William T. Sherman’s First Campaign of Destruction
Roughly seven months after the fall of Vicksburg, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman took his army across central Mississippi, intent on undermining that region’s ability to wage war. His military target was the rail center of Meridian, but Sherman’s troops tore up railroad tracks and burned military stores all along their route. This was typical of armies marching through enemy territory in the Civil War.
What made this campaign different is that for the first time Northern troops were instructed to wage a war of destruction, to leave civilians with just enough for survival but not enough to support military activity against the North. They also waged psychological warfare, intent on quashing any hope the people in central Mississippi might have had of a Southern victory. The campaign was to be the model for Sherman’s own March to the Sea through Georgia and then into South Carolina, and for Phil Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley foray.
Sherman’s march from Vicksburg to Meridian, Mississippi, in early 1864 is relatively unknown, although publications discussing “hard war,” “total war,” or modern warfare sometimes mention this campaign. Two of the best examples are Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones’ How the North Won the War (1983) and Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War (1995).
Each monograph appreciates the role of the expedition as the beginning of the Federal army’s new style of warfare bringing the realities of war to a civilian population, but neither provides details on exactly what Sherman learned here or the campaign’s overall significance. While Hattaway and Jones describe the changing Federal strategy and Grimsley notes how Federal attitudes toward Southern civilians modified during the war, they do not create a complete picture of Sherman’s campaign.
Similarly, Sherman biographies give this campaign little attention. For example, John F. Marszalek’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (1993) devotes only five pages to it, while Michael Fellman’s Citizen Sherman (1995), Stanley P. Hirchson’s The White Tecumseh (1997), and Lee B. Kennett’s Sherman: A Soldier’s Life (2001) barely mention it.
Yet it was on this expedition that Sherman greatly altered the way he campaigned, developing a unique style of warfare that drastically modified his attitudes toward civilians, slaves, soldiers, destruction, tactics, and planning. The Meridian Campaign was crucial to how Sherman’s style of fighting evolved.
Sherman did not develop his style of warfare in a week or even a year. It took the entire course of the war to change him from being a commander who sought to exclude civilians from the conflict to becoming a leader who actively searched for ways to terrorize Southern civilians into giving up their cause—without injuring them. In the first three years of the war, Sherman went from rigorously protecting Southern civilians and their property to believing that these citizens were ultimately responsible for the war and had to be convinced to stop supporting it.
The general had spent much time in the South as a U.S. Army officer and as superintendent of what later became Louisiana State University. He had many Southern friends and thus had an attachment to the South and its people. Sherman sought, therefore, a way to end the war with as little bloodshed as possible. His entire war experience, particularly as Ulysses S. Grant’s subordinate, provided him with battlefield savvy and tactics to do just that.
While Sherman was in Memphis in 1862 and 1863, guarding the important river town and the Mississippi River, he battled constantly with guerrilla and Confederate cavalry units operating in Mississippi and Tennessee. After exhausting all conventional methods for dealing with these threats, he began to strike at the local Southern towns, which he considered the supply bases for the Confederates. By taking or destroying supplies, Sherman tried to prevent the Confederates from sustaining the fight while simultaneously punishing the citizens for supporting the enemy. Although he experienced limited success with this tactic, Sherman believed that the key to protecting the Mississippi, a major key to Union victory, was to strike at Confederate resources in the Magnolia State.
If the Confederate troops could not find supplies, they could not remain a threat to the river. Sherman therefore created a plan to destroy the rail lines in Mississippi, hoping to cripple the state’s military value to the Confederacy and end the Rebel threat to the Mississippi. If the Confederate threat was eliminated, Federal officials could remove thousands of garrisoning troops along the river for use on battlefields elsewhere.
