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Grierson's Grand Raid

Grierson showed his concern for the welfare of Southern civilians by issuing strict orders: "drive out stragglers, preserve order, and quiet the fears of the people."

The winter of 1862-63 was harsh on the soldiers encamped along the Tennessee-Mississippi border. Alternate freezing temperatures and cold rain found the Union soldiers stationed at La Grange, miserably mired in a sea of mud. As a consequence of their misery, the fences surrounding the grand homes, along with many of the smaller houses, had disappeared into the campfires to provide warmth for the men garrisoned there. Dozing before one of these fires, on New Year's Day, Colonel Benjamin Henry Grierson was despondent over more than just the foul weather. His wife, Alice and his two small sons had left Memphis for their home in Jacksonville on December 23d, his men were suffering from illnesses due to the weather and were short on supplies and equipment, and his pay was two months in arrears. In addition to the inactivity that winter brings to armies, Grierson had received no word on his expected promotion to brigadier general; though Grant and Sherman had both written strong recommendations. Suddenly, his reverie was broken by the smell of something burning -- he had accidentally let the fire burn off the soles of his boots, which would result in a cost of fifteen dollars for a new pair. Little could Benjamin know what good things the New Year would bring for him.

As part of Mizner's brigade in late December of 1862, Grierson had received orders from Grant to pursue the triumphant rebel, Earl Van Dorn, whose thirty-five hundred troopers had successfully swept around Grant's left flank and raided his supply lines at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Ben had reached Holly Springs eager to pursue the rebel raiders, but was ordered to return to Oxford by the post commander at Holly Springs. By the time Grant's second order reached him, directing him to "pursue Van Dorn into Tennessee," Grierson was hours behind. When he did catch up with the retreating Confederates at Ripley, Mississippi, Mizner refused to launch a night attack and the pursuit ended at Pontotoc on December 28. As a result of the raid on Holly Springs, Grant was forced to withdraw to Memphis, his central Mississippi campaign now in shambles.

Characteristic of Grant's dogged determination, he settled down in his headquarters at the Hunt-Phelan home and continued to assemble a force of eighty-thousand for a renewed effort to take Vicksburg. But after moving to Milliken's Bend, twenty miles upstream from Vicksburg, Grant spent the next three months in futile efforts to reach the east bank of the Mississippi River and the city. After two attempts of digging canals and two attempts to force passage through swamps and bayous, Grant realized he would have to risk running the batteries at Vicksburg if his campaign were to be successful. On the evening of April 16, Union ironclads and supply-laden transports ran the gauntlet of rebel batteries, sustaining only one transport lost.

As part of Grant's plan, he intended to create several diversions for the Confederates at Vicksburg to distract them while he crossed the river and swung around to approach the city from the east. Sherman was ordered to make a demonstration up the Yazoo River, and Hamilton was ordered to ready Grierson's cavalry for a major raid into Mississippi in February.

Sherman's demonstration caused a panic at Chickasaw Bluffs, resulting in the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, rerouting 3,000 troops that had been marching south to oppose Grant.

Grant's other diversion, the cavalry raid, proved to be more successful than was hoped for by the Union commander. And the thirty-six year old cavalry colonel who led the raid, while a most unlikely candidate for the task, certainly proved to be worthy of Grant's bidding.

At the onset of the Civil War, Ben Grierson's sole military experience was as a trumpeter in the Ohio Militia. He had spent the better part of his adult life as a music teacher and band leader, and in 1861 found himself deeply in debt. While the war-clouds gathered, Ben wrote to his brother, John who at the time was a resident of Memphis, Tennessee; "I am not a volunteer," and "it would be hard for me to go and fight my brothers in the South as you are well aware."(1) Nonetheless, when Ben finally did decide to join the company he had been instrumental in helping to recruit, Company "I" Tenth Illinois Infantry, all of the positions were filled. While waiting for something further to develop, Ben spent hours pouring over books on infantry, cavalry and artillery tactics.

In May, Ben was offered the position of aide-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant, but without pay, by his friend, Brig. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss. He quickly accepted the offer, though he hoped the matter of pay would be temporary. In late summer, when a rift over seniority of rank took place between Grant and Prentiss, Ben realized his military career was hanging in the balance. A quick trip was made to Springfield and Governor Yates to plead Ben's case in mid-August.

When Ben received word of his appointment as major to the Sixth Illinois Cavalry, it must have seemed an ironic twist of fate, as an almost fatal childhood accident had left him very distrustful of horses. But upon his arrival at Camp Yates at Shawneetown, Illinois, Ben's optimism and hard work soon paid off with his undisciplined and ill-prepared regiment. Unfortunately for Ben, his superior, Colonel T. M. Cavanaugh was consistently absent from camp. Cavanaugh's long absences and neglect left the Sixth largely unhorsed and unarmed. Thus Grierson and his regiment were little more than spectators in the early months of 1862.

