February 3, 1864 (Wednesday)
It had been weeks in the making, but finally William Tecumseh Sherman’s two corps were on the march east from Vicksburg. In two columns they took to the roads, with General James McPherson commanding the right, and General Stephen Hurlbut, the left. Before them rode a smattering of cavalry under Col. Edward Winslow.
Preparation for the expedition to Meridian, Mississippi included not only the gathering of 25,000 troops, but the construction of two bridges across the Big Black River, ten miles east of Vicksburg. While Sherman’s troops would be shadowing the railroad running to Jackson, two crossings were to be used to span the river.
McPherson’s Corps was to stay true to the rails, but use the nearby pontoon bridge to cross. The troops under Hurlbut were to cross seven miles to the north at Messinger’s Ferry.
It was noon when they assembled on the Big Black, and Winslow’s cavalry was ordered across. Though the river was the largest body of water between Vicksburg and Jackson, there were other streams, such as Baker’s Creek. Running south near the battlefield at Champion’s Hill. Trotting as they went, the cavalry encamped that night just before the old battleground.
Most of Sherman’s troops crossed the Big Black, many marching beyond to Amsterdam and Edwards’ Depot. Thus far, the Confederates were unseen.
The Rebels, commanded by Leonidas Polk, had determined not to contest the crossing of the Big Black. Instead, the cavalry under S.D. Lee had been sent to slow down the advance around Bolton Depot, ten miles east of the crossings.
Around 6pm, Confederate scouts returned with news of the crossing and the thrust toward Bolton. The several brigades under Lee concentrated on the roads to Clinton, and would be fully ready by dawn the next day. The infantry, under Generals William Loring and Samuel French were still far to the east, near Jackson and Canton, where they were preparing to make some sort of stand.
Meanwhile, much farther to the east, in Dalton, Georgia, Joe Johnston was convinced that Yankee troops under George Thomas were advancing from Chattanooga. Polk had called upon him for some kind of reinforcements, but due to these latest developments, Johnston was politely declining. This was, of course, all part of the Federal plan. Thomas did not posses enough troops to bring on a general battle with Johnston, but had more than enough to make sure that Johnston’s troops stayed where they were and did nothing to aid Polk. When Polk learned of Johnston’s inability to help, he immediately wired President Davis in Richmond, but there was nothing anyone could do, he was on his own.
The following day, the two sides would meet.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 1, p175, 209, 213, 215, 248, 365, 373; Part 2, p662; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman. [↩]