Sherman’s Meridian Campaign: a practice Run for the March to the Sea

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Sherman’s Meridian Campaign: A Practice Run for the March to the Sea

Kevin Dougherty

General William Tecumseh Sherman is probably best remembered for his spectacular “March to the Sea” in which he stormed 225 miles through Georgia with no line of communication in a Union campaign to take the American Civil War to the Confederate population. It is hard to imagine that Sherman was not always so daring and independent, but rather is a case study of a general who profoundly grew and developed during the Civil War. 1 One critical phase of this growth was Sherman’s successful Meridian Campaign in February 1864. It was on this raid to protect the Mississippi River from Confederate guerrillas that Sherman first demonstrated the ability to operate independently deep in enemy territory and far from higher headquarters. It was on this raid that Sherman pioneered the art of destroying Confederate war-making capability. 2

Meridian was a key strategic point, lying roughly between the Mississippi capital of Jackson and the cannon foundry and manufacturing center of Selma, Alabama. Meridian itself played host to the intersection of three railroads. It served as a storage and distribution center for not just the industrial products of Selma but also for grain and cattle from the fertile Black Prairie region just to the north. 3

This map from the United States Military Academy Atlases at shows Meridian’s strategic location relative to Jackson and Selma as well as its key railroad junction.

It all presented a tempting target for Sherman who did not want to sit idle waiting for weather sufficient to support the upcoming spring campaign. Meridian was about 150 miles from Sherman’s location at Vicksburg which the Union had taken the previous summer in order to gain control of the Mississippi River. He figured it would be an easy matter to finish his business in Meridian in plenty of time to return to Vicksburg and be ready for future operations; a precondition that Sherman’s commander General Ulysses Grant had levied upon him.. Thus on February 3 Sherman began his campaign “to break up the enemy’s railroads at and about Meridian, and to do the enemy as much damage as possible in the month of February, and to be prepared by the 1st of March to assist General [Nathaniel] Banks in a similar dash at the Red River [Louisiana] country…” 4 A West Point graduate, Sherman’s execution would be brilliant and it is a classic example of an operation that makes best use of the traditional characteristics of the offensive: audacity, surprise, tempo, and concentration. 5

Audacity: “a simple plan of action, boldly executed.” 6 Sherman’s military genius lay more in maneuver and logistics—preserving his own and disrupting his enemy’s—than it did in tactics. The Meridian Campaign was a case study in such methodology, but certainly not one without enormous risk. Sherman would be marching some 150 miles from his base, living off the land, and exposing himself to a potential Confederate concentration from three directions. If the Confederates were able to effect such a concentration, Sherman’s entire army faced annihilation. It was an undertaking that caused “much anxiety” in Washington, 7 but Sherman’s commander Grant was not worried. Grant knew that any risk was lessened by the fact that Sherman, as a raider, could choose his line of retreat. Grant was confident Sherman would “find an outlet. If in no other way, he will fall back on Pascagoula, and ship from there under protection of [Admiral David] Farragut’s fleet.” 8 For historian of Civil War strategy Archer Jones, any threat was alleviated by “the offensive dominance of the raid over a persisting [i.e., territorially-based] defense.” 9 Audacious commanders take prudent risks in order to achieve decisive results and dispel uncertainty through action. 10 At Meridian and elsewhere, Sherman epitomized audacity.

Tempo: “a faster tempo allows attackers to disrupt enemy defensive plans by achieving results quicker than the enemy can respond.” 11 Sherman knew that his success depended on speed. He would travel light, ordering “Not a tent will be carried, from the commander-in-chief down.” 12 “The expedition is one of celerity,” he explained, “and all things must tend to that.” 13

Sherman began his march in two columns of a corps each in order to facilitate both speed and foraging. Sherman would be living off the land without maintaining a line of supply. This would deny the Confederates resources but would also force Sherman to keep moving in search of more provisions.

Confederate resistance was light, and Sherman refused to be distracted by minor skirmishes. He pressed forward, precluding the Confederates from disrupting his crossing of the Pearl River, one of the few places where there was a natural line of defense. 14 By February 9, Sherman was in Morton, covering over half the distance from Vicksburg to Meridian in less than a week. By midafternoon on the 14th, Sherman’s lead elements were in Meridian. By then Confederate resistance had evaporated.

