February 1864 saw the start of what was to become one of the most controversial acts of the American Civil War. General Sherman started what was to eventually be known as his ‘March Through Georgia’ – though in this case it was a march on a major railway but with the intention of destroying anything that could be of use to the South once his army had moved on.
February 1st: President Lincoln ordered another 500,000 me to be drafted to serve for three years or for the duration of the war.
February 3rd: Life in the Confederacy became more difficult when on this day Jefferson Davis suspended habeas corpus for those accused of spying, desertion or association with the enemy. Such a move increased Davis’ unpopularity.
Sherman started his march to destroy the Mobile/Ohio railway. His army consisted of 20,000 men. Sherman had by now decided to destroy as much Southern property as he could. When the war started any deliberate attack on civilians was all but unheard of. Now it was to form a specific part of Sherman’s tactics in the South. He believed that by inducing fear and terror, he could bring the war to a swift end. Confronting Sherman’s army was a Confederate force that also numbered 20,000. But they were demoralised, poorly equipped and poorly fed.
February 9th: 109 Union officers escaped from Libby Jail in Richmond. It was the largest escape of its kind during the war. 59 made it back to Union lines, 48 were recaptured and 2 men drowned.
February 14th: Sherman’s army entered Meridian and started to systematically destroy it. Hotels, hospitals and storehouses (once what was in them was removed) were set alight.
February 16th: The Confederates under General Polk made a half-hearted attempt to confront Sherman. However, Sherman was so confident of success that he left half his men – 10,000 – in Meridian to complete their destructive work.
February 17th: Conscription in the South is extended to all white 17 to 50 year olds. Opposition to this was widespread and included the Confederacy’s Vice-President!
February 20th: A Union force of 5,500 men confronted a similar number of Southern troops at Olustree, Florida. The Confederates were successful as the Union troops (many of whom were ‘substitutes’) turned and fled. Many of the Union troops were armed with the new Spencer rifle and nearly 1,600 of these were left behind.
February 24th: Congress agreed to reinstate the rank of lieutenant general. Grant is given this rank and became the supreme military commander of the army, though still answering to the commander-in-chief – Lincoln. The president also agreed to a plan to compensate farmers to the tune of $300 for every slave they allowed to go free and who enlisted in the Union Army.
Jefferson Davis appointed his friend, General Bragg, to have full control of all the South’s military operations. Many senior Confederate officers expressed their opposition to this appointment.
February 28th: The North launched a cavalry attack against Richmond. The idea was to free Union prisoners held at Belle Isle and race back to Union lines. Lincoln considered that such a raid would have enormous propaganda value if it succeeded. It was to go wrong from the start.