Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Review - "The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi" by Timothy Smith

[The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi by Timothy B. Smith (Savas Beatie, 2018). Hardcover, 13 maps, photos, footnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxiv,315/369. ISBN:978-1-61121-428-4. $32.95]

To mask his bold amphibious landing of the main army below Vicksburg, General U.S. Grant ordered a number of diversionary operations over a wide geographical area. Conducted across from and above Vicksburg as well as in North Mississippi, all played important roles and were successful beyond expectation. The most famous and most substantial of these movements was Col. Benjamin Grierson's cavalry raid down the length of Confederate Mississippi. Launched from LaGrange, Tennessee on April 17 and concluding two weeks later at Baton Rouge, Louisiana on May 2, Grierson's Raid damaged enemy railroad tracks and destroyed trains and depot facilities, but its most telling feature was the mass confusion sown in the rear of General John C. Pemberton's Vicksburg defenders, who were concentrated along the east bank of the Mississippi. With Confederate attention temporarily reoriented to the east, the raid helped open a critical time window for Grant's army to land on the Mississippi shore unopposed and consolidate a bridgehead.

Grierson's Raid has been examined in a number of magazine articles, essays, and book-length secondary works over the years. Ed Bearss detailed the operation in his Vicksburg Campaign trilogy and the raid has also been covered more recently in a pair of short works—Tom Lalicki's Grierson's Raid: A Daring Cavalry Strike Through the Heart of the Confederacy (2004) and Roughshod Through Dixie: Grierson’s Raid 1863 (2010) by Mark Lardas. The most popularly known (and oldest) treatment is Dee Brown's Grierson's Raid, which hasn't aged well since its 1954 release and in reality never upheld scholarly standards in the first place. Happily, military historian Timothy Smith's The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi fulfills the need for a full-length study that meets the demands of modern scholarship.

In some ways, former music teacher Benjamin Grierson was a curious choice to lead the brigade-sized raiding force that consisted of the 6th Illinois, 7th Illinois, and 2nd Iowa cavalry regiments with an attached battery. Prior to the 1863 raid that made him instantly famous, Grierson was a relatively quiet wartime figure who only distinguished himself in a series of minor cavalry actions at the head of the 6th Illinois, none of which approached the scale, complexity, importance, length, and danger of the great Mississippi mounted operation. It seems he was selected primarily on the basis that no other immediately available cavalry officer was trusted as much as Grierson was by both generals Grant and Stephen A. Hurlbut, the latter a corps commander in Grant's army and head of the Memphis district of occupation. Exactly why this was so isn't entirely clear. Grierson would certainly repay with interest the confidence placed in him by his superiors.

The book documents well the above mentioned diversionary expeditions, all of which served Grant's purposes but also immeasurably eased the initial passage of Grierson himself. As Smith shows, the two small movements from Memphis combined with a larger operation east out of Corinth opened a gaping hole in the already thin Confederate defenses of North Mississippi, an open doorway that Grierson was perfectly positioned to exploit. That the raiders were able to penetrate deep into Mississippi with no significant resistance demonstrated to all that the state's defensive arrangements lacked any real depth.

Smith's minutely detailed narrative, which follows the course of the raid on a day-by-day basis, really gets to the heart of what made Grierson such an effective cavalry raider. He moved fast and employed active deception and diversion to great effect. Even though most civilian residents along the raid route felt themselves far from the fighting front and did not expect to see enemy soldiers of any kind, it still remains rather impressive that Grierson was able to convince so many Mississippians in so many places that his men were Confederate cavalry. He also availed himself of the services of many friendly residents and guides as he passed through counties with sizable pro-Union populations, and their contributions to his success should not be underestimated.

Over an exhausting two-week period, Grierson also was able to consistently keep a clear head when confronted with a series of very stressful and fluid situations. With enemy forces finally closing in with dangerous numbers after he damaged the vital rail link between Vicksburg and Meridian, his flexible state of mind constantly weighed the benefits vs. risks of all possible escape options. These options ranged from (1) swinging back north (the preferred route of General Hurlbut, who feared losing his best cavalry to another district command) to (2) moving southwest to link up with Grant near the Mississippi River to (3) continuing directly south to shelter within Union lines at Baton Rouge. Recognizing that returning to Tennessee was by far the most dangerous option (especially for tired men and horses) and meeting up safely with Grant would have required exceptional timing that was deemed too risky, Grierson's choice to head for Baton Rouge was likely the most logical option, even though it had dangers of its own due to the heavy presence of Confederate troops at Port Hudson.

In addition to the main force constantly feinting in different directions to confuse any pursuers, Grierson also sent out a constant parade of detachments varying in size from individuals to an entire regiment (Edward Hatch's 2nd Iowa Cavalry). Either looping back to the main force or returning all the way back to friendly lines in Tennessee, all of these actions (in addition to hitting ancillary infrastructure targets) helped keep the Confederates in the dark as to the location and intentions of the main body of Union raiders at any given moment. Smith properly praises the leadership shown by the officers that led Grierson's detachments, all of whom did their jobs to near perfection and at great risk to themselves. Fortunately for all involved, casualties were also light to non-existent.

Clearly, Grierson was aided by an ineffectual Confederate response, which consisted primarily of hastily raised state troops and small regular detachments, none of which managed to strike Grierson (or any of his detachments) with enough strength or surprise to seriously endanger the mission. In assessing the response, Smith is more charitable toward Pemberton than most other writers have been, his critique taking into account the full range of the Confederate commander's responsibilities at the moment and the limited resources (particularly in mounted troops, which were necessarily concentrated in the north) available. Even so, the net was tightening considerably by the time Grierson reached southern Mississippi, and safe haven in Union-controlled Louisiana proved to be an invaluable 'get out of jail free' card. The raid was impressive by any measure, but Grierson clearly benefited immensely from the fact that he and his men did not have to return to their original starting point in the face of mounting opposition.

It is popularly repeated in the literature that Grierson's Raid drew upwards of 20,000 Confederate soldiers or all types to the interior (away from the Mississippi River border counties) and afforded Grant a critical five-day window in which to land his army and consolidate his beachhead. Smith confirms the last point, but the former contention is left underdeveloped and only mentioned in passing. It's a long-held claim that probably deserved a fresh reappraisal in the book.

Many readers will readily recognize the cinematic/literary origins of the book's title. Neither John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959) nor the Harold Sinclair novel of the same name that spawned the movie are discussed at any length in Smith's study; however, this represents no great missed opportunity as the intersection of history, novel, and movie has already been thoroughly examined by Neal Longley York in his 2001 book Fiction as Fact: "The Horse Soldiers" and Popular Memory.

As one might anticipate given the past record of both author and publisher, The Real Horse Soldiers is well stocked with maps and illustrations. Also manifest in Smith's prior scholarship is deep research into primary sources, and this expectation is also met here in full. This exhaustive and engrossing study is the history of Grierson's Raid that's been long overdue. It is as notable a contribution to the wider Civil War cavalry literature as it is a newly essential component of the Vicksburg Campaign bookshelf. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for your deep review, Drew. I consider it one of our "big" books of the year, and we anticipate it will make quite a splash--as it should. I think readers will enjoy it very much.

    Merry Christmas.

    Ted Savas


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