For two weeks in the spring of 1862, Colonel Benjamin Grierson and 1,700 Union cavalry troopers conducted a raid from Tennessee to Louisiana. It was intended to divert Confederate attention from Ulysses S. Grant’s army crossing the Mississippi River, a maneuver that would set the stage for the Siege of Vicksburg. Led by a former music teacher whose role in the Union cavalry was belied by his hatred of horses, Grierson’s Raid was not only brilliant, but improbably successful. The cavalrymen ripped up railway track, destroyed storehouses, took prisoners, and freed slaves. Colonel Grierson lost only three men through the whole expedition. Rich and detailed, Grierson’s Raid is the definitive work on one of the most astonishing missions of the Civil War’s early days. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Dee Brown including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.
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About the Author
Dorris Alexander “Dee” Brown (1908–2002) was a celebrated author of both fiction and nonfiction, whose classic study Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is widely credited with exposing the systematic destruction of American Indian tribes to a world audience. Brown was born in Louisiana and grew up in Arkansas. He worked as a reporter and a printer before enrolling at Arkansas State Teachers College, where he met his future wife, Sally Stroud. He later earned two degrees in library science, and worked as a librarian while beginning his career as a writer. He went on to research and write more than thirty books, often centered on frontier history or overlooked moments of the Civil War. Brown continued writing until his death in 2002.
Read an Excerpt
By Dee Brown
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
A SOUTH BREEZE WAS BLOWING
At dawn 1,700 cavalrymen were moving south out of the base camp at La Grange, Tennessee, the columns of twos coiling down into the shortleaf pine forests away from the town that had seen no fighting, yet was dying in the backwash of raids and counter-raids of two years of war.
The day was April 17, 1863: the Civil War at midpoint after its darkest winter. "The morning ... was a beautiful one," wrote Sergeant Richard Surby, "with a gentle breeze from the south. The fruit trees were all in full bloom, the gardens were fragrant with the perfume of spring flowers, the birds sang gaily, all of which infused a feeling of admiration and gladness into the hearts of all true lovers of nature."
On that morning, Quartermaster-Sergeant Surby had no certain idea as to where his regiment was riding. Like the other men he had heard the rumors, and in passing them on had enlarged upon them: "We are going on a big scout to Columbus, Mississippi, and play smash with the railroads."
The rumors had been sweeping the base for a week, but the men had got their orders only yesterday: "Oats in the nosebags and five days rations in haversacks, the rations to last ten days. Double rations of salt. Forty rounds of ammunition."
Columbus was about five days' march, the wise troopers had figured, a strong point in the Confederate defense from which General Daniel Ruggles occasionally dispatched annoying rebel raiders on the Union positions along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. Columbus would be a good place to ride in for a strike, destroy supplies, burn a few railroad bridges and gallop back to La Grange. A ten-day holiday from camp drill. The reckoning was good enough. Even the regimental officers might have figured it that close. Perhaps no one except Grierson could have guessed that after ten days they would be ten days out from the headquarters base, deeper into the heart of the Confederacy than any Yankee cavalry had ever penetrated, and virtually surrounded by enemy troops.
Benjamin Henry Grierson, Colonel, Volunteers, was commanding the three cavalry regiments, the Sixth Illinois, the Seventh Illinois, the Second Iowa, and a detachment of Battery K from the First Illinois Artillery, six mounted two-pounder guns—all comprising the First Brigade, First Cavalry Division, Sixteenth Army Corps of Major-General Ulysses S. Grant's Department of the Tennessee. Grierson, like his officers and men, was an amateur soldier, his total experience of war packed into eighteen months of training, skirmishing, and some brief but sharp and bitter fighting.
Only a few days before this morning, he had been assigned the brigade command for a raid into the heart of the western Confederacy. His old regiment, the Sixth, was riding in advance as the brigade moved out past the white homesteads of La Grange, with their once elegant yards of rare and costly shrubbery torn and trampled, the fences gone, the doors ajar, and the houses tenantless, over the road that was, as Captain Henry Forbes wrote of it, "inches and inches deep with the finest and whitest of dust, past a cemetery, the palings torn apart and cast down, the marbles standing in mute reproach, the vines run riot over the ground."
The horsemen, gay in the spring sunshine, passed little fields of scant, half-tilled cotton, and dry ditches filled with beds of white, rippled sand. They crossed Wolf River and moved unchallenged that morning down through the blue hills with their slopes of evergreen pines, across the line from Tennessee into Mississippi.
No written instructions were handed Grierson before he departed; he had received his orders verbally from General William Sooy Smith, commanding the La Grange base, orders which were quite specific in some points and extremely indefinite in others. General Smith told Grierson he would have discretionary power when he passed to the rear of the enemy's lines and lost communications with La Grange. "It would be his duty and privilege to use his own best judgment as to the course it would be safest and best to take."
