What is significant for Meridianites pertaining to this date? Not a box of chocolates and a dozen red roses, for sure, but according to documented history, Feb. 14, 1864, was a day of the city’s darkest history.
It was at this time during the American Civil War when Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman raged total war upon the village of Meridian, which had a population of less than 400. The town, incorporated by the State of Mississippi in 1860, possessed an emerging railroad transportation center. At the time, it was the most important asset for all remaining railroads in Mississippi and as well the town held large military stores.
But why total war? Why the rage and hate upon the 400 whose only guilt was a railroad?
It was in September, 1863, that Sherman sent for his wife, Ellen, and their four oldest children. He needed a vacation, a break and now that Vicksburg had fallen (July 4 1863) it seemed the time was right even though typhoid fever raged in the state. When he had been warned about bringing his family into the path of sickness, Sherman had replied, “My camps are clean. There is no danger.”But his son, Willie, had died from the fever and now Sherman was out of his mind. Willie was his favorite child and Sherman had set great hope in his development one day as a soldier.
All he could do was send home the remaining family, plus Willie’s body, which were loaded onto the Atlantic steamboat and sent up river to their home, Cairo, IL. It was a horrific time for the General. But now he must turn his attention to the upcoming campaign, a march across the heart of Mississippi. And many believe by his changed actions, his concept of war was now “total war.” The change had only begun the months following Willie’s death. The revenge for his son’s death had begun.
And now on Feb. 14, 1864, the near-mad general found himself deep in boggy terrain and the marshy ground of central Mississippi. The XVI Corps broke camp at 6:30 a.m. Rain threatened and it was a foggy, damp morning. Thunder rumbled in the distance. It was to be another day of sloshing through the mud. The Union column traveled along the Meridian Road, advancing south from Suqualena Creek.
By Feb. 13, the Confederates under the command of Gen. Leonidas Polk had moved most of the government property from Meridian. Polk wrote Gen. Maury in Mobile. “My force of 8,500 infantry has fallen back … which includes all of my hospitals, commissary and quartermaster stores. I have dispersed about 100,000 pounds of bacon and about the same amount of flour and wheat.”
The few residents who remained consisted of women, children and the elderly. Most huddled together in the largest homes available. One was a Mrs. Semmes who owned a plantation near Meridian.
It was early evening when they arrived. Several Union soldiers asked for Mrs. Semmes to come to her front gate. When she arrived, they informed her house would be burned within the hour.
Without uttering a word, she immediately fell to her knees in prayer. As she prayed, a strange light could be seen around her head and the soldiers were frightened. They asked her to stand. One of the soldiers informed her that her house would not be burned, but he asked about her prayer.
She said, “I prayed that God’s will be done.”
Sherman’s orders on that fateful day were “Burn and destroy.”
His final report:
The destruction of Meridian and its railroad complex was thorough and methodical. North, south, east, and west demolition teams were sent out. Dozens of regiments moved in a concerted effort to destroy as rapidly as possible the important rail center in Meridian. Meridian no longer exists.
Meridianites, a city that would not die, arm-in-arm, repaired and rebuilt the rails within 21 days.
Feb. 14, 1864, a Valentine’s Day to be remembered as a time when the strength of the people meant survival.
Ref: Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign
Anne B McKee is a Mississippi historian, writer and storyteller. She is listed on the Mississippi Humanities Speakers Bureau and Mississippi Arts Commission’s Performing Artist and Teaching Artist Rosters. See her web site: www.annemckeestoryteller.com.