After retaking Jackson in the summer of 1863 after the fall of Vicksburg, Sherman had thought about moving down the railroad track toward Meridian, a small town of about four hundred people, located about one hundred miles east of Jackson near the Alabama border. This bustling community contained warehouses, storehouses, depots, an armory, a hospital, and other noteworthy military targets. It served as a hub for Confederate traffic between Mississippi and the rest of the eastern Confederacy. The Confederacy used the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and the Southern Railroad of Mississippi, which intersected at Meridian, to shuttle vast amounts of men and supplies through the Magnolia State. Additionally, these lines worked as an important interior route to transfer Confederate troops from one front to another quickly and efficiently.
At the time, Sherman decided that because of the hot summer weather and the exhaustion of his men, he should postpone any movement on Meridian. Simultaneously, however, he became determined to rid the state of its guerrilla elements and other Confederate forces that harassed river traffic and posed a threat to the Mississippi River itself. Convinced that a strike at Meridian could stymie these forces, at every opportunity he pressed his request to take the town. His plan suggested the possibility of an amphibious assault near Mobile, a large cavalry raid, numerous feints, or a march of more than twenty thousand infantry straight across a hundred and fifty miles of enemy territory.
Grant, Sherman’s superior, had bigger plans than Meridian, but an attack on the Mississippi town would fit nicely into his larger strategy. Grant sent letters to President Abraham Lincoln’s general in chief, Henry W. Halleck, on several occasions in July and August, suggesting an attack on Mobile. Grant believed that the Alabama city could provide an excellent base for his operations into the Confederate states farther east, where he could hit some of the South’s manufacturing and supply sectors. Mobile could provide the southernmost anchor for another split of the Confederacy. The important port city had become, with the Union victories at Shiloh and Corinth, the only rail link, besides Meridian, from Mississippi to the eastern Confederacy.
Halleck thought Texas was a more important target, so he did not provide Grant with the approval he wished. In this he was reflecting Lincoln’s belief that Texas was especially important to U.S. interests.
As early as August 1863, Sherman had begun to make plans for a move against Meridian. He ordered a map containing his intended route. The map included information on Meridian in Mississippi as well as Demopolis and Mobile in Alabama. He hoped to move across Mississippi as soon as his men were rested and the cool fall weather had arrived.
When word came in September that Confederate General Braxton Bragg had cornered Major General William Rosecrans at Chattanooga, Sherman thought that the best way to relieve his colleague was to direct an attack on Mobile through Meridian, making a “powerful diversion.” He argued that if the Army of the Tennessee moved rapidly across Mississippi and Alabama, Joseph Johnston would have to take large numbers of men from Bragg’s army in order to counter the move in Alabama. Sherman therefore chose the destruction of Meridian as his main objective for the winter of 1863-1864.
Most of the tactics Sherman employed during the Meridian Campaign, such as using feints and acquiring supplies from the countryside as he progressed, were not new to war. Abandoning his supply lines, however, was an innovative idea. Sherman had witnessed Grant’s army practically perform this maneuver during the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863. When Confederate cavalry destroyed Grant’s main supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi, and damaged the Mobile and Ohio Railroad in Tennessee, Grant’s army subsisted mainly on food and forage the soldiers gathered from farms along the railroad.
Although Grant’s army had only done this for two weeks, Sherman (and Grant) thought that his army could carry all necessities except food in wagons during his march to Meridian and live off the Mississippi countryside for the entire campaign.
Marching on Meridian, Sherman combined all the tactics he had learned during the first three years of the Civil War. What Sherman learned about the limitations of the Confederacy and the Southern people during his first large-scale use of hard war provided him with the insight he needed to use his style of warfare on an even larger scale later, marching through Georgia and South Carolina.
Sherman’s method of war, under Grant’s overall leadership, became the Federal strategy for winning the war. For the remainder of the conflict, the Union army sought to strike at all Southern resources and infrastructure, hoping to destroy the Confederacy’s ability and will to keep fighting.
The Meridian Campaign was hardly the brutish, purposeless destruction described in Lost Cause mythology. Rather, it was a planned strategy and tactic to end the war as quickly and bloodlessly as possible.
