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*. 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, ante-bellum, was
actually a failed business owner and music teacher. He was born to
Scot-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 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.
*The battle is featured in the
Summer 2010 issue of the Civil War Preservation Trust’s Hallowed
Brown, Dee. 1962.Grierson's Raid: A Cavalry Adventure of the Civil War. 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.
Benjamin H. Grierson