Tracking Sherman through Newton County
By Ricky Harrison
Part 1 – Eastern Half From Decatur to the Lauderdale County Line
In February of 1864, General William T. Sherman of the Union forces cut a path through the heart of Newton County that has long been remembered and discussed by many to this date. As a lifelong resident of Newton County, I also heard the many accounts handed down from generation to generation about the devastation caused by Sherman’s army. There have been many accounts of different camp sites and the route taken by the Union forces. The stories of General Sherman spending the night at a particular house, or the known campsites have been handed down since 1864. Some have told of Sherman setting camp for some three to four days at certain locations in the county or his army occupying a homestead for several days in a particular community. Having heard the many stories of this time during the Civil War, I became more and more intrigued by the facts of the Meridian Expedition as it related to Newton County. My desire was to know precisely as possible the true route and time frame of General Sherman’s march through Newton County. My intention in this writing is to relate the facts discovered about the expedition and not in anyway to discredit traditions or legends handed down from generation to generation.
Special Project Fall 2005
The Special Project Class of the fall of 2005 will be remembered by the Drafting students for a long time. The task set before the group of students was to retrace Sherman’s march through Newton County, beginning at Decatur and ending at the Lauderdale County line. This area of the county was chosen by me, since I live in this area and am more familiar with the roads and the local residents. The group of students consisted of Brook Winstead, Scott Dooley, Laura Foreman, Chris Ryals, Kim Smitherman, Pierre Barlow, and Jacques Jones. A special assistant in charge of research was NCGHS member Mrs. Jo Blackburn.
This class has one of those “TBA” time slots on the official class schedule. This meant I could schedule to go as much and whenever the time was available. The initial meetings were held each Friday morning at 8:00 with a discussion on the strategies of our research. The students began to realize what a major event this was in the history of Newton County. With each session became an appreciation of what took place during the month of February of 1864.
The focus was on Sherman’s initial expedition to Meridian. A serious amount of research was needed to obtain the goal set forth in this class. Some of the different means of research used included original land patents, land deeds, genealogy records, various maps, personal memoirs, diaries, books and the official records of the Civil War. Each student was assigned an area of research as well as a different task to perform for the presentation. With the help of Mrs. Blackburn, the students began to understand the importance of in-depth research. My assignment was to coordinate the overall project and give a presentation to the Newton County Historical and Genealogical Society.
The class used many different kinds of research during this particular project that led us to draw certain conclusions. The initial research began with study of a Civil War map (plate 51) found in the The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War , a copy of which is in NCHGS Archives. This map was drawn by Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, engineer of the Fifth Ohio Battery.
During the months of November and December of 1863 Captain Hickenlooper was commissioned by General Sherman to draw a map of the area from Vicksburg to the Tombigbee River in Alabama. In January of 1864 Hickenlooper presented to Sherman three copies of the map. This is a large scale map; however, the intended route for the Meridian Expedition was drawn in bold. Along the route many of the homesteads were named. It is uncertain if some corrections may have taken place after the expedition or if the itinerary shown on the original drawings depicted exactly what happened.
General Sherman was the master mind behind this expedition and laid out the plans in early January of 1864. He had planned on certain dates to be at exact locations and an arrival time at Meridian not to exceed a particular date. This map was most helpful because Hickenlooper had included Township and Range lines on the map. Some roads were shown as well as creeks and rivers. The area we concentrated on was the bold line indicating the route of Sherman’s army. The students, along with Mrs. Blackburn, began to research the original land patents along the route as shown on the map and determined some land owners. Land deeds and testimonies from some ancestries of families listed helped to locate some old house sites.
