Ben Grierson, a forgotten hero

Originally Memorial Day was a holiday to honor the fallen soldiers in the Civil War.

The war was fought by the South to preserve slavery and by the North to preserve the Union.  But although the North had the better cause, the South to this day has more glamor.

Benjamin Grierson

Benjamin Grierson

So on this Memorial Day, I remember a Northern hero—Ben Grierson—who conducted the most impressive raid of the Civil War, who never turned his back on black freedman afterwards and who, in the words of Gary Brecher, did not have a weak or a mean bone in his body.

I didn’t know anything about Grierson, except for an old movie starring John Wayne I saw years ago, and brief accounts in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, until I read Brecher’s article about him.  Brecher is the pen name of the author of PandoDaily’s War Nerd column, and he is not easily impressed.

Grierson was scarred by being kicked in the face by a horse as a boy, and grew up with an aversion to horses.  But when circumstances put him in command of a cavalry regiment, he adapted.

Grierson’s first assignment was chasing guerrillas in Tennessee, where his kin came from, under Gen. Lew Wallace. The one thing everybody knows about him is he wrote Ben Hur, which I had to watch as a child because it was supposedly “Christian,” but Wallace was a pretty good officer, and he set Grierson to work hunting fellow Tennesseans.

Here again Grierson is like this ridiculously perfect officer-and-gentleman type; he crushed the local bushwhackers but the Tennessee ladies loved him for his perfect manners. You don’t get that a lot from ladies you meet while hunting down their kin, but that was Grierson, Mister Ridiculously Perfect.

What he was famous for was Grierson’s Raid.

Grierson left Tennessee in mid-April 1863 with a brigade of about 1700 men from two Illinois and one Iowa regiments. From the beginning he was in enemy territory, which like MacPherson says, is one handicap Forrest never had to face.

Grierson used diversion to confuse the local snitches who tried to report his location and destination along the raid route. When he crossed a river, he did it at three or more different points; when he was planning to move in force, he sent fake recon units galloping in all kinds of fake directions, knowing the locals would exaggerate the numbers and assume the worst, which locals always do when they spot enemy movements.

griersons-raid-exiledonline-349x550Grierson had a real genius for misdirection plays. Like Sherman did when he moved out of Atlanta, he culled all the weak or sick men from his force—but unlike Sherman, Grierson used the cull to fool the enemy. Instead of culling the force before he started out, he waited until he was well inside Mississippi and had already captured a major town before he sent his weakest 200 men back to base, along with all prisoners and surplus captured horses, giving the local spies the impression he was leading a standard short-range patrol.

Grierson also pioneered the tactic of having picked men plant rumors, “disinformation” as the Soviets would have called it, in every town he passed about where the column was going. It must have been a great time for all the frustrated actors in uniform—staggering around drunk or weeping about a made-up relative who was in harm’s way, then adding a tearful beg to “tell Granma the Yankees is comin’ and she needs to git”—and then leaving the Confederate forces waiting all jilted outside granma’s house while Grierson’s troopers zigged the other way.

Grierson’s wildest, most effective juke was a false-flag operation worthy of the North Korean People’s Army.  He dressed his best scouts in drab gray-brown outfits that could pass for standard Confederate irregular-cavalry uniforms and sending them ahead.  If the locals happened to think these guys were fighting for Dixie, well, that wasn’t Grierson’s fault.  A whole lot of useful info came to Grierson thanks to these spies, I mean scouts.

These misdirection plays let Grierson come close to doing the impossible: Conducting successful conventional warfare without atrocity in enemy civilian areas.  And these weren’t the scared peasants you get in a lot of wars; this was the South back when it expected to win the war and took all Yankees but especially Yankee cavalry for hopeless cowards. 

Most commanders would solve this “problem of perception” the obvious way by burning villages and hanging all male civilians without a good alibi.  Grierson never did.

Grierson, a softie (in some ways) who hated making the local women cry and never let his men get rough or even search private houses, actually USED the fact that the civilians were agin’ him against them, by sending so many vanguards in so many false directions that any enemy force would be swamped with useless intelligence.

An under-used tactic in low-impact CI [counter-insurgency] warfare.  Anybody know where else it’s been used and how well it worked?  The obvious flaw is that you’d expect to lose a lot of men on these misdirection missions to casual sniping, but the level of gore around 1863 probably made that a non-worry.  At that point they were worrying about losing whole units, not little individual lives.

