About 5 hours after Porter's fleet sailed past the Vicksburg guns, just after dawn Friday, 17 April, 1863, 1,700 Federal troops trotted out of the little village of Le Grange, Tennessee, heading south. They were led by an Illinois man who had harbored a deep distrust of horses since a "friendly pony" had cracked his 8 year old skull, put him in a coma for days, and almost blinded him for life
He grew into a talented musician, and managed to support a family teaching music until 1861 when he felt compelled to volunteer to defend the union. And since that day he had pleaded to be an infantryman, or an artilleryman, anything to minimize interacting with equines. But superior officers kept assuring him that he would make a great cavalry man. And this morning, 37 year old Colonel Benjiman Harrison Grierson (above) was leading what would be the most legendary and effective cavalry raid of the entire civil war.
In the romantic image of cavalry - dime novels to Hollywood movies - horses are mere props. In the reality, taking a horse into battle is leading a 900 pound 5 year old child to war. They panic without warning because they see and hear far more than humans. They have to be constantly coaxed, often coddled and always controlled.
And they were the guilt of war in flesh and blood as the average life span of a horse in service was just 6 months. Most of the horses of the 6th and 7th Illinois and 2nd Iowa volunteer cavalry regiments were close to or already past that date.
On this warm spring day, the unsuspecting oat fed mounts walked or occasionally trotted at an average speed of 3 miles an hour, stopping to rest for 5 minutes every hour. They camped that first night, Friday, 17 April, 31 miles south of La Grange - 4 miles northwest of Ripley, Mississippi, on the plantation of William C. Faulkner, great-great grandfather of the 20th century novelist.
The Colonel's assignment was to disable a section of the Southern Railroad, which ran east from Vicksburg, through Jackson to Meridian, Mississippi. It's thin iron rails were the last connection between the wealth and humanity of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas with the rest of the Confederacy.
Exactly where, when and how to snap that connection, and what to do next, if anything, was left to Gierson's discretion. Each trooper carried 5 days rations, which were to last them at least 10 days. They were armed with a carbine and 100 rounds of ammunition, usually a pistol and a rarely used saber. The next day, Saturday, 18 April, 1863, they crossed the Little Tallahatchie River, just as it began to rain.
They met no resistance because when Grant had retreated out of northern Mississippi the previous December, he had ravaged the land as he left, creating a 100 mile wide no-man's land which could barely support its own hungry residents. Federal troops had also destroyed the bridges and rails of the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad north of Grenada.
Having been forced to send the rest of his cavalry east to support General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee, 49 year old Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton (above), commander of the Army of Mississippi, had only a "scratch" battalion of the 2nd Tennessee cavalry, under 27 year old Lieutenant Colonel Clark Russell Barteau, supported by a couple of militia cavalry regiments, to track down the Yankees. And they had to first travel north on the Ohio and Mobile railroad, forty miles to the west of the raider's last reported position.
On Sunday, 19 April, after an all day march in the pouring rain, Grieson's men camped 5 miles south of Pontotoc, Mississippi. In the early morning dark, on Monday, 20 April, the weakest troopers and horses were formed into a "Quinine Brigade". Riding in a column of fours to disguise their weakness, these 175 men were placed under the 33 year old popular Major Hiram Wright Love of Iowa City. Love's command now rode back the way they had come, in hope the locals would believe all the Federal cavalry had returned north.
This diversion would fail because by Monday morning, Colonel Barteau's troopers were just hours behind the Yankees, and they ignored the Quinine Brigade.
But four miles south of Starkville Mississippi, Grierson staged another diversion, a theatrical performance by 31 year old Colonel Edward Hatch (above) and the 500 men of the 2nd Iowa. At a crossroads Hatch's men took the time to obliterate Grierson's tracks in the mud, before leaving a new and obvious trail, again in column of fours, leading east and south, threatening to attack the Mobile and Ohio railroad. Hatch even left 20 men waiting behind to taunt the rebels.
Barteau took the bait, moving so quickly he skirmished with Hatch's men that afternoon. Warned by that combat in the afternoon, Hatch forgot about the railroad and the 2nd Iowa headed back to La Grange, with Barteau's cavalry chasing them all the way.
Freed of pursuing cavalry, the 950 troopers still under Grierson continued south through a fog of rumors. Frightened civilians inflated their numbers by 5 times, their targets were assumed to be every vulnerable point within 100 miles. When he paused to burn a tannery, the countryside howled . The dozens of desperate calls for assistance prompted General Pemberton to dispatch 2,000 precious infantrymen eastward by rail all the way to Macon, to protect the eastern terminal of the Southern Railroad. But in doing so he overshot the real target. The very next night, Grierson sent a flying column of 200 men ahead to seize the tiny depot at Newton Station, just south of Decatur.
On Wednesday, 22 April, 7,000 Federal cavalrymen under General Grenville Dodge once again occupied a little village just over the border from Mississippi- Tuscumbia, Alabama. The town would change hands 40 times during the war. Using Dodge's incursion as a cover, on Friday, 24 April, 1,500 Yankees struck south and east, under the aggressive and impatient 34 year old Hoosier, Colonel Abel Delos Streight(above). His pretentious intent was to cut the Western and Atlantic railroad in Georgia, forcing General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee to evacuate Chattanooga. But before he even started, Streight was forced to overcome several insurmountable obstacles.
