We think that we know everything there is to know about Grierson’s Raid because of the 1959 movie The Horse Soldiers starring John Wayne, William Holden and Constance Towers. But reality is totally different from the movies.
The only things that are the same between reality and the movies are just these few facts. The raid began at LaGrange, Tennessee. The cavalry units were the same in the movie and real life. They destroyed everything of military value at Newton Station, Mississippi. And they rode to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Everything else in the movie is simply made up.
The Union raiders were commanded by Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher who, oddly, hated horses after being kicked in the head by one as a child. The raid lasted from April 17, 1863 until May 2, 1863.
Grierson’s cavalry brigade consisted of the 6th and 7th Illinois and 2nd Iowa Cavalry regiments. Grierson and his 1,700 horse troopers, some in Confederate uniforms serving as scouts for the main force, rode over six hundred miles through hostile territory (from southern Tennessee, through the state of Mississippi and into Union-held Baton Rouge, Louisiana), over routes no Union soldier had traveled before.
Total casualties for Grierson’s Brigade during the raid were three killed, seven wounded, and nine missing. Five sick and wounded men were left behind along the route, too ill to continue.
Although many Confederate cavalry units pursued Grierson vigorously across the state (most notably those led by Wirt Adams and Robert V. Richardson), they were unsuccessful in stopping the raid.
Grierson had several objectives during the raid. First, the Union high command wanted to see how the Confederates would react to a cavalry into the heart of the South. Detachments of his troops made feints confusing the Confederates as to his actual whereabouts, intent and direction.
At the same time his troops were ordered to tear up railroads and burn crossties, free slaves, burn Confederate storehouses, destroy locomotives and commissary stores, rip up bridges and trestles and burn buildings. They inflicted ten times the casualties they received.
On April 24th Grierson’s troops attacked the key railroad crossing at Newton Station, Mississippi. They succeeded in securing the town without any serious fighting, and captured two Confederate trains. The raiders also destroyed several miles of railroad track and telegraph wires in the vicinity, severing communications between Confederate-held Vicksburg and the Eastern Theatre commanders.
The two trains (one a freight and the second a mixed freight and passenger) were actually captured by Lt-Colonel William Blackburn, who had ridden ahead in darkness to scout the town. His men set fire to the trains, and exploding ammunition led the nearby Grierson to assume the worst, that a major battle had started. He arrived with the main force to find Blackburn’s men helping themselves to confiscated whiskey.
Over the next few hours Union forces destroyed trackage and equipment, east to the Chunkey River and west as far as possible. A large building in the town with uniforms and arms was burned, and the railroad depot was burned (not before local hospital staff were allowed to remove medicine and food). Assembling his forces Grierson departed the area around 2pm, leaving ruin and wreckage.
Grierson and his exhausted troopers ultimately rode in to Union-occupied Baton Rouge, Louisiana. An entire division of Pemberton’s soldiers were tied up defending the vital Vicksburg-Jackson railroad from the evasive Grierson.
Combined with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s feint northeast of Vicksburg (the Battle of Snyder’s Bluff), the beleaguered Confederates were unable to muster the forces necessary to oppose Grant’s eventual landing below Vicksburg on the east side of the Mississippi at Bruinsburg.