The first homestead shown was “Jones.”. Mr. Kenneth Jones of Decatur directed us to the Jim Jones house site. The house had been torn down some years ago, however many remnants of the house are still visible. I found this to be fascinating because of my relationship to the Jones family. Jim Jones was my father’s (Charlie Harrison) and Kenneth Jones’s Great Grandfather and my Great Great Grandfather. It is believed by some handed-down stories that Sherman actually came by this house on the Decatur-Meridian Road. The students and I had an opportunity to go to the house site and search for anything that may have been a help in determining the location of the road. We found several house articles buried in the ground and the old well was found. This is why the map was so helpful because of the names of families. Later I will discuss more about the house sites and the map.
The most accurate information we found was in the book Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign: The Meridian Expedition by Margie Riddle Bearss. This book gives an excellent account of the entire Meridian Expedition. Most of Mrs. Bearss’ information came from the War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. The entire collection of 73 volumes, 128 parts, can be found at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History in Jackson. The Official Records gave information concerning dates and times of each Division of Army as well as any notes, messages, or orders handed down by the officers. The students researched the different volumes for any information about the Meridian Expedition and made copies of all pages that referred to anywhere in Newton County. Most of the references were found in Series 1, Volume 32, Part 1, 2, and 3 under the title of “Forrest’s Expedition”. Anyone with some time that enjoys reading would be encouraged to research this collection of books at the Archives or they can be found on the internet at http://ehistory.osu.edu/uscw/library.
Some other resources of information included Sherman’s Memoirs and diaries of some of the soldiers of the two sides. This information was scarce and hard to find. Sherman’s Memoirs discussed a lot about his stay in Decatur and his exit through Newton County into Meridian. Some soldiers mentioned in their diaries churches passed by and almost all made mention of creeks and streams they forded or built temporary bridges across.
One of the main concerns for Sherman on this expedition was the food and water. Many homes and fences across Mississippi were burned and all the stored food for the winter was taken for the army. Any horses or mules of value were taken to supply the armies. As mentioned in some writings at the Archives, most cotton gins were burned, as was all the stored cotton. Foraging was rampant as Sherman’s army cut through Newton County taking what they wanted and leaving homes in smoky ruins. It was part of Sherman’s game plan not only to destroy every physical structure in his path, but to destroy the will of the people to want more war.
It was obvious that for us to locate the roads we must have some county maps. I was able to obtain a jpeg file of a 1915 United States Geological Survey Soils Map at the Archives. This map proved to be invaluable. Through careful research of the map we determined the accuracy of this 1915 map to be mind-boggling. How the USGS was able to construct a map like this in 1915 is astonishing to me. The map not only included roads but old schools as well as stores. Most communities had a school as well as a store.
The 1915 map is divided into sections, townships and ranges which made the transformation into today’s map much easier. Primary roads and secondary roads were shown on the map. The secondary roads were wagon trails that were no longer the primary road but maybe the first roads in the county. The road that is frequently referred to in the Official Records is the Decatur to Meridian Road. Through research of the map and land deeds that referenced this particular road, we could easily see indications of the old Decatur to Meridian Road. Many afternoons were spent in the woods of east Newton County walking and four-wheeling along what appears to be only log roads. Taking some 100 GPS shots along the way and plotting those points on different maps the Decatur to Meridian Road began to take shape.
The plotted road closely resembles the route drawn by Andrew Hickenlooper in 1863. This became exciting to see how the army moved through Newton County. It is obvious that the wagons, supplies, and most of the foot soldiers used this same road. All along this route were the foraging parties that ventured off the main road left and right and into the communities looking for hams, bacon, molasses and any other supplies they could use. Many accounts of the army passing by this house or by this church are factual recollections of our ancestors that indicate how huge and devastating Sherman’s army was.
The Decatur to Meridian Road is approximately 12 miles in length across eastern Newton County. With snake boots and a careful eye I was fortunate enough to traverse some 10 of the 12 miles either on foot or by four-wheeler. Some stretches of the road located in the swampy areas are not visible today; however, most of the road can be followed by the deep cuts and ruts. The road runs in a near easterly direction beginning in Decatur and passing by the Jones house and heading toward the Rev. N. L. Clarke house. It is believed that the Clarke house is located near the home of Jobie Savell on the Good Hope – Decatur Road.