On April 9, a petition was circulated among the officers of the Sixth, requesting the removal of Colonel Cavanaugh and the appointment of Grierson as colonel. When Cavanaugh resigned, Governor Yates replaced him with a surprised Grierson, who soon wrote to his wife; "The more I have to do, you know, the more I can do--at least you have known it to be some times."(2)

Ben's wish for military action was soon granted when he, with five companies of the regiment, were ordered to report to the city of Memphis on June 6th. Arriving on June the 18th, Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, commander of Memphis, put Grierson in the field immediately to combat local Confederate Guerillas. From that point on, Grierson proved his military abilities with each successive raid. And when Sherman replaced Wallace at Memphis, he was so pleased with Grierson's September raid on Hernando that he presented him with a silver-plated carbine.

In disposition, Grierson was affectionate, kind, humane, humorous and generous to a fault. He had a temper but rarely lost it and avoided arguments or controversy whenever possible. He managed his troopers with understanding and insisted on impartial treatment. Towards his enemy, he displayed coolness and courage yet insisted his men take no part in looting or searching of private homes. The ladies he encountered during his raiding expeditions found him to be, a "very pleasant gentleman." Of slight build, described as wiry and tall, Grierson's most distinguishing feature was a long facial scar, left by the childhood accident with a horse, that he attempted to cover with a full facial beard.

On April 13, while on a long awaited leave home, Grierson received a telegraph from Maj. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut, now the Federal commander at Memphis, "Return Immediately." Grierson boarded the train from Memphis to La Grange on April 16, writing to his wife; "My command is ordered to must not be alarmed should you not hear from me inside a month..." (4)

After conferring with General William Sooy Smith, commanding at La Grange, Grierson issued orders for "light rations" to his brigade, which now consisted of the Sixth and Seventh Illinois, and the second Iowa. On the beautiful spring morning of April 17, Grierson led the long column of seventeen hundred officers and men out of La Grange and headed south. Grierson himself, carried a small-scale map of plantations and Confederate storehouses, and a jew's harp in his blouse. The command met no opposition on the first day, traveling an easy thirty miles to halt just short of Ripley, Mississippi at the Ellis plantation.

Before Grierson would reach the bridge at New Albany on the 18th, four other diversionary missions were well under way. General Sooy Smith, with fifteen hundred men, marched southwest from La Grange, while five thousand men from Corinth marched east toward Tuscumbia. Another force of thirteen hundred marched out of Memphis towards Panola and Chalmer's forces, while Colonel Abel Streight marched out of Fort Henry for his raid into Alabama. While Smith's expedition was designed as a smokescreen to Grierson's raid, as was the column from Corinth, Streight's purpose was to engage and occupy Forrest far to the east of Grierson. It was obvious that Grant considered Streight's raid secondary to Grierson's, as Streight's men were mounted on mules and cast-off horses, while Grierson's troopers had drawn the best horses available.(GR) All expeditions served their purpose, but Streight's raid ended in disaster. Relentlessly pursued by Forrest, he was forced to fight a continuous rear guard action. Streight, at the point of exhaustion, surrendered to Forrest on May 3, 1863, at Lawrence, Alabama.

When Grierson reached the Tallahatchie, on the afternoon of the 18th, he crossed the river at three points to confuse the Confederates. A battalion of the Seventh encountered slight opposition in crossing the bridge at Albany. The Sixth and Seventh proceeded along the road to Pontotoc, while Colonel Edward Hatch's Second Iowa traveled a route some four miles to the east.

At dawn on April 19, Grierson sent one detachment to contact Hatch, and two others north and west, while the main column moved down the muddy Pontotoc road. When Hatch and the detachment caught up with each other, they united and rode into a surprised Pontotoc. Routing a body of state troops, the captured all of the town's supplies and equipment. Grierson was now seventy miles into enemy territory and had suffered no losses.

On April 20, Grierson formed up his men for inspection, culling out 175 men that were suffering from physical ailment or the usual maladies. Dubbing themselves the "Quinine Brigade," and commanded by Major Hiram Love, they made their way back to La Grange. This force also served to create the impression that the raiders were returning to Tennessee. But Grierson was again on the move, continuing south with two Illinois regiments on the morning of the April 21. Hatch, and the 2nd Iowa, broke off eastward, with orders to cut the Mobile & Ohio Railroad at West Point and destroy roads southward before returning to La Grange.

