By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2010, All Rights Reserved
After again watching the 1959 film The Horse Soldiers, I decided to revisit Grierson’s Raid. The movie starred John Wayne (as a stand-in for Col. Benjamin Grierson) and William Holden as the surgeon assigned to his brigade for the raid. John Ford directed. Unfortunately, the film veered considerably from the actual raid. It was based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Harold Sinclair. The film included: conflicts between Wayne and Holden over the latter’s medical practices, a love/hate relationship between Wayne (a self-described railroad builder) and a southern belle and plantation owner, a fictional battle at the Newton Station railhead, and another fictional battle based on a caricature of that of New Market, Virginia (May 15, 1864) involving young VMI cadets. (This battle is featured in the Summer 2010 issue of the Civil War Preservation Trust’s Hallowed Ground magazine.) Presumably, these were included for audience appeal. The movie did contain at least some of the actual elements of the incredible Grierson raid.
Ben Grierson, antebellum, was actually a failed business owner and music teacher. He was born to Scotch-Irish immigrants near Pittsburgh. His family then moved to Youngstown, Ohio, where he met his future wife Alice (with whom he had seven children). Grierson and his family moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, where his friendship with the state’s wartime governor led to his being appointed colonel of the volunteer 6th Illinois Cavalry. Ironically, Grierson had been afraid of horses after a near fatal accident while he was eight years old. In 1862, he was promoted to a cavalry brigade commander attached to the XVI Corps of the Army of the Tennessee.
As Ulysses Grant planned his final attempt to capture Vicksburg, the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, he needed a diversion to deflect attention to his risky crossing of the river below the city. He and William Tecumseh Sherman chose Grierson to lead a raid into the heart of Mississippi to destroy the key railhead at Newton Station that supplied John Pemberton’s army defending Vicksburg. Grierson led three regiments – his own and the 7th Illinois and 2nd Iowa comprising 1,700 troopers and a horse battery. In sixteen days (April 17-May 2, 1863), Grierson’s force marched 600 miles, disabled parts of two key railroads, captured and paroled around 600 Confederates, and destroyed many war supplies. Grierson lost only 3 killed, 7 wounded, and 16 captured during this epic raid. Despite being pursued on all fronts by thousands of Confederates, what makes this story truly amazing is that Grierson outwitted and outrode his pursuers to emerge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to the surprise of its occupying Federal garrison. Grierson’s ragged, weary force rode into the city, trailed by hundreds of fleeing slaves, to be greeted by the cheers of the residents and serenaded by music played by Union army bands.
How did Grierson achieve this amazing feat, which indeed diverted Pemberton’s attention from Grant’s army’s unopposed landing at Bruinsburg on day fourteen of the raid? He used deception and speed (averaging over 30 miles daily) to elude his pursuers. He first sent a couple of hundred unfit troopers (called the “Quinine Brigade”) back to his starting point at LaGrange, Tennessee (near Memphis) on the fourth day, misleading Confederate cavalry into thinking the raid was short-lived. The next day, he also sent the 2nd Iowa back to further convince the Confederates that his force was returning to its base. The Iowans successfully fought their way back north. Left with only 900 men, Grierson then headed toward his main objective. With his “Butternut Guerillas” (his scouts disguised as Confederates) in the lead, Grierson’s troops lived off the land of necessity after a few days. They “exchanged” their tired mounts for fresh Southern horses. Riding through rain, swamps, and dismayed Mississippians, Grierson’s men had faith in their commander’s ability not only to achieve his objective, but also to somehow find an escape route. Grierson reached Newton Station on day eight and disabled the railhead and destroyed two arriving trains. He then decided that it would be impossible to retrace his route. Instead, he hoped to reach Grant’s army at Grand Gulf. When this proved impossible, he instead headed to Baton Rouge, trying to avoid fighting his pursuers. Burning bridges behind him, Grierson crossed three rivers and successfully eluded forces sent from Vicksburg and Port Hudson to block his escape once a befuddled Pemberton finally realized that Grierson was headed to Louisiana rather than returning to Tennessee.
Perhaps the most dramatic of many episodes during this ride occurred when the missing Company B of the 7th Illinois rejoined the raiding party just before it finished crossing on the Pearl River ferry on day eleven. It had been detached on day six to attack the Mobile and Ohio railroad at Macon. While it failed in this effort when it ran into a large fortified Confederate force at this railhead, it did convince Confederates that Grierson was headed east, when he was actually headed west and then southwest. Grierson’s men captured a Confederate courier just as he was about to warn the ferry keeper of Grierson’s approach. At Wall’s bridge at the crossing of the Tickfaw River on day fifteen, Grierson suffered the loss of the commander of a battalion in the 7th who made a reckless charge across the bridge. This also resulted in the severe wounding of the leader of the Butternut Guerillas, who had to be left behind (but who survived captivity). Grierson’s last close call came at the crossing of the Amite River bridge, when officers of his pursuers from Port Hudson stopped to participate in a cotillion ball in their honor, thereby reaching the destroyed bridge just two hours after Grierson’s departure.
Grierson’s raid not only accomplished Grant’s purpose for launching it, but it demoralized Mississippi’s citizens, given the futility of the pursuit, combined with Joseph Johnston’s failure to relieve Pemberton and the surrender of Vicksburg and Port Hudson and their defenders that summer. Grierson’s command participated in the capture of Port Hudson, and he was promoted to brigadier general. He was temporarily disabled when injured by a horse that he had been given by a New Orleans citizen committee. He went on to distinguish himself as a western cavalry commander, including his encounters with the renowned Nathan Bedford Forrest and another raid through Mississippi in December 1864-January 1865, ending at Vicksburg. After the war, Grierson became the commander in 1866 of the Tenth Cavalry, one of two black cavalry regiments that became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” Grierson led the regiment on the southwest frontier until 1888. Grierson was featured in the 1997 Turner Network Television’s documentary on the Buffalo Soldiers. Grierson retired as a brigadier general in 1890 and completed his Civil War memoirs in 1892. Grierson died in 1911.
Brown, Dee. 1954. Grierson’s Raid. University of Illinois Press.
Dinges, Bruce J. and Shirley A. Lecke, eds. 2008. A Just and Righteous Cause: Benjamin H. Grierson’s Civil War Memoir. Southern Illinois University Press.
Lalicki, Tom. 2004. Grierson’s Raid: A Daring Cavalry Strike Through the Heart of the Confederacy. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
Sinclair, Harold. 1956. The Horse Soldiers. New York: Harper & Brothers.
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