February 13, 1864 (Saturday)
Though William Tecumseh Sherman’s pace was incredible, covering almost 150 miles in two weeks, the previous day had ground his march to a halt. While his cavalry skirmished with the Rebels east of Decatur, Mississippi, his infantry was crawling through the streets of the burning town. The commander was hardly pleased, but as he slept, he was awoken by gunfire much closer than he felt was comfortable. It was a small, but surprising, attack of Confederate cavalry. Typically, a regiment was left behind at headquarters to act as a sort of body guard. This night, however, the appointed unit had marched east with the infantry, leaving Sherman behind.
The Rebels hit the wagon train, scattering the undefended lines through the backyard of the cabin where Sherman was staying. It was harrowing, but before long, a brigade of infantry raced back to drive off the Confederates, who were unable to capture even a single wagon, let alone a Union general.
Meanwhile, thirty miles east at Meridian, the Confederates under Leonidas Polk were evacuating the town as quickly as possible. All public property that could be loaded into wagons of their own was hauled away on the 12th. Likewise, any supplies that might be of use to the Union army were carried off.
Despite the rude awakening of the previous night, Sherman was up early and ready to push into Meridian, the former headquarters of General Polk. Though his army had been more or less feeding off the land since leaving Vicksburg, he now left all their wagons behind with a guard who was also responsible for watching the Confederate prisoners. Those marching onward carried with them five day’s worth of rations.
The day’s march wasn’t much easier than the previous day’s. The Rebels had felled trees across the road, which required the column to start and stop and start again countless times. A Union soldier named John Ritland recorded:
‘When marching, we would suddenly hear the command “Halt”, and as quickly “Forward March”, and all we could do was obey, and thus it was repeated over and over again, no one being the wiser, except, perhaps, the officers. When we were about five miles from Meridian, we were abruptly halted again, but this time we learned the reason. Colonel Scott had something he wished to say to us. He jumped on top of a stone, while we crowded eagerly around, as thick as ants, all anxious to hear every word.
“Men, you have now been in the service over a year, and have had comparative ease and sufficient food, but now, as it seems, the Government will soon have urgent need of us. I ask you, man to man, to set your faces sternly to the performance of every duty, and be prepared to make the great sacrifice, if need be.”
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.’
But by dusk, the army encamped along Tallahatta Creek, about twenty miles from Meridian. Too little ground had been covered, and Sherman knew by now that the Rebels were going to get away. Many of the soldiers believed that Polk would make a stand at Meridian, but it was the farthest thing from the Confederate general’s mind.
In a letter sent to both General Joe Johnston in Dalton, Georgia and President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Polk explained the entire predicament. “He [Sherman] is to-night near Decatur,” wrote Polk, “I am near Meridian. My cavalry under [S.D.] Lee has skirmished with him in front, flank and rear from the Big Black, and, Lee reports, with little effect. He moves very compactly. […] I see nothing left me but to fall back on Alabama and take advantage of events.”
Commanding most of Polk’s infantry in the field was General William Wing Loring. By 10pm he was backed up just west of Meridian. It was from there that he wrote Polk to explain.
“I have examined carefully the position in front, and I do not regard any of them as tenable with the force under my command,” wrote Loring to Polk. “Will you please inform me as soon as you are able to move, so that I may know what to do in any emergency.” Loring had received reports that Sherman’s troops were gunning for Meridian, marching straight through the night.
Polk, from his headquarters in Meridian, soon replied. “I am inclined to doubt the correctness of the report as to the near approach of the enemy to-night,” responded Polk, “yet I see no reason why you may not act upon it. As I understand the matter, the enemy has to pass across Oktibbeha River at the place where there is a long bridge now prepared to be burned. The burning of the bridge ought to retard his progress at least a day….” Polk left it all up to Loring, however, figuring that by 2pm the following day, all the trains should be gone from Meridian.
Much to the dismay of Sherman, Loring would take to heart the suggestion to burn the Oktibbeha River bridge. He would pass a more or less peaceful night as the reports of Sherman’s night march were found to be exaggerated. Fifteen miles and another day of hard marching separated the two bodies of troops.1
- Sources: Official Records Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p175, 217; Part 2, p729-730, 732; Memoirs by Lucius W. Barber; The Civil War History of John Ritland by John Ritland; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster. [↩]