According to Hickenlooper’s map, after passing the Clarke house the road made a sharp southeasterly turn somewhere around the present-day Vincent Road; then following the Vincent road approximately one mile and turning east into the Chunky Creek swamp. This area is the most remote of all the areas and the most difficult to follow. I found the road to be passable as far as the Chunky Canal. There I found that the after many years of flooding has washed or covered the old road bed. The road was again found to cross the Barnett road again running in a more northeasterly direction. This area of the county is the early settlement of the Reynolds and Johnson families. An old house site was found very near the road, and the best of my knowledge is likely was at one time a Reynolds or Johnson residence. Land deeds give indications of the Reynolds, Johnson and Pollock living in this area. The Johnson family cemetery located a ¼ mile south of the old road bed.
From this location an interesting discovery was made. Another old road was found running northeasterly toward the Roscoe and Beulah communities. This road was probably the first Enterprise to Philadelphia Road. This road name has been found on several land deeds in this area. I traced this road some four miles north ending at the site of old Enon Church. This road continued on to Shealy then to Riversville and into Neshoba County through the present day community of Greenland.
The Decatur to Meridian road continues easterly and crosses the Hickory-Little Rock Road north of the Oakland community, close to the old Afro-American settlement of Blalocks. The original road turns southeasterly and crosses the Garrison road before heading into Tallasher swamp.
The most beautiful area of the road I found was the Tallasher Creek crossing. The ford is still visible and useable today and the creek is solid rock bottom for some 30 yards. The road heads into the swamp running east and then turning north for a distance before turning back east and moving toward Center Ridge Road. The road crosses the Center Ridge Road on a high hill and runs the crest of the hills for approximately two miles by the Trussell plantation toward the old Center Ridge School. It is in this area that the army began to make camps. The road follows the Culpepper road for ¼ mile and turns southeasterly and across the Chunky-Duffee Road then to Tallahatta Creek. In this area is where the army began to make a corral for the wagons.
The corral was occupied for almost a week while part of the army continued into Suqualena and Meridian. The corral was the hub of activity. The army used the corral as a base camp. The soldiers would leave the camp and go into Chunky or Enterprise and destroy railroads and buildings. Several skirmishes occurred in Chunky, Enterprise and areas south of Meridian.
Many history buffs have inquired about the true location of the wagon corral. I am confident that the general location of the wagon corral is known to myself, but out of respect for the land owner’s rights the exact setting shall not be disclosed.
For those interested, the Decatur-Meridian road continues into Lauderdale County scaling the Tallahatta Hills and passing though Suqualena and into Meridian. A map of the Decatur-Meridian road is on display at the Newton County Historical and Genealogical Society Building in Decatur. I would suggest that anyone trying to follow the old road obtain permission from land owners and have some guidance. It’s an extremely rough terrain with dangerous areas and one could become lost without the knowledge of the land.
Where is General Sherman?
During the research much debate took place concerning the position of the armies and the whereabouts of General Sherman. General Sherman’s army consisted of two divisions of troops, the 4th Sixteenth Army Corps commanded by Major General Hurlbut and the 3rd Seventeenth Army Corps commanded by Major General McPherson. The Seventeenth Army Corps led the charge through Newton County. They entered the county on February 11, 1864 and camped near Conehatta Creek. The next day this group passed through Decatur and burned most of the town and continued that day to camp along the Chunky Creek. General McPherson’s Seventeeth Army Corps was not far behind and entered Decatur on the night of February 12th. One diary states that they made camp and watched the town of Decatur burn that night. On February 13th Hurlbut’s men moved on toward Meridian crossing the Tallasher Creek at 2 p.m. and the Tallahatta Creek at 6 p.m. and made camp along the Bogue Filliah Creek in Lauderdale County. McPherson’s men moved all on the 13th and camped at the wagon corral. His men built a new bridge across the Tallahatta Creek on the 13th and commenced moving toward Meridian on the morning of the 14th. Most creek bridges had to be re-built due to the work of the Confederates under the command of Major General Stephen D. Lee. His forces of some 2,000 men parallel the Union advances through Newton County cutting trees across the roads and destroying bridges to slow the Union advance.