First a shortage of horses forced Streight to accept mules. Then the mules were discovered to be infected with hoof and mouth disease, which weakened those animals it did not kill outright. By the time replacement mules were found, Streight's infantrymen - yes, infantrymen mounted on mules - the Yankee column was behind schedule and strung out for miles. And then Streight ran into one of the most resourceful cavalry commanders of the entire Civil War, the 41 year old Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
It is hard, if not impossible to describe General Forrest in 1863 as anything other than despicable. Before the war he built a fortune in Memphis, buying and selling human beings As a cavalry commander, Forrest was brilliant, decisive and a natural born leader.
But in a year he would capture Fort Pillow, after which 200 surrendering Federal soldiers - black men in blue uniforms - would be butchered right in front of his eyes (above).
After the war he would help organize a white supremacist terrorist organization, and the "Wizard of the Saddle" would become the "Grand Wizard of The Knights of the Klu Klux Klan".
By two years before his death in 1877, at 56 years of age, a wearier and wiser Forrest would support full voting rights for African Americans, and even their admission to white law schools. He would renounce his life long bigotry and say, 'I am the fool that built on the sand." Speaking to an African American audience, he would note, "We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers?"
But that was in the future. In April of 1863, Forrest was still defending slavery and was the scourge of the Federal armies. In particular he was chasing the mule born 1,500 Yankee infantry under Colonel Abel Straight. The only thing which saved Streight's command from an immediate disaster was that Forrest had only 500 men. Never the less, from their first engagement on 27 April at the Battle of Town Creek, Forest harassed Streight most of the way across Alabama, keeping the Hoosier and his soldiers always off balance, always just a step ahead of disaster.
In fact Streight's primary credit for the entire ill begotten operation, which would end in his surrender to a rebel force less than a third his own size, was that it kept the mad man Forrest busy in Alabama, moving east, while Grierson's raiders were falling on Newton Station, Mississippi, 75 miles due west of the state capital, and Pemberton's headquarters in Jackson.
At about 6:00am on the morning of Thursday, 24 April, three men in worn rebel uniforms rode up to a home at the edge of town. They asked for a drink of water and inquired when the next train was scheduled. Learning that an eastbound train was due at 9:00am, the leader, Sargent Richard W. Surby, of the 7th. Illinois Cavalry, sent on man back to his commander, Lieutenant-Colonel William D. Blackburn. Then Sargent Surby and the remaining man rode to the train depot and took the telegraph operator prisoner.
When the train arrived, Blackburn's "scouts" jumped on board, captured the engine, and switched the 25 box cars of machinery and railroad ties to a siding. Just as they were completing this task, a westbound train whistled that it was approaching Newton Station - a passenger car and 12 freight cars carrying weapons and ammo, and commissary supplies. Again, as it slowed on approach to the station, Federal troopers jumped on board with drawn guns, and the second train was captured.
After shipments of food and medical cargo were shared with 75 rebel soldiers recuperating in a hospital, the rail cars were pushed away from the town and torched, setting off explosions. These drew Colonel Grierson and the bulk of the raiders galloping into town.
Before the exhausted Federal cavalry limped out of Newton Station at about 2:00pm, the two invaluable locomotives had been blown up , 38 railroad cars burned and 500 small arms had been destroyed. Cross ties were dug from the ground for a half mile in both directions, piled up and set on fire, to heat the iron rails.
The irreplaceable iron rails were then laid on the fires until they softened and were then twisted and bent as to be almost useless. Irreplaceable telegraph wires were cut for a mile in either direction. Laid on the same fires, they were melted into copper globs.
An irreplaceable bridge was dismantled and burned. Two stores in town were also burned to the ground. In the space of three hours everything of value to the Confederacy in Newton Station and for a half mile in either direction was destroyed.
So weary were the Illinois horsemen, and so crowded with panicked whites was the road south from Newton Station that Grierson covered only 5 miles before he had to stop, an hour later, to rest his men and horses. About 6:00pm he got his men moving again, pushing another 2 miles to Garland, Mississippi.
Here a militia company of old men and boys tried to block the raiders, but Grierson (above, seated center with his staff) ordered his command to charge. The Federal's captured them all, losing one man wounded. Grierson then cowed the locals into supply guides.
About midnight on Friday, 25 April, the 950 troopers camped on the Bender Plantation along Bogue Falema Creek, 2 miles west of Montrose, Mississippi. They had covered 50 miles in one day, cut the rail line out of Vicksburg and Jackson, destroyed irreplaceable equipment and captured and paroled almost 200 rebel soldiers and militia. And they had stripped the countryside of horses, to remount as many of their men possible. But they were still, just 25 miles southwest of Newton Station.
Despite this, on Friday, 24 April, Colonel Benjiman Harrison Grierson allowed his men and horses (above) a day of rest. They had damn well earned it.