By the spring of 1863 the Confederate West was in disarray, and one of the most strategically important points in the South was under threat from the advancing Union Army. Ulysses S. Grant was bringing a large force down the western side of the Mississippi River, intent on capturing Vicksburg. Grant planned to cross the river just above Natchez and move steadily north toward Jackson. After capturing the state capital, he would then turn his full attention toward Vicksburg, advancing on the port city from the east. Though Grant had assembled a formidable force, he knew he would face stiff resistance from Confederate troops and consequently planned several diversions in hopes of dividing or distracting the rebel forces while he moved the bulk of his army through the state. Among these diversions was a major cavalry raid led by Col. Benjamin H. Grierson. At the Civil War’s outset, Grierson was an unlikely candidate to lead such a raid. He was not a professional soldier. Born in Pittsburgh in 1826 and educated in Ohio, he was a music teacher and bandleader. He enlisted in the US Army as a private in 1861 and rose steadily through the ranks. After serving on the staff of his friend, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss, Grierson received his own cavalry command and a promotion to colonel. He then made a name for himself leading minor raids through Tennessee and North Mississippi. On 17 April 1863 Grierson began the raid for which he would become famous, moving out from La Grange, Tennessee, just north of the Mississippi border, with three regiments of cavalry totaling around seventeen hundred men. The raid was designed to disrupt Confederate supply and communication lines that serviced Vicksburg and siphon off Confederate troops from Vicksburg’s defense. Among other things, Grant charged Grierson with “destroying all telegraph wires, burning provisions, and doing all mischief possible.” As they carried out their orders, Grierson’s men left a “smoldering path of destruction” through many Mississippi communities, including Pontotoc, Louisville, Philadelphia, Decatur, Newton, Raleigh, Hazlehurst, and Brookhaven, before moving south into Louisiana. The raid ended on 2 May when Grierson and his men arrived at Baton Rouge. In just over two weeks they had traveled more than six hundred miles, taken five hundred Confederate prisoners, and captured thousands of arms and other property, including more than one thousand mules. They had also kept a significant number of Confederate cavalry and infantry occupied and, as Grant later wrote, “taken the heart out of Mississippi.” In the process Grierson lost fewer than fifty men. The raid was a great success, as was Grant’s overall strategy. Vicksburg fell on 4 July 1863 after a forty-seven-day siege, marking the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. After the war Grierson remained in the service as a cavalry commander until his retirement in 1890. He died on 1 September 1911 in Omena, Michigan. Grierson’s Civil War exploits were the basis for a 1959 John Wayne film, The Horse Soldiers.
- D. Alexander Brown, Grierson’s Raid (1954)