But while Sherman’s own march had been mercurial, he was frustrated that General William Sooy Smith’s cavalry advance was not so. Sherman had ordered Smith to bring his large force from Memphis southeast in order to arrive at Meridian by February 10. Sherman instructed Smith not to be encumbered by “minor objects” but instead to concentrate on destroying bridges, railroads, and “corn not wanted.” 15 Part of Sherman’s own haste to reach Meridian had been motivated by his desire to rendezvous with Smith as planned, but now Smith was nowhere to be found. “It will be a novel thing in war,” Sherman lamented, “if infantry has to wait the motions of cavalry,” but such would be the case. 16

Smith’s failure to reach Meridian was a source of great frustration for Sherman who wrote that “Smith did not fulfill his orders, which were clear and specific,” 17 but the time was not to be wasted. Sherman waited almost a week for Smith, using the time “to wipe the appointed meeting place off the map,” 18 and then departed. In the meantime, Smith had turned back toward Memphis and been caught and whipped soundly by the great Confederate cavalrymen Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Surprise: “attacking the enemy at a time or place he does not expect or in a manner for which he is unprepared.” 19 Sherman would gain much surprise from the speed of his advance, but he would also employ a series of feints, or deceptive movements, designed to keep Leonidas Polk, the Confederate commander at Meridian, guessing. In an effort to maintain flexibility against all possible threats, Polk would never be able to concentrate against Sherman’s true attack. To this end, Sherman played on Polk’s fear for the safety of Mobile. Sherman asked Nathaniel Banks, Union commander of the Department of the Gulf at New Orleans, to have “boats maneuvering” in the Gulf near Mobile and to “keep up the delusion and prevent the enemy drawing from Mobile a force to strengthen Meridian.” Sherman told Banks he would “be obliged” if Banks would “keep up an irritating foraging or other expedition” in the direction of Mobile to help Sherman “keep up the delusion of an attack on Mobile and the Alabama River.” 20 As Sherman advanced, he fueled this deception himself. He wrote, “I never had the remotest idea of going to Mobile, but had purposely given out that idea to the people of the country, so as to deceive the enemy and divert their attention.” 21

By threatening Polk with feints, Sherman forced the Confederate to retain forces at Mobile that he could have used against Sherman in Meridian. To further add to Polk’s confusion, Sherman sent gunboats and infantry up the Yazoo River “to reconnoiter and divert attention.” The intention was “to make a diversion” and “confuse the enemy.” 22 Then when Sherman departed Clinton on February 5, he divided his command with General James McPherson advancing on Jackson from southwest to northeast while General Stephen Hurlbut marched due east. Poor Polk had more than he could handle. 23 Convinced Sherman was headed for Mobile, Polk took up a position at Demopolis and waited to strike Sherman’s rear. Polk’s confusion was compounded by a lack of courage to take the initiative and attack Sherman. Instead Polk merely kept retreating without making any real attempt to confront Sherman.

Sherman’s deception also affected other Confederate commanders. General Joe Johnston feared Sherman was headed for Johnston’s own position at Dalton, Georgia. Rather than reinforcing Polk, Johnston husbanded his forces for an attack that never came. Throughout the Confederate ranks, inactivity, indecision, and confusion reigned.

Sherman called such a tactic “putting the enemy on the horns of a dilemma.” He had helped Grant do this to John Pemberton in the Vicksburg Campaign, and Sherman would do it later by keeping the Confederates guessing if his objective was Macon or Augusta and then Augusta or Savannah on his March to the Sea. 24 Now Sherman achieved the same effect in the Meridian Campaign. The result of this uncertainty is “enemy paralysis and hesitancy”—objectives of surprise and keys to Sherman’s success. 25

Concentration: “the massing of overwhelming effects of combat power to achieve a single purpose.” 26 In spite of Sherman’s overriding concern for speed, he would not compromise in the size of his force. Sherman’s army consisted of four divisions—two from McPherson’s corps at Vicksburg and two from Hurlbut’s at Memphis—for a total of 20,000 infantry plus some 5,000 attached cavalry and artillery. Sherman’s adversary Polk could muster a force just half that size and these were widely scattered with a division each at Canton and Brandon and cavalry spread between Yazoo City and Jackson. 27

William Sherman and Leonidas Polk: Antagonists at Meridian

Sherman devoted his forces to the decisive aim to “do the enemy as much damage as possible.” On February 9, his army entered Morton and spent several hours tearing up the railroad track using the usual method of burning crossties to heat the rails and then bending the metal into useless configurations dubbed “Sherman’s neckties.”

Modern reenactors demonstrate Sherman’s technique for destroying rails. Photograph from the Annual Civil War Encampment at the Atlanta History Center

At Lake Station on February 11, Sherman destroyed “the railroad buildings, machine-shops, turning-table, several cars, and one locomotive.” 28 But it was after reaching Meridian itself that Sherman unleashed his full fury. For five days he dispersed detachments in four directions with Hurlbut leading the destruction north and east of Meridian and McPherson focusing on the south and west. For his part, McPherson destroyed 55 miles of railroad, 53 bridges, 6, 075 feet of trestle work, 19 locomotives, 28 steam cars, and three steam sawmills. Hurlbut claimed 60 miles of railroad, one locomotive, and eight bridges. 29 Sherman reported “10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction, with axes, crowbars, and with fire, and I have no hesitation in pronouncing the work as well done. Meridian, with its depots, store-houses, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists.” 30 The Confederates were able to repair their railroads within a month, but the weak Confederate industrial base made the loss of locomotives critical. His work done, Sherman returned to Vicksburg on February 28.

