After the fall of Vicksburg, Meridian had emerged as the next town of strategic value in Mississippi. Meridian's value was based on the railroads that ran through the town. From Meridian, the Confederate army could still disperse troops and supplies to troubled spots in the Confederacy. Like Corinth before it, the railroads now placed Meridian in the crosshairs of William T. Sherman and his new "hard war."
On Feb. 3, 1864, Sherman left Vicksburg en route to Meridian. Sherman planned to use tactics he had observed during Grant's campaign on Vicksburg. Sherman's army would live off the land instead of being burdened by a supply line.
Sherman also planned to move fast, not letting any skirmishes slow his troops' progress. Sherman employed a series of feints designed to confuse his Confederate counterpart Leonidas Polk. Meanwhile, demonstrations at Mobile kept reinforcements in Alabama and not at Meridian. Polk was confused where Sherman intended to strike until it was too late. Joseph E. Johnston, as far away as Dalton, Ga., thought his army could be the target.
Sherman called his confusion tactic, "putting the enemy on the horns of a dilemma." This was a tactic in which Grant excelled during the Vicksburg campaign. Now, it was Sherman's turn to confuse his counterpart.
On Feb. 14, 1864, Sherman arrived at Meridian after facing some resistance outside of town. Polk had surmised Sherman's intent was Mobile and not Meridian but retreated to Demopolis, Ala., anyway. Polk planned to attack the rear of Sherman's army as it marched south to Mobile.
Instead, Sherman stayed in Meridian waiting on William Sooy Smith who was marching from Memphis through northeast Mississippi farm country. Smith's progress was slowed by stops to destroy bridges and eventually by a clash with Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry.
Sherman gave his troops a day to rest from their hard march, continuing to wait on Smith's arrival. On Feb. 16, 1864, Sherman ordered his soldiers to wipe Meridian off the map. During his march to Meridian, Sherman had instructed his soldiers to "do the enemy as much damage as possible."
Of particular interest was the Mobile and Ohio Railroad running north to south and the Jackson and Selma Railroad running west and east. The Federals destroyed 115 miles of railroad, 61 bridges, 20 locomotives, 28 steam cars and three steam-powered sawmills.
With Meridian and the surrounding area sufficiently destroyed, Sherman returned to Vicksburg. In his report, Sherman wrote, "Meridian, with its depots, Store-houses, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels and cantonments no longer exist."
Although the Meridian campaign receives little attention, it is easy to see such a campaign was a precursor to the destruction that Sherman would deliver during his Atlanta campaign and March to the Sea.
Shelby Foote called Sherman's Meridian campaign "something of a warm-up, a practice operation in this regard" for what Sherman would execute on a much grander scale in Georgia and the Carolinas.