On this day in 1864, Union General William T. Sherman enters Meridian, Mississippi, during a winter campaign that served as a precursor to Sherman's March to the Sea campaign in Georgia. This often-overlooked Mississippi campaign was the first attempt by the Union at total warfare, a strike aimed not just at military objectives but also at the will of the Southern people.
Sherman launched the campaign from Vicksburg, Mississippi, with the goal of destroying the rail center at Meridian and clearing central Mississippi of Confederate resistance. Sherman believed this would free additional Federal troops that he hoped to use on his planned campaign against Atlanta, Georgia, in the following months.
Sherman led 25,000 troops east from Vicksburg and ordered another 7,000 under General William Sooy Smith to march southeast from Memphis, Tennessee. They planned to meet at Meridian in eastern Mississippi. The Confederates had few troops with which to stop Sherman. General Leonidas Polk had less than 10,000 men to defend the state. Polk retreated from the capital at Jackson as Sherman approached, and some scattered cavalry units could not impede the Yankees' progress. Polk tried to block the roads to Meridian so the Confederates could move as many supplies as possible from the city's warehouses, but Sherman pushed into the city on February 14 in the middle of a torrential rain.
After capturing Meridian, Sherman began to destroy the railroad and storage facilities while he waited for the arrival of Smith. Sherman later wrote: "For five days, 10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction... Meridian, with its depots, storehouses, arsenals, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists." Sherman waited for Smith to arrive, but he never reached Meridian. On February 21, Confederate troops under General Nathan Bedford Forrest waylaid Smith at West Point, Mississippi, and dealt the Federals a resounding defeat. Smith returned to Memphis, and Sherman turned back towards Vicksburg.
Ultimately, Sherman failed to clear Mississippi of Rebels, and the Confederates repaired the rail lines within a month. Sherman did learn how to live off the land, however, and took notes on how to strike a blow against the civilian population of the South. He used that knowledge with devastating results in Georgia later that year.