This brings us to the Major General Sherman. All the details given concerning dates and times are taken from the Official Records. General Sherman entered Newton County on February 11th and camped near Conehatta Creek, but only after major problems in crossing Tuscalameta Creek near the Scott County line. Sherman had the 4th Illinois Cavalry riding along as an escort to secure the pathway through Newton County. The Confederates were moving through the more remote areas along side the Union forces. The threat of ambush was always present and was constantly on the mind of the Union officers.
Sherman entered Decatur on February 12th and took lodge for the night. He had been riding with Hurlbut’s column that had just entered Decatur. Sherman sent orders for the 16th Army Corps to move on to Chunky Creek and camp for the night. McPherson’s 17th Corps was still 4 miles west of Decatur. Sherman detached one of the regiments of the 16th Corps to guard the crossroads at Decatur until the 17th Corps came into sight. Sherman had made arrangements with a woman in Decatur to spend the night in her log house and to provide him supper.
The trip was beginning to take it toll on Sherman, especially the crossing of Tuscalameta and Conehatta swamps. According to his Memoirs, he went to sleep with ease but was awakened by the sound of shouting and gun fire. Sherman had been attacked by Rebel cavalry. It sounded if he was surrounded. Sherman headed to the back yard to take refuge in a corncrib; however, some of Sherman’s officers and staff came to the rescue and drove the Rebels away. Sherman had narrowly escaped being killed in Decatur. What a turn of events in the war had he been captured in Decatur!
This near capture got Sherman’s attention as he rode all day on the 13th. He was not comfortable traveling along the narrow roads in the hills of eastern Newton County. Too many Rebels were in hiding waiting for a sniper shot at a blue coat. Upon arriving at the wagon corral Sherman stopped for a brief period of time. He continued to ride on the 13th and entered Lauderdale County some time that night. While stopped in the woods, Sherman sent General Hurlbut a message to move on toward Meridian the next day. Sherman entered Meridian at the Matthews place on February 14th and began to burn and destroy all railroads and supply buildings.
Many things can be said about Sherman and his army’s raid through Newton County. There are a lot of facts and a lot of information not known and some are left to the reader to interpret. What the class tried to do was assemble as much information as possible and give the best account of what actually happened during February of 1864. The efforts of this class will hopefully provide information for readers to study and piece together the events of the Civil War in Newton County. I cannot say enough or express in words my gratitude to Jo Blackburn and the class for the hard and determined work on this project.
It is a part of Newton County history and hopefully this report will be enjoyed by all.
The western half of Newton County is in the research stage at the time of this writing.
Tuscalameta Creek Crossing Near Scott County Line
Part 2 – Western Half From Scott County Line to Decatur
It’s taken three years, but we finally have concluded a study of General Sherman’s march through Newton County. We completed the eastern half in the fall of 2005 and have now completed the western half in the fall of 2008. It is obvious from the records that Sherman moved much faster through Newton County than we did with this project, but we wanted to be as precise in our research as possible.
The Meridian Expedition
For those who are not familiar with this project I will re-hash some of the details and facts about what took place in February of 1864 in Newton County.
After taking control of the Mississippi River and Vicksburg the Union Army, under the leadership of General Ulysses S. Grant, held the Confederacy in a defenseless position, especially the heart of Mississippi. General Grant summoned General William T. Sherman to lead an expedition through central Mississippi beginning at Vicksburg and ending at Demopolis Alabama, if necessary.
The Meridian Expedition had at least two goals. The main goal was to cripple the railway system running east and west through Mississippi and to destroy the many warehouses in Meridian. A second goal was to discourage Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest from attacking Union forces in Mississippi. Sherman had also determined that the only way to win the war was to wreck enough havoc on the civilian population that they no longer wished to fight. Sherman was also in the preplanning stage of the March to the Sea, I. e. Atlanta, to take place later in 1864.