During the first year of the American Civil War, William T. Sherman had considered proper treatment of noncombatants and their property his soldierly duty. He took great care in seeing that his policies and the conduct of his men did not trample upon the perceived rights of secessionist or unionist civilians. He handed out harsh punishment to soldiers who did as little as steal fence rails for their campfires or take liberally from the countryside.
By the end of the war, however, most Southerners saw Sherman as a brute for his harsh treatment of Southern civilians and his destruction of property across the Confederate states. His “bummers” became notorious for their ability to strip the land of valuable goods, and Southerners greatly abhorred them. Many historians have credited Sherman with creating the policy of “total war,” of modern warfare. Although recent works have rightfully concluded that Sherman was not the first general to promote a harsher attitude toward civilians, he nevertheless moved war in that direction to a far greater degree than any of his contemporaries.
The pivotal circumstances in Sherman’s transformation came because of his dealings with guerrillas along the Mississippi River and his participation in the Vicksburg Campaign in 1862 and 1863. Because of the partisans’ menace to Union depots, communications, and supply lines, coupled with the Confederate populace’s support of these raiders, Sherman developed a harsher, more encompassing policy toward Southern civilians.
Just after the fall of Vicksburg, while in Jackson for the second time, Sherman conducted a campaign of destruction to render the city unusable to the Confederate army. The Meridian Campaign, some six months later, was his preliminary attempt to subjugate an entire region of the state and served as his proving ground for later campaigns into Georgia and the Carolinas.
Sherman adapted what he had learned during the first three years of the war into a new campaign technique that he designed to end the war as quickly and bloodlessly as possible. He wanted to quash the enemy’s ability and will to fight without having to destroy the opponent’s armies or capture and garrison large areas of the Confederacy.
Although he attended West Point, Sherman did not derive his principles from his education there. Most professional military officers, many of whom had attended West Point, had studied the works of Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini. While many historians contend that Jomini’s works had little influence on these officers because his The Art of War was not translated into English until late in 1854, most military tacticians and strategists of the period drew upon this work for their own writings.
Jomini contended that the violence between two enemy armies on the battlefield had few limitations but that civilians away from the fighting should not be included. “Absolute war,” in his opinion, should remain an action reserved for belligerents, and he made no mention of expanding such a strategy to the civilian population. Jomini held that there was a definite wall between warring armies and the common population. His comments about guerrillas implied condemnation of their style of warfare.
Sherman agreed with Jomini that noncombatants should be treated differently than soldiers. After the First Battle of Bull Run, Sherman wrote to his wife about the depredations that some of his command had committed: “If he [a private] thinks [it’s] right he takes the oats [and] corn, and even burns the house of his enemy,” he wrote angrily. “No goths or vandals ever had less respect for the lives [and] property of friends and foes.”
Sherman thought these types of infractions were detrimental to the Union cause. When he became commander of the Department of the Cumberland later that year, he compensated Kentucky’s civilians for all property the Federals secured from them for military use. He thought this was the best way to keep border state civilians from straying to the Confederate side. A Northern newspaper declared that Sherman’s policy had “produced a marked change in favor of the Union cause.”
In July 1862, Sherman wrote to Halleck about an incident involving a group of guerrillas attacking a forage train. He believed that they were a band of local citizens from the nearby settlement of La Grange, Tennessee, so he ordered the capture of twenty-five of the “most prominent” men from La Grange, then sent them to Columbus, Tennessee, as prisoners. “I am satisfied we have no other remedy for this ambush firing than to hold the neighborhood fully responsible, though the punishment may fall on the wrong parties,” he concluded.
Sherman had no way of knowing exactly who was responsible for the attack, but he insisted that the local people knew the guilty parties. If they refused to assist in the apprehension of the culprits, then they would suffer the consequences.
The following month, because of the irregularity of Union supply shipments to the Western forces and the Confederate cavalry’s destruction of supply lines and storage facilities, the Federal government began to endorse foraging to offset the resulting shortage in provisions. General in chief Halleck issued orders to Grant that read: “As soon as the corn gets fit for forage get all the supplies you can from the rebels in Mississippi. It is time they should feel the presence of war on our side.”
