Sherman Ready to Wage Hard War – ‘They Cannot Be Silent or Neutral’

January 30, 1864 (Saturday)

Sherman, the piper.
Sherman, the piper.

“Arrived last night,” wrote William Tecumseh Sherman to General Grant. The Juliet, a small gunboat, had slowly chuffed its way down the icy Mississippi from Memphis, through dense fog and cold, to deposit him on the docks of Vicksburg. “All things favorable thus far for movement on Meridian.”

Sherman had long planned to take his 20,000-strong force across the state, destroying railroads and ousting the Rebels as they went. His object was Meridian, where the Confederate Army of Mississippi, numbering 10,000 under Leonidas Polk, was based.

The Seventeenth Corps, commanded by James McPherson, was in Vicksburg and ready, while Stephen Hurlbut’s Sixteenth Corps was soon to arrive. Additionally, 7,000 or so cavalry under William Sooy Smith were prepared to descend upon Meridian from the Memphis area.

Sherman’s plan had gone through a few changes here and there, but by this date, it was set. He had finalized it in a letter sent to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington the day previous. Sherman’s roll in this was but one of the many moving parts. As his troops marched east from Vicksburg, and Sooy Smith’s cavalry moved southeast from Memphis, an expedition made up of United States Colored Troops was to start up the Yazoo River to threaten Grenada.

This was mostly a diversion, but they were to break up the railroad near Greenwood – though that was not all. In a letter written to General McPherson on this date, Sherman hit upon the true intent. “Let the commanding officer impress on the people that we shall periodically visit that country and destroy property or take it, as long as parties of Confederate troops or guerrillas infest the river banks.” He ordered that all bands of Rebels be engaged. All Confederate cotton was to be taken and given over to loyal riverboat owners who had been fired upon by Rebels.

James McPherson is ready.
James McPherson is ready.

Sherman was insistent that the people along the Yazoo River understand “that we intend to hold them responsible for all acts of hostility to the river commerce.” It was “now their turn to feel that war may reach their doors. If the enemy burns cotton we don’t care. It is their property and not ours, but so long as they have cotton, corn, horses, or anything, we will appropriate it or destroy it so long as the confederates in war act in violence to us and our lawful commerce. They must be active friends or enemies. They cannot be silent or neutral.” Sherman also urged that the troops moving up the Yazoo should not bring along with them firewood or provisions, “for the enemy must not only pay for damages inflicted on our commerce but for the expenses incurred in the suppression.”

General Sherman wrote several such letters on this date, and would write another the following. He was serious about the Rebel citizens being forced to pay for the war they caused, and wished for them to fully comprehend that philosophy.

In his own campaign, Sherman was planning on doing the same, but needed everything to work perfectly for it to happen. The expedition required absolute secrecy. If the Confederates saw that his object was Meridian, they would quickly rush troops to reinforce Polk, spoiling everything. It also required speed. He knew that the roads were in terrible shape and would slow him down, but understood that the longer his machinations were kept secret, the less the road conditions would matter in the end.

Stephen Hurlbut is running a bit behind.
Stephen Hurlbut is running a bit behind.

To this end, came General Grant. Knowing the route that Sherman was to take, Grant ordered George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, to make a continued demonstration upon Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia. The thought was that since Johnston was the closet large body of troops to Polk, if he was kept busy, he could not send reinforcements.

So certain was Sherman of his ultimate success that he was already thinking what he might be able to accomplish next. After his current campaign, “I could aid [General Nathaniel] Banks, [General Frederick] Steele, and Admiral [David Dixon] Porter in taking Shreveport, which would be the death blow to our enemies of the Southwest.” During the winter, the water was a bit too low, but come March or April, it might be favorable enough.

A few more days would pass before Sherman would step off, during which time, a much broader picture would emerge.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p183, 185-186; Part 2, p259-261, 270-271; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman. []
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Sherman Ready to Wage Hard War – ‘They Cannot Be Silent or Neutral’ by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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