150 Years Ago This Week: Meridian falls and Hunley sinks

February 1864

On Friday, Feb. 12, President Jefferson Davis advised Gen. Joseph Johnston that the Federal advance in Mississippi “should be met before he reaches the Gulf and establishes a base by which supplies and reinforcements may be sent by sea.”

There were no plans in the Union strategy to accomplish what the Confederate leader feared; Maj. Gen William Sherman’s Federal troops were moving east on the important rail center at Meridian while Union cavalry was advancing on Meridian from northern Mississippi, fighting Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry all along the way.

Far out at sea, the Confederate raider CSS Florida left Brest, France, where it had been under repair, and evaded USS Kearsarge which had been on watch. Off the coast at Masonboro Inlet, N.C., USS Florida captured two blockade-runners.

Warfare in Florida was renewed on Feb. 13 when Confederate troops defending the state clashed with Union troops for two days at Pease Creek, in northern Florida. These were the troops under Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore, ordered to move from South Carolina to Jacksonville, Fla. In the Meridian Campaign in Mississippi, Gen. Sherman’s troops approached Meridian from the west, and skirmished with Confederate defenders at Chunky Creek and at the western outreaches of Meridian.

The next day (Feb. 14), Meridian was taken by Gen. Sherman’s troops. “For five days,” Gen. Sherman wrote the War Department, “10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction. Meridian — with its depots, store-houses, arsenals, hospitals, offices, hotels and cantonments — no longer exists.” Some 115 miles of railroad, 61 bridges and 20 irreplaceable locomotives were destroyed in the expedition from Vicksburg. Confederates were concerned that Gen. Sherman’s next destination was Mobile, Ala.

On Feb. 15, in Richmond, President Davis agonized over the possibility that Gen. Sherman’s troops would turn their attention on Mobile. The president was also concerned over supplies of food and other materiel to the armies, and solicited suggestions to remedy defects in logistical arrangements.

Meanwhile, Union troops captured Gainesville, Fla., on their way toward Jacksonville, and moved into Fernandina and King’s Ferry Mills. Fears about the loss of Mobile to the Confederacy were exacerbated on Feb. 16 when Federal ship and shore operations took place around Mobile Bay, including a Union bombardment of Fort Powell. In the far west, the Territory of Washington, Union troops fought against Indians from Fort Walla Walla to the Snake River, starting a five-day campaign.

At 8.45 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 17, a watchman on the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor saw “something in the water” moving at high speed toward the ship. The “something” was the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, and it placed a torpedo on a long spar into the side of the Union vessel. The torpedo exploded, blowing a hole in the side of the ship, killed five U.S. sailors, and sent Housatonic to the bottom of the harbor.

This was the first time in history that a submarine had sunk an enemy ship. Hunley, with its crew of seven, also sank. During previous testings of Hunley, the sub had sunk twice, killing 33 Confederate sailors as well as the sub’s builder (and namesake), H. L. Hunley. Capt. George Dixon and his seven members, including Frank Collins of Fredericksburg, Joseph Ridgaway of Talbot County, Md., James Wicks, Arnold Becker, Charles Carlsen, Charles Lumpkin and Augustus Miller remained entombed in their vessel until the sub was raised in 2000.

The crew’s remains were given a burial with full military honors in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery in April 2004 in a ceremony witnessed by thousands of people, including 4,000 civilians in period attire, 6,000 re-enactors in uniform (including your columnist) and current representatives of the five branches of uniformed U.S. military service.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.