That same month, the War Department issued General Orders 107 and 108, upholding the idea that if private property was seized in an “orderly manner” and not “pillaged,” its confiscation “for the subsistence, transportation, and other uses of the army” was officially acceptable. The Union army had allowed this type of action before 1862.
Sherman did not like the idea put forth by General Orders 107 and 108. Believing that liberal foraging would lead the men down the path toward outright pillaging, he issued an order that the “demoralizing and disgraceful practice of pillaging must cease else the country will rise on us and justly shoot us down like dogs and wild beasts.” He insisted that while his command was on the move in enemy territory, the cavalry must capture and punish any stragglers engaged in destructive activity.
That same month, however, Sherman became concerned about guerrilla cavalry, as they were constantly attacking his supply lines and destroying Union provisions. They attacked isolated Federal garrisons and scattered their soldiers. When a larger force moved out to meet the bandits, the partisans dispersed in all directions, mingling with the populace.
Sherman began to view Southern citizens differently, especially when they lived in areas where the guerrillas frequently operated. “All the people are now guerrillas,” he wrote angrily to Grant, “and they have a perfect understanding” of the impact their raids had on Union operations.
Sherman decided that if these bushwhackers hid among the local citizens, the Union army should retaliate against those who concealed them. “If the farmers in a neighborhood encourage or even permit in their midst a set of guerrillas they cannot escape the necessary consequences,” Sherman warned. “It is not our wish or policy to destroy the farmers or their farms, but of course there is and must be remedy for all evils.”
Sherman remained steadfast in his belief that wanton destruction of private citizens’ property was wrong, but he now believed the “exigencies of the war” forced him to take a new approach. He continued to insist that, although it was not his policy to destroy the farmers and their farms, those who resided in the areas around partisan troop activity were “accessories by their presence and inactivity to prevent murders and destruction of property.” Therefore, they should properly expect just retribution.
Sherman was not the only Union general moving away from the conciliatory stance. Commanders contending with guerrillas in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and western Virginia were also growing tired of the nuisances.
Guerrilla raids on Union supplies and firings upon boats along the Mississippi River continued to anger Sherman when his troops garrisoned Memphis in 1862. In September he wrote his brother, U.S. Senator John Sherman, in frustration: “It is about time the North understood the truth; that the entire South, man, woman, and child are against us, armed and determined.”
Knowing that he had the confidence of his brother, he wrote freely. Sherman loathed the irregular troops’ actions, and because the civilian population aided their cause, he grew upset with them as well.
Sherman did not believe that all Southern civilians were at war with the Union army. The real enemies, he thought, were those citizens who supported the Confederate forces. Sherman began to take his pursuit of guerrillas and the punishment of those assisting them to the next level. He began striking at points near to where the attacks had taken place.
Two days after writing his letter to Senator Sherman, the general ordered Colonel Charles C. Walcutt of the 46th Ohio Volunteers to the town of Randolph, Tennessee. The day before, bushwhackers there had fired on the Union supply ship Eugene as it carried cargo south to Memphis. He instructed Walcutt that he thought “the attack on the Eugene was by a small force of guerrillas from Loosahatchie, who by this time have gone back, and therefore you will find no one at Randolph; in which case you will destroy the place, leaving one house to mark the place.”
Sherman could not capture those directly responsible for the sniping, but, as an example to others, he decided to punish those who assisted in the attack on the boat—or did not prevent it.
“Let the people know and feel that we deeply deplore the necessity of such destruction, but must protect ourselves and the boats,” he told his subordinate. “All such acts as cowardly firing upon boats filled with women and children…must be severely punished.” Sherman considered such bushwhacking beyond the scope of proper military conduct, and thus he felt justified in using any means within his power, including the destruction of civilian property, to stop such actions.