Hatch's men reached Palo Alto on the afternoon of April 21, where they encountered the Confederate cavalrymen of the 2nd Tennessee, commanded by Lt. Col. C. R. Barteau. Hatch realized he could go no further south and began retreating northward along the railroad. Hatch succeeded in destroying the rails at Okolona and Tupelo before Barteau caught up with him near Birmingham on the April 24. After a two-hour battle, Hatch retreated across Camp Creek, returning to La Grange on April 26. His diversion within a diversion was a great success, having netted him 600 horses and mules, and 100 Confederate casualties, while losing only 10 men himself. He also succeeded in pulling a strong enemy force away from Grierson's flanks.

Since Hatch had dealt with any threatening enemy, Grierson felt his 950 remaining men could gallop southward with little worries or pursuit from the rear. Grierson pushed on towards Starkville, burning government property found in the undefended town. Later in the afternoon, he urged his command towards Louisville, not allowing his command to remain idle for any longer than necessary. But before daybreak on April 22, Grierson detached a battalion on the Seventh Illinois, commanded by Major Graham, with orders to destroy a large tannery and shoe factor at Bankston.

Graham captured a startled Confederate quartermaster, along with large stores of shoes, leather, saddles and bridles destined for Vicksburg and Port Gibson. He then caught up with Grierson as they approached Louisville.

By now, Grierson knew that the Confederates must be in desperate pursuit and he needed another diversion. Again, he detached a small force, Company B of the Seventh Illinois and Captain Henry Forbes, with orders to strike the railroad at Macon, thirty miles east. Forbes was instructed to rejoin as circumstances permitted, while Grierson marched towards the Southern Mississippi Railroad at Newton.

Reaching Louisville late on the afternoon of April 22, Grierson found the townspeople had boarded up their buildings in preparation of his arrival. Again, Grierson showed his concern for the welfare of Southern civilians by issuing strict orders; "drive out stragglers, preserve order, and quiet the fears of the people." (CW) The Federal cavalrymen passed through Louisville without incident, only to strike a dismal swamp where they lost several horses from drowning. On April 23, they moved through Philadelphia, stopping to rest at 10 o'clock that evening.

Grierson, and his main column, reached Newton Station at 6 a.m. on April 24, Colonel Blackburn, and four advance companies of the Seventh, having reached that point an hour ahead of Grierson. At Newton Station, Grierson destroyed two locomotives, 25 freight cars loaded with commissary stores and ammunition (including artillery shells bound for Vicksburg), additional stores and 500 muskets found in the town. In addition, seventy-five prisoners were taken and paroled. A weary but jubilant column of cavalry stopped at the Mackadora Plantation that evening, some fifty miles from Newton Station. Grierson knew that Newton Station had been his primary tactical objective, and from there he had complete discretion as to his route and final destination. For now, his men would receive their first rest in forty hours and nine days into their raid.

When Grierson learned that Pemberton was busy reinforcing Jackson and points eastward, he decided to move southwest, crossing the Pearl River and hitting the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad at Hazlehurst. From there, he would flank Confederate forces and join Grant at Grand Gulf. Grierson's true objective, other than destroying Pemberton's supply lines, was rapidly coming to fruition.

Pemberton, having guessed Grierson's objective, could hardly allow the enemy to freely roam behind his supply lines wreaking havoc, and was forced to divert an almost full division's worth of men to intercept the Union raiders. Pemberton further weakened the force that was soon to contend with Grant, by ordering Maj. Gen. John Bowen to detach seven Mississippi cavalry companies in pursuit of Grierson.

At 6 a.m. on April 26, the raiders set out for Raleigh, crossing the Leaf River. At Raleigh, they captured the county sheriff and confiscated $3,000 in Confederate currency, moving onto Westville, where they stopped for the night. On April 27, Grierson's advance scouting party, dressed in Confederate uniforms and dubbed the "Butternut Guerrillas," moved ahead to seize the ferryboat on the Pearl River. Here, Forbes and his detachment caught up with Grierson and were able to rejoin the column headed for Hazelhurst.

At Hazelhurst, a string of boxcars were burned, but the flames spread to nearby buildings of the town. Grierson set him men to work alongside the townspeople, fighting to save the town of Hazelhurst. Fortunately, a hard rain fell that evening and aided in putting out the fires.

Continuing west on the 28th, a battalion was detached from the Seventh Illinois to double back and destroy rails and telegraph wire. The main column stopped at a plantation near Union Church, where they encountered their first real threat from the enemy.

