Strategists and historians who study the Civil War often note that the war was a major milestone and, if you will, a turning point in the evolution of warfare and military strategy. Prior to the Civil War, most wars centered around a Jominian strategy of defeating enemy armies in set-piece battles that allowed one to seize, occupy, and control territory. In fact, it was often believed that, if one simply seized key points on a map, the war was won. But the Civil War changed all that because Ulysses Grant and William Sherman came to see that simple occupation of territory would not bring victory to the Union.
First, from their experience in the vastness of the Western Theater, they realized that they would never have enough men to actually control sufficient territory to deny the Confederate armies the logistical resources required to wage war. To be sure, they might hold key cities, but they could not possibly occupy and control all of the countryside. And while they believed that the Union must also engage and destroy the major Confederate armies in both the East and the West, they also realized that the ideological foundation of the war meant that Union forces were essentially fighting an entire society and that society must be brought to its knees if they were to gain victory. Therefore, they evolved a strategy that would attack the South militarily, economically, and psychologically—the first use of a strategy of total war.
A key component of this strategy was the raid. However, unlike the previous cavalry raids used by both sides, Grant and Sherman envisioned raiding on a massive scale, using infantry and engineering troops, and designed to inflict enormous material damage. If successful, this massive strategic raiding would not only pay logistical dividends, it might also damaged the South psychologically, and cause increased desertion in the Confederate armies as well as despair in the Southern population. The resulting political and emotional attrition could, therefore, only enhance and accelerate whatever military attrition they might achieve on the battlefield. The first test of this concept came in February 1864 when Sherman planned to conduct a raid on Meridian, Mississippi. While many of you may not be acquainted with this action, the raid on Meridian not only a harbinger of things to come in the final year of the war, it also was a frightful preview of wars to come.
On January 10, 1864, after returning to the Mississippi from supporting Grant during the Chattanooga campaign, Sherman ordered various elements of his command in western Mississippi to begin preparation for a march on Meridian. His official report states, “My object was to break up the enemy's railroads at and about Meridian, and to do the enemy as much damage as possible.” There was no intent to engage the enemy in battle except for any that might occur as part of the achieving the objective. Sherman’s plan involved the use of 21,000 infantry supported by 7,000 cavalry. This compact force would move quickly, leaving Vicksburg on February 3, living off the land, and marching the 150 miles to Meridian by February 14.
Meridian and the rail junction there provided a key strategic target. The city was approximately halfway between the state capital in Jackson and the armaments and manufacturing factories in Selma, Alabama. Further, three different railroads intersected in Meridian, including one that ran to the key port city of Mobile. As a result, it was the home to enormous storage and distribution facilities for industrial products as well as food, primarily grain and cattle.
Sherman knew that his success depended on speed and he ordered his commanders to strip their forces down to the bare minimum in terms of a supply train. The idea was to move fast, taking what was needed to subsist from the farms along the way, and no one, including himself, was to carry a single tent. To ensure his army did not get bogged down on the roads and to facilitate foraging for supplies, he ordered that the four divisions of infantry in the expedition move in two parallel columns. In addition, his orders to all commanders constantly reinforced the need for speed, reminding them to ignore and bypass any “minor points,” and not to pause to destroy any property or engage any enemy forces not deemed to be significant.
As Sherman’s columns moved rapidly east towards their objective, they met only token resistance and pushed that aside with ease. While Confederate General Leonidas Polk’s headquarters was in Meridian, his forces in the region were scattered and, given the speed of Sherman’s approach, there was no opportunity to consolidate before Union forces arrived. Therefore, Polk elected to abandon the city and leave it to its fate, departing by train just a few hours before Sherman and his men arrived at 3:30 p.m. on February 14. With the exception of a failure of Sherman’s cavalry to provide coordinated support, the raid had been a complete success to this point.
Sherman then began the systematic destruction of Meridian’s ability to support the Confederate war effort. His confidence upon arriving in Meridian is reflected by the fact that he let his men rest all day on February 15, before beginning their work the next day. In addition, his first-hand observation of the city’s transportation and storage infrastructure convinced him that he had, indeed, selected a good target: “The immense depots, warehouses, and length of sidetrack demonstrated the importance to the enemy of that place. Through it he has heretofore transported his armies and vast supplies, and by means of the railroads large amounts of corn, bacon, meal, and produce have been distributed to his armies.”
Sherman’s infantry commanders were each assigned a particular quadrant in which to destroy anything of value to the Confederate military. General Hurlburt was ordered to work north and east of the city, while General McPherson and his command were sent south and west of Meridian. In total, some 10,000 men were told to spend the better part of five days destroying tracks, locomotives, warehouses, and any other logistics or military facilities using “axes, crowbars, sledges, clawbars, and with fire.”
The citizens of Meridian were rightfully terrified by Sherman’s arrival and some looting did occur. One woman, writing to her mother in Mobile after the raid, said that, at first, a “mob” of soldiers entered her home “breaking open doors, trunks, locks, etc., tearing up and destroying everything they could. Caught all the chickens in the place in half an hour.” After requesting help from General Hurlburt, Union guards were placed at her house, but a group of five soldiers was assigned to search her home and confiscate any arms, gold, or silver. Eventually, General Leggett and his staff chose her home as their headquarters and, as a result, it was saved from potential destruction. However, as her letter went on to detail, the rest of the city was not so lucky.
Our store was burned to the ground, and so was another of our new houses. My two milch cows were killed, and every one in the town; and for eight or ten miles around, all cattle and horses...The printing office and all public buildings were burned up, and Mr. Ragsdale’s Hotel, Cullen’s, Terrill’s, and the Burton House.
All the railroad is torn up, both up and down, for miles, and all the ties burned and iron bent and destroyed. Oh, such destruction! I do not believe you or any one else would know the place. There’s not a fence in Meridian. I have not one rail left.
The woman, who only signed her letter as “S.E.P.B,” went to report that one friend, a Mrs. McElroy, had all her possessions destroyed and her house burned to the ground because her daughter had insulted a Union officer and a private. Mrs. McElroy’s son-in-law brought her and her daughter to the woman’s home for protection, but General Leggett told her that her house would also be burned if she gave Mrs. McElroy shelter. Sorrowfully, she had to tell Mrs. McElroy that she could not take them in.
S.E.P.B. was very accurate in describing the destruction wrought by Sherman and his troops. In his official report, Sherman would write, “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.” In total, his men destroyed 115 miles of railroad, 61 bridges and culverts, 20 locomotives, 28 rail cars, and 3 steam sawmills. The general added, “The railroad is destroyed all the way from Jackson to Meridian, 100 miles; from Meridian to and including the large bridge over the Chickasawha below Quitman; north to and including a bridge at Lauderdale Springs, and east about 20 miles. The enemy cannot use these roads to our prejudice in the coming campaign.” According to some accounts, only six major buildings were left standing after Sherman’s departure.
With their work complete, Sherman’s force left Meridian and returned to Vicksburg on February 28. While the railroads around Meridian would be repaired within a month, the loss in terms of the locomotives and logistics infrastructure was devastating. However, much more happened in the Meridian raid than simply the destruction of railroads, locomotives, and warehouses. A key element of a new strategy, a new philosophy of war, devised in concert by Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, had been successfully field tested. When Sherman would later storm across Georgia and the Carolinas, wreaking havoc, the tactics employed in marching on Meridian would serve as his model. The era of chivalrous and “civilized” warfare in which civilians and their property were protected was at an end, the era of total warfare had begun, and the citizens of Meridian, Mississippi had received the first official notice.