Sherman informed Grant of the destruction at Randolph and warned that he intended to threaten the enemy with harsher actions if they persisted in their boat attacks: “[I] have given public notice that a repetition will justify any measures of retaliation, such as loading the boats with guerrilla prisoners where they would receive fire, and expelling families from the comforts of Memphis, whose husbands and brothers go to make up those guerrillas.”
These were not hollow threats. Sherman had already issued a special order empowering the provost marshal to prepare a list of thirty inhabitants. In the event a boat was fired on along the Mississippi River near Memphis, ten families from the list would leave the city.
In October an attack on the river craft Catahoula compelled Sherman to intensify retaliating against wrongdoers. Hoping that harsher action would end the harassment, he sent Walcutt to “destroy all the houses, farms, and corn fields” from Elm Grove Post Office to Hopefield, Arkansas, a distance of roughly fifteen miles.
Furthermore, he made good on his promise to expel Memphis citizens. After three subsequent guerrilla attacks along the river, he sent several families out of the city beyond Union lines. These tactics seemed to work, as partisan attacks subsided for several months.
While moving south down the Mississippi from Memphis on transports in December 1862, as part of the Vicksburg Campaign, Sherman continued his policy of punishing those who sniped at river craft. He penned an order to his men that, if fired upon, the troops should land and “attack the property and stores [and take any supplies] useful to the United States.” They should burn “the neighboring houses, barns &c.” and dispose of any enemy personnel in the area.
Unless the marauders ended their attacks on riverboats, he wanted to ensure that they and their families and friends would feel repercussions. To a friend, Sherman later described his own transformation in 1862: “[Early in the war,] I would not let our men burn [a] fence rail for fire or gather fruits or vegetables though hungry. We at that time were restrained, tied to a deep-seated reverence for law and property. The rebels first introduced terror as part of their system….No military mind could endure this long, and we were forced in self-defense to imitate their example.”
That winter and spring, during the campaign to take the Mississippi River fortress, Sherman learned another important lesson that would prove extremely valuable in his later campaigns—and would change the way that he would conduct war against the Confederacy. He had observed the two battling armies at Shiloh earlier that year and saw how bulky, slow-moving supply wagons could slow down an army. “[Federal Major General Don Carlos] Buell had to move at a snail’s pace with his vast wagon trains, [while Confederate General Braxton] Bragg moved rapidly, living on the country,” he noted. Sherman remained unsure, however, whether a Union army could live off the hostile country as successfully as the enemy’s army had done in its own territory.
By late December, Grant had moved his Army of the Tennessee into northern Mississippi from western Tennessee, stretching his supply lines nearly sixty miles from his starting point. Confederate cavalry leader Major General Earl Van Dorn striking at his supply and communication lines at Holly Springs and Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest hitting at other locations in northern Mississippi isolated the Union force from its base. Grant immediately ordered his men to live off the countryside, hoping that he could reestablish his lines before continuing on the campaign. He was surprised to observe that his army lived well from what they found on northern Mississippi’s farms.
He remarked to Halleck that within a radius of fifteen miles from his principal position, “everything of subsistence of man or beast has been appropriated for the use of our army.” Grant later commented in his memoirs, “I was amazed at the quantity of supplies the country afforded. It showed me that we could have subsisted off the country for two months instead of two weeks.”
Sherman understood that by not having to guard a supply or communications line, he could free the men previously used to protect that line for use on the battlefield. Furthermore, the Union army could subsist in unfriendly country at the expense of the enemy, while simultaneously removing valuable provisions from Confederate use.
In addition, Sherman came to appreciate Grant’s philosophy about the importance of Confederate resources. Grant believed that destroying enemy supplies “tended to the same result as the destruction of armies.” Sherman had already tried a variation of this tactic when he had punished the Confederate citizens for aiding the guerrillas and destroyed their supplies, thereby denying such goods to the irregulars. Now he understood that he would have to take his actions even further to obtain his desired goal—ending attacks on Mississippi River shipping.