Sherman had gathered at least 32,000 men for the Meridian Expedition, this amount of men demanding a large amount of food and supplies. He asked the men to pack light and take only enough food for three days with this trip taking a minimum pf fourteen days to complete.
Foraging was an essential part of the march. Foraging is the act of taking food for an individual’s survival. This was commonplace during the Meridian Expedition leaving those in his path with nothing once the army passed through. Could his army survive a two week journey with small rations? By the time Sherman had reached Newton County his resources were strained, and after crossing Conehatta Creek on his way to Decatur, he ordered the troops placed on half-rations.
When this project began its intent was to determine a timeline of Sherman’s army through Newton County and as closely as possible locate the route that his army took. In the fall of 2005 the Special Project class at East Central Community College’s Drafting and Design program embarked on the task of tracing Sherman’s path. Because of the size of Newton County we made the decision to split the county in half, beginning with the eastern half and concluding with the western half. The eastern half was much easier for me because my entire life has been spent in the hills and hollers of this part of the county. The western half did present some challenges for us just as it did for Sherman. With the expert help of Jo Blackburn and others from the western half of the county we were able to make some determinations about what took place. Without Jo’s tireless efforts much of this would not have been possible, I along with NCHGS am indebted to Jo for her many hours of research. The project had excellent help from students as well, among these Kathy Harrison who spent several hours in research and documentation of records. Several other students made the field trips in search of lost history..
Students were involved in the map making and plotting of GPS points found along the road. Once again we made use of Captain Andrew Hickenlooper’s Civil War map found in the The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, (plate 51) a copy of which is in the NCHGS Archives and for which a copy has been reproduced on the back cover of this edition of Remembering. Captain Andrew Hickenlooper was an engineer of the Fifth Ohio Battery. The class also used the 1915 USGS Soils map to locate the older roads in the western half of Newton County, and it is obvious from this comparison that the roads have not changed much since the early days of travel. Margie Riddle Bearss’ Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign –: The Meridian Expedition provided valuable information to follow the path of the Union and Confederate Armies. Most of our references came from research in the War of Rebellion: Official Records of The Union and Confederate Armies. The entire collection of 73 volumes, 128 parts, can be found at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History in Jackson or can they can be accessed through the internet at http://ehistory.osu.edu/uscw/library. Some other sources included Sherman’s Memoirs and diaries of the some of the soldiers.
Union spies had been sent throughout east Mississippi prior to Sherman’s march, all with the assignment to record the location of major roads and residents along this route. HIckenlooper’s map in a product of their findings and serves today as a modern tool to discern the exact route and the people who lived on this route.
Sherman’s March to Decatur
On the morning of February 11, 1864 the XVI Corps, led by Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, entered Newton County at the Tuscalameta Creek. They found the bridge had been burned by Confederate forces prior to they arrival. The roads were poor, to say the least, especially at this time of year. The weather was cold and most of Tuscalameta swamp had to be corduroyed ahead of the marching soldiers. Tuscalameta Creek has since been channeled and moved from the original location to a location further east.
We spent several hours looking in the swamp area for the road and located the Hillsborough to Decatur road to be north of the present day road. Due to the many years of flooding and other changes the evidence of the road ended just before entering the old creek run. The weather was bitterly cold during this time of the march and made matters worst for the foot solders. A careless act by one soldier from XVI Corps left the woods on fire and the XVII Corps had to pass through this raging inferno as they broke camp to move toward Decatur. Furthermore, they had to pass through the same muddy quagmire as Hurlbut’s troops had traveled.
After Tuscalameta came Box Creek and then Conehatta Creek and swamp. According to Hickenlooper’s map the roads through Tuscalameta and Box Creek into Conehatta are very close to the roads today. Several roads led out of Conehatta going to places such as Lake Station, Union and Pinckney. One of the interesting finds in Conehatta is the Union Ridge Cemetery located just off of Highway 489.