News of the strike on Hazelhurst had reached Pemberton, who was trying to calm a worried Jefferson Davis; "all the cavalry I can raise is close on their rear." (UW) Pemberton then instructed Bowen to send Colonel Wirt Adam's cavalry--Bowen's only significant mounted troops --to capture the Yankee cavalry. A scouting detachment belonging to Wirt's cavalry stumbled on Grierson's column and a sharp skirmish ensued. Considering the possibility of being overwhelmed by Confederate cavalry, Grierson decided wisely that he should head for Baton Rouge.

With the Confederates now hot on his heels, Grierson ordered Colonel Reuben Loomis and the Sixth Illinois to head westward toward Fayette, and then head southeast for Brookhaven. Upon reaching Brookhaven, Grierson took over two hundred prisoners, including sick soldiers from the local hospital. He then paroled them and fired the depot and several freight cars. Again, his men had to serve as fireman to keep the town buildings from going up in flames.

Temporarily fooled by Grierson's feint toward Fayette, Colonel Adams was now closing in on the Yankee raiders, and Colonel R. V. Richardson's Confederate cavalry was hard pushing for Brookhaven.

On April 30, Grierson resumed his march along the railroad, tearing up tracks and trestles as he went. Passing through Bogue Chitto Station, after burning 15 freight cars and the depot, the proceeded onto Summit, which they reached at sunset. Here, they destroyed 25 freight cars and a large store of government sugar.

On May 1, with Confederate forces closing in on Grierson's weary troopers, he decided it best to make a "straight line for Baton Rouge, and let speed be our safety." (CW) There was still some 76 miles to cover before reaching safety. For this reason, the towns of Magnolia and Osyka were bypassed.

Nearing Wall's Bridge across the Tickfaw River, three companies of the 9th Tennessee gave Grierson's advance scouts resistance. Grierson suffered eight casualties here (accounting for nearly all the battle losses suffered throughout the raid). But Grierson brought up his artillery and shelled the enemies position across the river, resulting in losses among the Confederates.

Captured dispatches warned Grierson that he could not afford to rest his command, and he continued to gallop southward through the night. His exhausted men and animals crossed the Amite River at William's Bridge at midnight, just two hours ahead of a heavy column of infantry and artillery. Little did Grierson know that Grant's troops had crossed the Mississippi on May 1 and were moving up to take Grand Gulf from the rear. Bowen, who had been stripped of his cavalry to pursue Grierson's raiders, would move his remaining troops to Port Gibson to intercept Grant.

In the meantime, Grierson's men reached Sandy Creek at dawn on May 2, capturing an unsuspecting cavalry unit camped there. The camp, 150 tents, guns and ammunition were destroyed before Grierson moved on to the Comite River. At Robert's Ford, 40 more Confederates and horses were captured. But the long hours in the saddle had finally taken their toll and both men and animals could go no further without rest.

Six miles short of Baton Rouge, Grierson called a halt near a plantation house. Here, his men slept alongside the road in the first rest they had had in twenty-eight hours. Possessing great stamina, Grierson found a piano in the nearby plantation house and sat down to play, with the Woodward family in attendance. His playing was abruptly interrupted by an anxious scout informing him that enemy cavalry was approaching. Grierson knew better and personally rode out to meet the advancing force, shaking hands with an astonished Captain J. Franklin Godfrey from Baton Rouge.

Filthy, and bone-weary, Grierson and his troopers were escorted into the city of Baton Rouge at 3 p.m.. Though thoroughly exhausted, Grierson agreed to parade his column around the town square, greeted by cheering civilians and soldiers.

Traveling more than 600 miles in 16 days, with little rest or sleep, Grierson's raiders had captured 500 Confederates, killed or wounded another 100, destroyed more than 50 miles of railroad and telegraph, 3,000 stands of arms and thousands of dollars worth of supplies and property. Over 1,000 mules and horses were captured, in addition to tying up all of Pemberton's cavalry, one-third of his infantry and several regiments of artillery. Grierson suffered, including Hatch's losses, total casualties of 36.

A most unlikely warrior, and music teacher turned soldier, suddenly found himself thrust into the role of a hero, writing to his wife; "I, like Byron, have had to wake up one morning and find myself famous." (CW) Grierson's picture was featured on the covers of Harper's Weekly and Leslie's Illustrated. He was breveted to brigadier general and later major general of volunteers.

Reference Sources:

  • #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 -- "Unlikely Warriors; General Benjamin Grierson and His Family," by William H,. Leckie and Shirley A. Leckie, ISBN: 0-8061-1912-8, published 1984
  • CW -- Civil War Times Illustrated, May 1992, "Brilliant Cavalry Exploit" by Tim DeForest
  • GR --  "Grierson's Raid," by D. Alexander Brown, University of Illinois Press, 1962

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