January 10, 1864 (Sunday)
Finally General Sherman had arrived. After spending a sorrowful Christmas with his family in Ohio, mourning the death of their son, he traveled from Lancaster to Cairo, Illinois, and then by the Mississippi to Memphis. Due to the treacherous ice, it took four long days to complete the last leg of this journey. But still his mission was not complete.
At Memphis, he met with General Stephen Hurlbut, who commanded the district. Together, they hashed out Sherman’s plan to march east from Vicksburg into the heart of Mississippi. The town of Meridian was his ultimate goal. There, the Confederate Army under Leonidas Polk made their camp. The enemy force and not necessarily the town was his objective. However, Sherman planned to wage an unforgiving brand of warfare, punishing the secessionists for aiding (and in some cases being) the guerrilla fighters who took shots at Union ships on the rivers.
Sherman had little need for a political general such as Hurlbut. And though Hurlbut commanded a corps, Sherman elected to lead all 20,000 himself.
In order for his plan to work, he needed secrecy. The Rebels had some idea that something was up in Mississippi, but had little idea what that might have been. Sherman wished them to remain in as much ignorance as he could afford. It was partly because of this that he banned newspaper reporters from his command. Also, he had grown to strongly distrust them, especially after the previous year’s public questioning of his sanity. One exception, however, was allowed to remain. This was De Benneville Randolph Keim. Somehow or another, he and Sherman had struck up, if not a friendship, a mutual trust. Soon enough, Keim would be invited along.
“General,” Keim would say, “I hear you propose to treat civilians as spies if found with the expedition.”
“Quite so, quite so,” Sherman replied.
“Then it behooves me to remain in the rear.”
“What are you talking about?” Questioned the Genera. “You are not one of those fellows. You are a volunteer aid on McPherson’s staff.”
And so officially, the reporter was made an aide-de-camp to General James McPherson and would be the only reporter to travel with the army on its expedition through Mississippi.
To General McPherson, Sherman wrote of the expedition. They had communicated prior to this about it, but things were about to be set in motion. “Now is the time to strike inland at Meridian and Selma,” wrote Sherman. “I think Vicksburg is the point of departure from the river.” Sherman planned to replenish the depleted garrisons around Memphis and Vicksburg, including Fort Pillow and Corinth, with black troops, while the white troops were campaigning. “Keep this to yourself,” he concluded, “and make preparations.” In a few days, Sherman would join him in Vicksburg.
At Memphis, Sherman also met with General William Sooy Smith, cavalry commander. Until recently, Smith had operated in Middle Tennessee, but on Grant’s orders had come west to aid Sherman with his 2,500 troopers. While in Middle Tennessee, Smith’s concern was to “clear the country of the bands of guerrillas that infested it, and to watch any attempt that Forrest, who was then at Jackson, Tennessee, might make to throw his force, or any portion of it, over into Middle Tennessee or Kentucky.”
Smith would now aid Sherman, which was fortuitous since Forrest was bound to cause a bit of trouble here and there along the way. Forrest had just returned from a raid into West Tennessee, and was, on this date, en route to Meridian to meet with General Polk. He wished to completely reorganize his force. He had gathered (and forcibly recruited) many new troopers. These had to be placed within veteran regiments, as they needed good men to watch over them. Still, desertions would plague him as they did most Confederate armies throughout the winter. When Forrest arrived in Meridian, he would find himself in command of every mounted trooper in Western Tennessee and Northern Mississippi.
And so the stage was not quite set for Sherman’s march to Meridian, itself a dress rehearsal for the war to come.