In April 1863, the Federal government would set forth a distinction between civilians and combatants inhabiting the Confederacy in its General Order 100, “Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field.” Article 22 read in part that there is a “distinction between the private individual belonging to a hostile country and the hostile country itself, with its men in arms. The principle has been more and more acknowledged that the unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor as much as the exigencies of war will admit.” The key factor was war necessity, and as Article 28 pointed out, there was also a right of retaliation. General Order 100 only served to further outline what General Orders 107 and 108 had defined in 1862.
In keeping with the Federal government’s mindset, Sherman believed his troops should take all precautions not to disturb the property of those civilians who did not participate in guerrilla action or aid guerrillas.
In the spring of 1863, after another bushwhacking incident near Greenville, Mississippi, Sherman ordered Brigadier General Frederick Steele to clear the area of partisans and any Confederate regulars. “If planters remain at home and behave themselves, molest them as little as possible,” Sherman cautioned, “but if the planters abandon their plantations you may infer they are hostile, and can take their cattle, hogs, corn, or anything you need.” He ordered Steele to consider any cotton, except that marked with “C.S.,” as private property and leave it unmolested.
He later wrote he was outraged that Union troops, despite Steele’s orders, “burned up everything there was to eat on the plantations,” leaving nothing for the “peaceful inhabitants” as Sherman had instructed. Steele’s overzealous troops destroying private property typified what often happened on such raids. When out of sight of their officers or when negligently led, soldiers often took liberties with civilian property, seeking revenge or simply collecting luxuries for themselves.
When Steele offered to return some of the acquired goods, Sherman agreed, stating: “War at best is barbarism, but to involve all—children, women, old and helpless—is more than can be justified. Our men will become absolutely lawless unless this can be checked.”
When Grant marched on the capital of Mississippi in May 1863, his men once again lived successfully off the land. Grant did not intend to hold Jackson. Instead, he wanted to remove any militarily beneficial materials from the city and rid the area of any Confederate troops, thus protecting himself from a rear attack while he moved on Vicksburg. After he had driven out the Confederate forces, Grant fanned out his men across the city, telling them to “collect stores and forage, and collect all public property of the enemy [and to destroy] the river railroad bridge and the road as far east as possible, as well as north and south.”
Sherman sent his men to set fire to piled railway tracks and ties, heating the rails and twisting them to render the rails useless, a task that came to be called making “Sherman neckties.” He ordered the destruction of “presses, sugar, and everything public not needed by us,” but he cautioned again that “the private rights of citizens should be respected.”
When Sherman received word that the provost marshal condoned taking store contents unnecessary to the subsistence of the troops, he ordered Brigadier General J.A. Mower to look into the matter. “The feeling of pillage and booty will injure the morals of the troops, and bring disgrace to our cause,” he warned. Even at this stage, Sherman considered his objective to be removing supplies from the enemy’s use and putting them to use by his own troops. He still respected the rights of private citizens and destroyed only public property.
Grant continued to order the region around Vicksburg stripped “to prevent an army coming this way from supplying itself.” He sent Sherman back to Jackson after the fall of Vicksburg to retake the city from General Joseph Johnston’s army, which had reoccupied the capital.
As during his first trip to Jackson, Sherman went about destroying and confiscating supplies from the area in and around the city. He also caused Johnston to retreat. However, this trip to Jackson proved different from any other prior attack on a city during the war. Sherman continued to destroy railroads, but even though he was not immediately threatened or in need of supplies, he collected and demolished supplies from Jackson and the surrounding countryside, and burned the remaining factories and cotton.
Grant had ordered Sherman to “leave nothing of value for the enemy to carry on the war with.” Sherman took these orders to the extreme, reporting to his superior that his men were “absolutely stripping the country of corn, cattle, hogs, sheep, poultry, everything,” and that he used the fields of newly sprouted spring corn for pasture or cut them for fodder. “The wholesale destruction to which this country is now being subjected is terrible to contemplate,” he continued, “but it is the scourge of war…and weakening the resources of our enemy [is] being executed with rigor.”
