile. All his information had it that the Federals were gunning for Meridian. Being so late, so far away, and but a cavalry commander, he could do little more than ride for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad the next morning.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p366; Vol. 32, Part 2, p700-701; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster; Two Wars by Samuel French. [↩]