As casual as this may seem, the orders which set Grierson's brigade into motion had been a long time in the making. Their origin might be traced months back to a day in Washington when President Lincoln sat with Admiral David D. Porter before a map of the Confederacy and said: "See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. Here is Red River, which will supply the Confederates with cattle and corn to feed their armies. There are the Arkansas and White Rivers which can supply cattle and hogs by the thousands. From Vicksburg these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the States of the far South, and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference. Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket."
Admiral Porter then had been appointed commander of the Mississippi gunboat squadron, while General Grant came down from the north with a land army. They hammered away through 1862, but Vicksburg seemed impregnable. Bogged down in the muddy bottomlands west of the Confederacy's Gibraltar, Grant spent the winter laying plans for an 1863 campaign that would either win the war in the west or lose an army.
He believed that his only chance for taking Vicksburg was to move his army behind the city, on the east, but previous efforts to do this had failed because of the strength of the defending armies. But if he could create a diversion in eastern Mississippi to draw off potential reinforcements, if he could cut the rail line to Vicksburg to interrupt supplies and thus throw the Confederates off balance for a few days, he felt that it might be possible to move troops across the Mississippi River and in behind Vicksburg before the defenders could recover.
During 1862 Grierson's cavalry had more than once made a favorable impression upon General Grant, and on February 13 he sent a message from Lake Providence, Louisiana, to General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding the Sixteenth Army Corps, headquarters in Memphis: "It seems to me that Grierson, with about five hundred picked men, might succeed in making his way south, and cut the railroad east of Jackson, Miss. The undertaking would be a hazardous one, but it would pay well if carried out. I do not direct that this shall be done, but leave it for a volunteer enterprise."
Grierson's cavalry was busy during this time pursuing guerillas and partisan rangers in Tennessee, but Grant meanwhile continued to develop his plan for a diversionary cavalry raid to precede his land movement against Vicksburg. He sent another message to Hurlbut on March 9: "I look upon Grierson as being much better qualified to command this expedition than either Lee or Mizner. I do not dictate, however, who shall be sent. The date when the expedition should start will depend upon movements here. You will be informed of the exact time for them to start."
The exact time was at dawn, April 17; the orders as given on April 10 by General Hurlbut to General William Sooy Smith at La Grange were to "strike out by way of Pontotoc, breaking off right and left, cutting both roads, destroying the wires, burning provisions, and doing all the mischief they can, while one regiment ranges straight down to Selma or Meridian, breaking the east and west road thoroughly, and swinging back through Alabama."
Grierson was on furlough in Illinois that week, but Hurlbut telegraphed him to return to La Grange immediately. On April 15 Hurlbut forwarded the final orders to General Smith: "If Grierson does not arrive in time, Hatch will take command. The details must be left discretionary." General Smith was pleased with that last sentence. "Swinging back through Alabama" might not be so easy, with Nathan Bedford Forrest operating somewhere in the north of that state.
On the afternoon of the 16th, orders for the raid went out to the companies; they were to be ready to march at three o'clock the following morning. Grierson was still missing. He arrived on the midnight train from Memphis* with three hours to spare, but a conference with Sooy Smith delayed the brigade's departure until dawn.
Professional cavalrymen always maintained that two years were required to produce a seasoned trooper. The men of the First Brigade were approaching that point of perfection, along with some thousands of other Union cavalrymen of both the eastern and western theaters of the war. In these past two years the Union cavalry had played a sorry role, the butt of every infantryman's joke: "Nobody ever saw a dead cavalryman. If you want to have a good time, jine the cavalree!" The exploits of Confederate cavalrymen—Jeb Stuart and John Mosby in the east, the daring raids of Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan in the west—were known to every blue-bloused trooper. The northern newspapers and the New York picture weeklies had recorded the exploits of these southern beau sabreurs until they were in a sense heroes to the envious Yankees.
For want of a dashing leader among themselves, the Union cavalrymen in the west particularly admired Forrest, the eccentric rebel who never bothered to learn the simplest military commands, not even the manual of arms, but whose skillful cavalry maneuvers had upset a dozen well-laid battle plans, even those of so shrewd a general as Grant.
One reason given for the superiority of Confederate over Union cavalry was that in the South the lack of good highways had forced southerners to ride from boyhood, while in the north a generation of young men had been riding in wheeled vehicles. This may have been true in the east, but not in the west. Farm boys of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa also were horsemen by necessity, but unlike many of their southern opponents, in civilian life they had borne the tedious burden of caring for the animals after plowing behind them all day. Young westerners who knew horses seemed to have little desire to assume the added responsibility of taking one of them to war. Many of them chose infantry service instead.
Certainly the social prestige attached to horsemen, the beau sabreur image so prevalent in the Confederacy, was unknown in the west. But even if the western Yankees did not regard cavaliers as aristocrats, before the war was a year old they were more than a little envious of the abilities of the "chivalric knights" who kept dashing up from the South to ride rings around them.
Southern cavalry horses were also superior to northern horses, largely because southerners were fond of racing. Almost every southern town had its track, and the sport had developed a superior stock of blooded, fleet-footed animals. In the north, muscular and slow-moving draft horses were the preferred breeds, racing being almost unknown above the Mason and Dixon line.
