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
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
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 leave...you 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
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
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
- #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
- GR -- "Grierson's Raid," by D. Alexander Brown, University of Illinois
© Town of LaGrange, Tennessee 2001;
all rights reserved
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