Book Review by Ian Mitchell
Ever since I was a teenager and read a paperback version of Harold Sinclair’s novel The Horse Soldiers while staying at my uncle and aunt’s house back in the sixties I have been fascinated by the story of Colonel Benjamin Grierson’s cavalry raid. Of course, it also helps that Sinclair’s novel also became the basis of the John Wayne film, The Horse Soldiers which was directed by John Ford, for I have to confess I am an avid John Wayne fan.
I don’t know why, but I had not, until now, read a historical account of the operation. I am therefore pleased to report that this situation has now changed for I recently finished D Alexander Brown’s book Grierson’s Raid: A Cavalry Adventure of the Civil War which was published in 1981. A third reason why I really should have read Dee Brown’s book much earlier is that I have another dark hidden secret. I am interested in the Apache campaigns in the southwest between 1865 and 1890 and also the Buffalo Soldiers. Benjamin Grierson would command the 10th Cavalry Regiment in that conflict and Edward Hatch (Colonel of 2nd Iowa Cavalry on the raid) the 9th Cavalry Regiment. If any of you are interested in the 1879-1881 campaigns, I can heartily recommend the three-book series by Professor Robert Watt of Birmingham University on that subject.
But as always, I get ahead of myself, so let us return back to Dee Brown, his book Grierson’s Raid and the young Colonel himself. One of the strengths of Dee Brown’s book is that he chronicles day by day the activities of what one Southern lady called Grierson’s thieves. Of course, one of the interesting facts that Mr Brown reveals is that the raid might easily have been called Hatch’s raid since Benjamin Grierson only arrived back from leave three hours before his brigade actually started on this operation.
The idea for this daring but risky raid is believed to have come from Grant himself some two months before, but due to the need for strict secrecy only Grierson in his brigade knew of the mission. It is interesting to note that Grierson was not a regular army officer and had not been trained at West Point. Perhaps the biggest irony is that although he rapidly rose in two years from being a civilian to command a cavalry brigade by 1863 he actually hated horses having been kicked by one in the face as a youngster. In fact, Grierson’s passion was not the army but music and before the war he had led a band, edited a newspaper but also helped run a store.
Whatever his background and the short time he had to plan the raid Colonel Grierson was a talented officer with an almost instinctive grasp of the key elements of what was required to carry out a raid deep behind enemy lines to attack vital logistic targets. He understood just as well, if not better than, Nathan Bedford Forrest, that the key principles for success were: speed of execution, surprise, deception and the need to avoid any large enemy forces.
Dee Brown’s book uses a range of primary and secondary sources to show how Grierson and his core force of 1,200 troopers (insert thieves here if you support the Confederacy) applied these principles to confounded and confuse the regional and local Confederate commanders. In fairness to Lieutenant General Pemberton who commanded Vicksburg he suffered from the significant disadvantage that he lacked cavalry forces. One reason for this is Nathan Bedford Forrest was away chasing and then capturing Colonel Sleight’s cavalry force in Alabama. Too little credit has arguably been given to that commander for creating a diversion from Grierson’s force.
Dee Brown makes it crystal clear that a key factor in the success of Grierson’s raid was his use of the so called ‘Butternut Guerrillas’. These were Union cavalry troopers who adapted various disguises for example butternut-coloured uniforms or civilian clothes to act as scouts and provide critical local intelligence information. Time and time again Grierson’s guerrillas helped seize vital bridges, give advance warning of local forces and also on one occasion capture a town. Another factor in Grierson’s success was his willingness to take risks and make sound but rapid decisions. He also took a leaf out of the book (or should I say manual) of the commanders of the calibre of Forrest, Ashby, Stuart and Price by selecting courses of action that local commanders dismissed as impossible or too risky. Grierson also made adroit use of small forces to execute diversions and feints that far too easily misled local commanders.
One of the most astounding things about Grierson’s raid was that although he and his brigade rode 600 miles over a 15-day period through the heart of the Confederacy and at one time were only 70 miles from the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg his command suffered hardly any losses. The best estimate is that Grierson lost 19 men killed, wounded and missing plus five men who had to be left behind due to wounds or sickness. In return, as Dee Brown painstakingly describes, he inflicted considerable damage on Pemberton’s most important logistic artery the Jackson-Vicksburg railway. He destroyed nearly 100 boxcars, several bridges and wrecked extensive sections of rail line. The force also captured and paroled hundreds of prisoners and destroyed large quantities of munitions and stores.
Perhaps the greatest value of the raid was that at a time when Pemberton’s limited cavalry force should have been watching the eastern bank of the Mississippi, just below Vicksburg around Grand Gulf, they were instead chasing Grierson all over the state. This left Pemberton distracted and blind at a crucial time when Grant was moving his army across the river at Bruinsburg. Even if Grierson and his force had been cornered and captured after their attack on Newton’s Station they would have successfully executed their mission which was a strategic deception.
All this and more is made clear in Dee Brown’s book which I found easy to read, entertaining and very informative. It is perhaps inevitable that for a book published in 1981, the one criticism I have is the paucity of maps for an account of a fast moving 600-mile raid with at least three major skirmishes. My edition has one single map which is displayed at the front and back of the book. In order to remedy this situation I used maps from a range of sources to track the raid. Another useful source for maps was Mark Lardas’ book Roughshod through Dixie - Grierson’s Raid 1863 published by Osprey in 2010. Though only 80 pages long this account benefits from excellent maps and illustrations and is from the excellent Osprey Raids series.
In conclusion, I strongly recommend that anyone who is interested in cavalry operations and or the Vicksburg campaign but has not read this book should do so. For those who already read it then you may also wish to consider reading the most recent book on the Grierson raid by an established Civil War historian Timothy Smith:
The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil war Raid through Mississippi. (2019)
Savas Beattie. ISBN 1611214289 336 pages with 13 maps