It appears that the bridge crossing on Conehatta Creek was very close to the present-day road, but the old road veers to the northwest along a ridge line and through Chad Morrow’s property. At the top of this ridge the Hillsborough to Decatur road forked with the south fork leading into Conehatta and Hillsborough and the north fork leading into Pinckney and Union.
Old Creek Run, Tuscalameta Creek
The Confederate forces were vastly out-numbered. Rather than stand and fight, they used hit-and-run ambushes on unsuspecting Union troops. They also destroyed roads and burned bridges in their retreat. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers quickly restored these roads and bridges using materials at hand. The timber (shown above and below, photos courtesy of Wilburt Easom) was fashioned on the spot as part of the Conehatta Bridge crossing. This timber was located and retrieved by Wilburt Easom during a drought phase of the creek’s flow.
After struggling most of the day in the swamps General Sherman sat down on the night of February 11th after crossing the Conehatta swamp and penned a special order that was to take place on February 13th. I. The order stated that each regiment would be allowed two wagons-one for cartridges and one for bread and cooking utensils and two ambulances. II. The army would further be reduced by all men who were sick and unable to march. III. The wagons and escorts thus detached would follow behind the army as far as Chunky River and there await orders. It is evident that Sherman was growing weary of the march at this time. From his memoirs it shows he nervously wanted to reach his destination of Meridian soon.
Trace of Old Road—Chad Morrow’s property
The Decatur – Hillsborough Road ran easterly from the hill at Weaver’s store toward Decatur almost exactly along the present day road with one major deviation. The road made a northeasterly turn behind land owned by Billy May and came close to Crossroads Church, then veered back to the southeast leading toward The Reed Break Plantation owned by Alexander Russell.
The Russell House was spared and will continue to be a topic of discussion as far as the Civil War in Newton County is concerned. Records show that the house did exist during the Meridian Expedition and that Alexander Russell owned a large amount of land in this area, as well as town lots in Decatur. This topic is under study and an article on this particular house and family should be published at a later date.
NCHGS members visit Russell House in November 2007. Picture courtesy of Bill Graham
Around noon on the 12th of February Smith’s Division of the XVI Corps entered Decatur and began to make camp just east of Decatur. The entrance into Decatur was along the present day Conehatta – Decatur Road; however, I am confident that almost all roads leading into Decatur had Union troops along the way foraging for food. According to Sherman’s records he was in Decatur on February 12th and made arrangements with a lady to stay the night in a double log house. The lady was to furnish Sherman and his aides with supper. This is where the war could have taken a bizarre turn. Sherman was awakened by shouting and hallooing and then heard pistol shots close to the house. The house was being attacked by Confederate cavalry. The XVI and XVII Corps left the crossroads un-guarded and almost cost Sherman his life and could have made some interesting changes in the war. After hearing the gunfire and rushing back into town, some of McPherson’s column pushed the cavalry out of town and Sherman escaped into the back yard in a corn crib and was safe. What an event had this been the place where General William T. Sherman had been captured or even killed? The folks in Atlanta would have only wished this could somehow have happened.
House in Decatur where Sherman stayed, the current location a vacant lot next to Decatur Telephone Company. Photo courtesy of Jo Munn Blackburn.
So much can be said and has been said about the events surrounding the Meridian Expedition. I for one am indebted to the many people who have contributed to the research on this project. Our goal has been to simply acquire and accurately present as much of the facts about the expedition as possible. My desire is that all of you who have heard the presentations and taken the tours have enjoyed them and in a small way have taken a step back into the early days of Newton County history. I’m not sure where we go from here, however with the rich history we have I am confident that more doors will be opened and new areas will be sought after and explored.
 Major George B. Davis, et al, The Official Military Atlas of The Civil War, New York: Fairfax Press, 1983.