The completeness of Sherman’s destruction as well as the more recent urban sprawl have left the Meridian Campaign largely unpreserved. One remaining landmark is Merrehope which the City of Meridian website boasts as one of less than six buildings left standing after Sherman departed Meridian.

The Shape of Things to Come. Considered in a vacuum, the Meridian Campaign is itself a classic case study of the nearly flawless execution of a raid epitomizing the four characteristics of offensive operations. But the effects of the Meridian Campaign stretch far beyond the 115 miles of track, 61 bridges, 20 locomotives, and assorted depots, buildings, and structures Sherman laid to waste. Shelby Foote would call Meridian “something of a warm-up, a practice operation in this regard” for what Sherman would execute on a much grander scale in Georgia. 31 More specifically, John Marszalek concludes, “When Sherman later contemplated a march to the sea, the important lessons of Meridian were instrumental in his thinking. He could march an army through Confederate territory with impunity and feed it at the expense of the inhabitants. He could wage successfully war without having to slaughter thousands of soldiers in the process.” 32 Lawrence Smith cites Meridian as the validation of the strategy of exhaustion that Grant would employ thereafter until the end of the war. 33 Archer Jones agrees that “Sherman’s Meridian raid confirmed the effectiveness of Grant’s new raiding logistic strategy.” 34 Thus, the Meridian Campaign as an important milestone in the evolution of strategy and the Civil War’s relentless ascent toward total war. Though much less well-known than Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Meridian Campaign served as a proving ground for the strategy that would ultimately result in Union victory.
Kevin Dougherty is a history instructor at the University of Southern Mississippi. His Civil War Leadership and Mexican War Experience will be published this summer by the University Press of Mississippi.


Ballard, Michael. Civil War Mississippi: A Guide. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Bearss, Margie. Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign: The Meridian Expedition. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press, Inc, 1987.
Bowman, S. M. and R. B. Irwin. Sherman and His Campaigns: A Military Biography. NY: Charles B. Richardson, 1865.
Donald, David. Why the North Won the Civil War. NY: Collier Books, 1962.
Flood, Charles. Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. Vol 2. NY: Random House, 1963.
Foster, Buck. Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Hart, B. H. Liddell. Strategy. NY: New American Library, 1974.
Hattaway, Herman and Archer Jones. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Jones, Archer. Civil War Command & Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat. NY: The Free Press, 1992.
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Operations, FM 3-0. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2001.
Sherman, William. Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. NY: The Library of America, 1990.
United States War Department. War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Vol XXXII. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1900.

1 David Donald, Why the North Won the Civil War (NY: Collier Books, 1962) 50.

2 Charles Flood, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005) 232.

3 Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian vol 2 (NY: Random House, 1963) 923.

4 Michael Ballard, Civil War Mississippi: A Guide (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000) 77.

5 Operations, FM 3-0, (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2001) 7-4.

6 FM 3-0, 7-6.

7 Halleck to Grant, Feb 27, 1864, O. R. XXXII, pt 2, 481.

8 Grant to W. S. Smith, Feb 29, 1864, O. R. XXXII. Pt. 2, 500.

9 Archer Jones, Civil War Command & Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat (NY: The Free Press, 1992) 185.

10 FM 3-0, 7-6.

11 FM 3-0, 7-6.

12 John Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (NY: The Free Press, 1993), 250.

13 Foote, 924.

14 Foote, 924.

15 Ballard, 77.

16 Foote, 926.

17 William Sherman, Memoirs of William T. Sherman (NY: The American Library, 1990) 422-423.

18 Foote, 934.

19 FM 3-0, 7-4.

20 Sherman to Banks, Jan 24, 1864, O. R. XXXII, pt. 2, 114-115 and Sherman, 421.

21 Sherman, 421.

22 Sherman to Grant, Jan 24, 1864, O. R. XXXII, pt. 2, 201 and Sherman to Porter, Jan 19, 1864, ibid, 198.

23 Ballard, 79.

24 B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (NY: New American Library, 1974) 134.

25 FM 3-0, 7-4.

26 FM 3-0, 7-5.

27 Foote 922, Ballard 77, and Sherman 419.

28 Ballard, 80.

29 S. M. Bowman and R. B. Irwin, Sherman and His Campaigns: A Military Biography (NY: Charles B. Richardson, 1865) 161.

30 Ballard, 80.

31 Foote, 938.

32 Marszalek, 255.

33 Lawrence Smith, “Rise and Fall of the Strategy of Exhaustion.” Army Logistician. Nov-Dec 2004, 34.

34 Jones, 186.

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