He wrote triumphantly: “Jackson, once the pride and boast of Mississippi, is now a ruined town.” Sherman also remarked happily that after his two successful raids on the capital, “Jackson ceases to be a place for the enemy to collect stores and men from which to threaten our great river.” This was the first step that illustrated Grant’s and Sherman’s belief that the Union army needed a new type of strategy to win the war.
In the preceding months, Sherman had tried diligently to end the guerrilla attacks along the Mississippi River with a series of precise retaliations. Then, he had attacked the settlements near the points of these assaults, destroying property and insisting that the local populace either was the guilty party or, at the least, was aiding the attackers. Next ,he increased the area of his retaliation to encompass not only the immediate vicinity of the harassment but some miles around the place, still searching for partisans and their supporters. Now Sherman attempted to render an entire region thoroughly and systematically unusable to the Confederate army and the guerrillas.
In all of these actions except one, Sherman took great care not to disturb nonmilitarily significant private property of those not directly involved in the war. In Jackson, he had changed his view concerning private citizens and their property. Sherman now felt he had to attack a larger, more encompassing area of the Confederacy, destroying and confiscating both public and private property.
In September 1863, Sherman laid out his emerging philosophy in a long letter to Halleck. He believed that the Federal government should deal with each sector of the population and the rebellion as a whole. In general, he thought that “every member of the nation is bound by natural and constitutional law to ‘maintain and defend the Government against all its opposers whomsoever.’ If they fail to do it they are derelict,” he maintained, “and can be punished or deprived of all advantages arising from the labors of those who do.”
He contended that the United States and its representatives had the right to “remove and destroy every obstacle—if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper…[and] that all who do not aid are enemies, and we will not account to them for our acts.” This last line was reminiscent of his statement in August 1862, when he had warned that those who resided in the areas near partisan troop action were “accessories by their presence and inactivity to prevent murders and destruction of property.”
He summed up his new attitude in one line when he wrote to his brother near the end of December 1863: “The Army of the Confederacy is the South.” This time, however, he meant all Southern residents, not just those living close to guerrilla activity. Sherman would continue to issue orders in an attempt to keep his troops from outright pillaging as they marched through the South, but the private property of Southern civilians was now in peril of Federal confiscation or destruction if deemed profitable for Confederate use—or useful to the Union.
As 1864 began, Sherman continued to grapple with the guerrillas who unrelentingly attacked locations along the Mississippi River. While in eastern Tennessee he sent Brigadier General Grenville Dodge on a mission to “hunt the pests that infest our country. Show them no mercy and if the people don’t suppress guerrillas, tell them your orders are to treat the community as enemies.”
In January, while on a trip down the Mississippi to investigate another river attack, he heatedly wrote: “For every bullet shot at a steamboat, I would shoot a thousand [cannons into every] hapless town on Red, Ouachita, Yazoo [Rivers], or wherever a boat can float or soldiers march.” Four days later he ordered Brigadier General A.J. Smith to western Tennessee from Columbus, Kentucky, in preparation for the approaching Meridian expedition with orders to “punish the country for permitting the guerrillas among them. Take freely the [supplies and animals] of the hostile and indifferent inhabitants,” and inform them that if “they permit their country to be used by the public enemy they must bear the expense of the troops sent to expel them.”
Sherman also worried that Richmond had designs on wrestling control of the Mississippi River away from the Union army and reuniting the severed pieces of the Confederacy, undoing all that the Union army had accomplished in the previous months. He had heard news about the reconcentration of Confederate forces in the Magnolia State and had become intent on ridding Mississippi of enemy forces before his expected spring campaign eastward into Georgia. A great number of the thirty thousand paroled troops from Vicksburg had entered into partisan and regular service throughout the state, enhancing the number of enemy troops already there.
“To secure the safety of the navigation of the Mississippi River I would slay millions,” he declared. “On that point I am not only insane, but mad.”
