Colonel Grierson's Union Cavalry Brigade raid on Confederate Mississippi, Spring 1863.
Union horse soldiers rode south to destroy the railroads crucial to the supply lines of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg which was besieged by Union Army, General Grant. Colonel Grierson commanded the Sixth and Seventh Illinois and the Second Iowa Volunteer Cavalry which ensured a 1,700 man Brigade. This is an account of the raid which is an approximate truth because it is impossible to reconstruct the true past from documents.
Starting from laGrange Tennessee on instruction from General H commander of the 16th Army Corps and the Memphis Military District the route of march was initially due south, with orders to cause maximum damage to the Confederate railway system.
The above map is a guide to the route taken. Rumours prepared these horse soldiers for the task ahead. Bolstered by the private's faith in the sergeant, the sergeant's in the company commander, and so, up the line, the chain of command in reverse supported the campaign. The Colonel watched as the loose column evolved out of apparent chaos and moved off down the road towards Ripley. Their 5 day rations had to last double that time with the prospect of living off the land for the rest of the campaign. Horse and man together made for a much larger target than a man alone, killing or wounding a horse was as damaging and disrupting as killing the rider. A horse did not shelter behind a tree or a fallen log, the myth of horsemen riding down cringing infantry was quickly dispelled.
The brigade was stretched out for three quarters of a mile with sentries posted within a mile of Ripley, with pickets surrounding the village. Keep pushing, Colonel Grierson encouraged his brigade, fully on the march until the edge of darkness. Reconnaissance patrols scouted and determined when the 700 man Second Iowa could be returned to LaGrange. Captain B captured a home guard and this allowed the Brigade to destroy the Mobile and Ohio railroad station. The Second Iowa including wounded and sick were dispatched to LaGrange by a different return route.
Rain thundered down, turning the dusty road into a fearsome quagmire under 4,000 hooves within minutes. The lead files barely escaped the showers of mud flung by the horses' hooves. There was something quite impersonal about living off the land and requisitioning food and forage from these people, not wanting to add a sense of bitter personal injury by invading their privacy.
Seven days out and no sign of a Confederate soldier, Colonel G had the feeling that everyone in this blasted country knew his whereabouts even if Confederate commanders did not. The battle of Newton, the town was hillier than Colonel G expected, was the prime objective of the brigade because the railway supplied Vicksburg from Meridian and Jackson. Almost immediately the firing began from the long freight house. Two trains, loaded with ammunition, stuck on the tracks were used to set fire to the 600 foot wooden railway bridge to the west of the town. Nothing like this ever happened to Newton, nothing like it would again. The Southern Railroad was wrecked. Major R of the Georgia Regiment quit, hopelessly outnumbered, 5 dead,13 wounded. Colonel G exacted the parole of some 80 officers and men. Newton took the Confederate wounded into their own homes. The Seventh suffered 2 killed and 4 wounded. $100,000 worth of railroad destruction gave Colonel G a fine sense of duty. Colonel G had succeeded better than anyone from Corps Headquarters had any right to expect. The brigade wounded, carefully wrapped in blankets and straw, in wagons, were being returned to LaGrange under the command of Captain K. The brigade set off initially southwest towards Union occupied Baton Rouge.
The reconnaissance patrol under Captain B put a big hole in railroad at Byhala and so were due to rejoin the brigade, however, the brigade's route of march was unknown. Colonel G cursed the unpredictable geography of rural Mississippi, fortunately it did not alter the tactical situation.Two rivers the Strong, which was bridged and the Pearl which was not fordable, had a slow moving ferry, which, when fully loaded with 20 men and horses, crossed over in 6 minutes. Hazlehurst could have been invested with Confederate troops. 200 men from the brigade, sent into Hazlehurst, sent a telegram to Colonel R, commanding Confederate States Army, Jackson, that Colonel G was headed north from Hazlehurst. On completing the crossing by ferry and leaving Hazlehurst the rearguard reported four mounted Confederate companies with 2 small bore two-pounder cannons possibly from Port Gibson. The fie to the front ceased but the firing to the rear sounded odd. Captain B coming from the west to rejoin the brigade dispersed the Rebels, one of whose guns got stuck in the mud. The Rebels withdrew in disorder.
The final bridge over the Tickfaw river, with the sentries captured by deception, was left intact for future Union Army use. They traveled at a crawl and not a rush due to extreme fatigue. Baton Rouge gave quite a turnout for the relieved but exhausted brigade. A saber salute by the tired column in response and the tale of the brigades exploit was acknowledged.
Confederate forces assembled 10,000 men to interdict the Union brigade but in order to trap front and rear they did not know the intended or predicted route of march. Colonel Grierson's luck held.
Source: The Horse Soldiers, a novel of the Civil War, Harold Sinclair, Birlinn 2000, The Horse Soldiers, a Hollywood film, starring John Wayne and William Holden