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 re- alities 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 U 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 ofthe 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 str...