Sherman intended to cut Mississippi from the eastern section of the Confederacy, much like Grant had isolated the Trans-Mississippi with his own victory at Vicksburg and General Nathaniel Banks’ capture of Port Hudson. To free up thousands of garrisoning troops along the Mississippi, discourage guerrilla raids, and remove valuable military resources from Confederate grasp, Sherman would burn, confiscate, and destroy corn, hams, railroads, depots, warehouses, and any other items that might aid the enemy’s cause.
By these actions, Sherman also hoped to dishearten Mississippians, who had already shown signs that they were becoming unhappy with the war. In the latter part of 1863, Sherman had learned about a series of town meetings and petitions all across the state “to consider the question of abandoning the Confederacy.” Although he had initially dismissed the reports as nonsense, he still believed that some in the region were growing tired of the conflict. If not, he intended to persuade them into feeling that way.
Sherman had lived happily in the South and had made numerous close and lasting friendships there. He believed that it was better to attack and destroy materiel than citizens. He planned to travel across the state, punishing the population for aiding the bushwhackers, tearing up railroads, confiscating and destroying corn and other supplies, and crippling the enemy’s ability and will to fight. His goals was apparently to break the Confederate will without serious loss of life to either side.
If successful in Mississippi, Sherman would intensify his activities, saving lives while simultaneously obtaining effective results. The Meridian Campaign, therefore, would act as the final dress rehearsal in Sherman’s evolution of a new philosophy of prosecuting war.
On the eve of his foray into Mississippi, Sherman sent a lengthy announcement to Major R.M. Sawyer in Alabama and instructed him to read the message to the civilians there “so as to prepare them for my coming.” He wrote that in European conflicts, from which the United States had obtained its principles of war, the people had remained neutral and had been free to sell their goods to either combatant. Therefore, he concluded, “the rule was and is, that wars are confined to the armies and should not visit the homes of families or private interests.”
However, in Ireland when the English occupied the land to end a revolt, they had driven citizens from their native lands and brought in a new group of inhabitants. Sherman contended that the American conflict was a similar situation. He argued, therefore, that since the Southern population’s “provisions, forage, horses, mules, [and] wagons” went to the enemy’s army, “it [was] clearly our duty and right to take them, because otherwise they might be used against us.”
He warned that if any noncombatant should create chaos or communicate with hostile parties, the Union army would arrest, banish, and punish the guilty party: “The Government of the United States has ‘any and all rights which they choose to enforce in war—to take lives, their homes, their lands, their everything.’” The South had “appealed to war,” Sherman cautioned, “and must abide by its rules and laws.
“Satan and the rebellious saints of Heaven were allowed continuance of existence in Hell, merely to [feel] their just punishment. To such as would rebel against a Government so mild and just as ours was in Peace, a punishment equal would not be unjust,” he declared. The citizens of Mississippi were about to feel the impact of the Sherman of 1864 who believed in destructive war, not the one of 1861 who had gone to great lengths to protect all private property within his lines.
The Meridian Campaign was the next step in Sherman’s evolving attitude toward the prosecution of war. The expedition demonstrated to Sherman and other Federal commanders how to conduct “hard war” successfully. Its importance rested more in its impact on Sherman’s evolving policy toward Southern civilians and the Union strategy to win the war than on immediate military ramifications in Mississippi.
Sherman had undergone a complete change of attitude toward the Southern populace and about the army’s independence from secure supply and communication lines. His dealings with guerrillas in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi had hardened his resolve toward nonbelligerents. His experience with Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign had given him the confidence to strike at those who supported the partisan factions deep within their territory without fear of his troops starving for want of goods. Sherman could support his own armies with his enemy’s assets.
He had come to believe that the best way to end the war was to strike mightily at the enemy’s resources, rendering them useless for the further prosecution of the war. These experiences, and what he learned along the muddy roads from Vicksburg to Meridian, would allow him to wreak more havoc on an enemy population’s supplies and psyche than any other general in the Civil War had done previously—and earn lasting immortality for it.
Buck T. Foster is a college professor in Mississippi. This story is adapted from his book Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign (University of Alabama Press, 2006).
This article was written by Buck T. Foster and originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of MHQ Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ magazine today!