The Meridian Campaign

on March 6, 2014 in American Civil War, Battles, Books, Strategy and Tactics

“Uncle Billy”

Seeing as how the 150th anniversary of the Meridian Campaign came about, I thought I was blog on the real campaign, as well as the small ways in which it changed in Stonewall Goes West. Ever since I became acquainted with the details of Sherman’s February and March foray into eastern Mississippi, I saw it as the prototype for his style of generalship. In some ways, it is more instructive as to how Sherman’s mind worked than the Atlanta Campaign.

The Campaign
The intent of the Meridian Campaign was to break up Confederate rail communications in eastern Mississippi. In this way, Sherman hoped to make it much harder for the Confederates to make large scale forays against the Mississippi River line and its garrisons, which would in turn allow him to reduce the size of those garrisons and reinforce efforts elsewhere.

Sherman’s main force consisted of four divisions organized into two corps, plus some cavalry for scouting. This would march out from Vicksburg. A secondary column of more than 7,000 cavalry under William Sooy Smith was supposed to head out of Memphis, with the intent of confusing the Confederates as to Sherman’s intentions; to spread the destruction done; and to reinforce the main effort upon reaching Meridian. George H. Thomas was given the job of demonstrating in front of Joe Johnston in Georgia, to prevent the Army of Tennessee from dispatching reinforcements to Leonidas Polk and his Army of Mississippi. Finally, the U.S. Navy demonstrated in front of Mobile.

All of this activity was buttressed by false stories planted by Sherman in Northern newspapers. Sherman, who despised reporters, was happy to use them to feed misleading information to the enemy, and his plan worked. Sherman’s main target was Meridian, and he never seriously expected to penetrate any farther into the Southern heartland than Demopolis, Alabama. Southern leaders, however, thought his real aim was at least Selma, and that perhaps he intended to go as far as Mobile and take it on the landward side!

In his own way, Sherman was very concerned that the enemy never understood exactly what he was about. His practice of “putting the enemy on the horns of a dilemma” by threatening multiple points while intending to strike at only one, thereby dispersing their forces, was a hallmark of the March to the Sea.

“Bishop” Polk

The same principle was applied on a much larger, theater-wide scale for the Meridian Campaign. In terms of strategy, Sherman’s campaign was brilliant. With the exception of Nathan Bedford Forrest defeating Smith at the Battle of Okolona, the Army of Mississippi didn’t interfere and Sherman pretty much got his way without a fight, just as he had always intended.

Changes In SGW
The main change for the Meridian Campaign was due to Stonewall Jackson being the theater commander for the Confederate “center,” as well as field commander for the Army of Tennessee. Unlike Joe Johnston, Jackson was a man of decisive action, and he was far less concerned with being outnumbered. He also had responsibility for what happened in Mississippi and Alabama.

Consequently, he dispatched Cheatham’s Division to Polk as soon as he heard Sherman had left Vicksburg, and fended off Thomas’s probing with the remainder of the army. He expected Polk, reinforced to 16,000 infantry, to be able to stop Sherman. With the Bishop in charge that didn’t happen. Sherman had his way in my story much as he did in history, with Jackson’s prompt response coming to nothing.

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