When the war began there were only seven mounted troops in the regular United States Army. General Winfield Scott, the aging commander, gave as his opinion early in 1861 that cavalry had been outmoded by modern warfare. Improvements in rifled cannon, he was convinced, would render the duties of the cavalry unimportant and secondary. War Department plans, influenced by Scott, limited the regular army's cavalry requirements for prosecuting the Civil War to six regular regiments. And when Lincoln made his call for volunteers, the states were advised to accept very few cavalrymen.
Federal War Department policies continued to operate against development of effective cavalry forces until General George B. McClellan took command, and even he had to arrange almost secretly with the state governors for the organization of a few companies of mounted troops. Such regiments were often misused, separated into mere squads and used for messenger service or as escort troops.
In its original secondary role, the Union cavalry naturally suffered from a deficiency of equipment, and for this reason many western regiments were inactive for several months following their organization. At Camp McClellan, near Davenport, Iowa, efforts were made to convert cavalry volunteers to infantry service, creating so much dissension that the governor of the state had to visit the camp and reassure the men. At the same time, Senator James Harlan of Iowa urged the War Department to authorize the raising of more cavalry regiments in the west. Harlan told the Secretary of War that in his opinion the best cavalry could be made of western men, who were accustomed to riding and the care of horses.
Late in the summer of 1861, after reaching Camp Butler near Springfield, Captain Forbes of the Seventh Illinois said in one of his letters to his mother: "Our men have drawn their socks, two pairs each, very good material, two pairs of flannel drawers, the inevitable red shirt, and a blue fatigue coat. Tomorrow we expect to draw pants, blue shirts, boots and overcoats. We have not yet drawn our saddles, but shall reach them soon." He continued: "We have not drilled on horse yet, for the reason we have no saddles. We have daily foot drills, however, and shall soon be furnished in full."
The captain's optimism about forthcoming equipment faded soon afterward, and if he and his men had not brought their own mounts to camp they would have had none for drilling. "Our horses stand it pretty well. A few of them take colds, but nothing serious. I ride the Babcock horse, and William McCausland rides the Weasel. My horse pleases me well and is learning to follow me like a dog."
He added somewhat proudly: "I have obtained one of the Cavalry saddles as a special favor in return for lending my horse to one of the officers, so I look quite war-like when mounted." The cavalry saddle was of course the McClellan, adopted through recommendations made by the general in 1860, a modification of the Mexican, or Texas tree. Some of the earlier models were covered with rawhide, and as one Union officer complained, when this covering split, the seat became very uncomfortable for the rider.
Weeks later Captain Forbes's young brother, Stephen, a private in the Seventh Illinois, was writing home on the same subject: "I expect you would laugh to see me in my uniform, especially the red shirt and close little cap, but we are clothed very comfortably, however, as we have immense overcoats which cover us from the tops of our heads nearly to our ankles and heavy boots that reach above our knees. Our saddles and arms we have not received."
Fortunately, the saddle shortage was relieved before the regiment moved down to Bird's Point, Missouri, below Cairo, to act as land support for the mortarboat battles around Island Number Ten. However, as Stephen recorded in his diary, November 20, 1861, the men of the Seventh Illinois were "situated in an enemy's country with a prospect of a battle close at hand without arms enough to post guards, but we soon hope to receive all our arms for the entire regiment, as the colonel received a letter from Secretary Cameron stating that one thousand sabers and pistols were on the way to us from New York."
Excerpted from Grierson's Raid by Dee Brown. Copyright © 1954 University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsA NOTE ON SOURCES,
First day—Friday, April 17,
A SOUTH BREEZE WAS BLOWING,
Second day—Saturday, April 18,
THE SKIRMISHES BEGIN,
Third day—Sunday, April 19,
BARTEAU IN PURSUIT,
Fourth day—Monday, April 20,
Fifth day—Tuesday, April 21,
THE BUTTERNUT GUERILLAS,
Sixth day—Wednesday, April 22,
A MISSION FOR CAPTAIN FORBES,
Seventh day—Thursday, April 28,
THE SCOUTS CAPTURE A BRIDGE,
Eighth day—Friday, April 24,
ACTION AT NEWTON STATION,
Ninth day—Saturday, April 25,
PINEY WOODS COUNTRY,
Tenth day—Sunday, April 26,
"CAPTAIN FORBES PRESENTS HIS COMPLIMENTS",
Eleventh day—Monday, April 27,
ACROSS THE PEARL TO HAZLEHURST,
Twelfth day—Tuesday, April 28,
COLONEL ADAMS SETS AN AMBUSH,
Thirteenth day—Wednesday, April 29,
FOX AND HOUNDS,
Fourteenth day—Thursday, April 30,
THE TRAP BEGINS TO CLOSE,
Fifteenth day—Friday, May 1,
THE FIGHT AT WALL'S BRIDGE,
Sixteenth day—Saturday, May 2,
THE LAST LONG MARCH,
Seventeenth day—Sunday, May 3,
HEROES TO THE UNION,
A Biography of Dee Brown,
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