Grierson headed straight south into Mississippi, scattering militia as he rolled into Pontotac, the first big town on the route.  From 1862 on, any veteran unit—on either side—could crush pretty much any force scraped up from local militia, no matter how big it was.

Grierson sent Hatch’s Iowa regiment east to threaten the Mobile and Ohio, which paralleled his line-of-march near the Alabama border. The few real Confederate regulars in the area fell for it and massed to the east, assuming this was just a standard cavalry raid with no aim besides brief tactical rail disruption (Grant on the subject: “Any damage inflicted on a railroad by cavalry is soon repaired.”)

Nobody got the bigger purpose, freeing up the territory around Vicksburg for Grant’s infantry. … …

Grierson was such a Jimmy Stewart softie—and such a damn genius at it—that when he actually wanted to stop locals from sending info to the enemy (instead of encouraging them the way he usually did) he managed that without hanging or shooting anybody. 

That happened when he reached Louisville, more than halfway down Mississippi. The fact that his men were in Louisville, on a line for the rail line running west to Vicksburg, was worth keeping as quiet as long as possible.

So, taking advantage of the fact that most towns in Mississippi didn’t have working telegraphs, he sent small, disciplined cavalry pickets to the edge of town to make sure no public-spirited Rebs got the idea of playing Paul Revere.

And, because he was one of these insanely fair officers you get in the Civil War, he kept other pickets along his men’s route through town to stop any pilfering. … …

Grierson’s men hit the east-west railroad at Newton Station, where his “scouts” jumped a train just coming in full of supplies, commandeered it, and did the same to another right behind it. … … The whole depot went up in flames along with all the rolling stock, and with only a few hours to enjoy the show—the ammo cars made some great fireworks, by all accounts—Grierson headed on south.

But the fun has to end sometime, and the Confederates were scared enough by this time to send troops south after Grierson. 

Here’s a classic moment between your standard tactically effective officer and a real genius like Grierson. A good officer with no imagination would go out with a bang, accept that he’d done his job in the big picture—drawing troops away from Vicksburg—and surrender on cue.  Grierson had other ideas, and his nerf-Mongol style really came into its own as he faked and juked the Confederates right in their heartland.

With Pemberton’s forces slogging south after him, and another Southern force under Wirt Adams waiting for him to the south, at Union Church, Grierson did something Subotai would have loved, jumping into Wirt’s defenses as if he was going to plow through to the south, then sagging to the east, right out of Adams’ range.

Adams’ cavalry shadowed them south, so they couldn’t join up with the main Union forces pushing north to Vicksburg, so Grierson kept on south, burning rails and munition depots as he went. 

The most incredible thing about the whole raid is that he didn’t have to do a full-on frontal attack, thanks to all those feints, until he was at the Tickfaw River on the road to Baton Rouge, which was in Union hands.

Grierson crossing Tickfaw River

Grierson crossing Tickfaw River

At the crossing he finally had to face what every commander hated most: A river crossing under fire from an enemy entrenched on the opposite bank.

Grierson tried one attack which failed, then redeployed his men according to what Rommel discovered fighting in Rumania in WW I:  “Two men in support-fire to one man on the attack.”  That was enough to drive the enemy away from the crossing, since they were too stingy or stupid to burn Wall’s Bridge in the first place, which would actually have delayed Grierson a while. … …

As MacPherson said in Battle Cry of Freedom, Grierson’s raid outshines anything Forrest did … … .  Imagine Forrest riding 600 miles through New England with minimal casualties and ending up safe in Confederate lines, and you’ll have an idea of what a phenomenal accomplishment it really was.

Grierson's brigade reaches Baton Rouge

Grierson reaches Baton Rouge

It was a tactical victory, with far more casualties inflicted than suffered and huge amounts of materiel destroyed; it was a mid-range strategic victory, and a great one, preventing the reinforcement of Vicksburg at a key moment; and it was a long-term decisive demonstration that the South was over-mobilized, “all hollow,” as Sherman said.

Most historians credit Grant’s return march after that earlier failed Vicksburg campaign with showing Sherman that a mobile force could live off the land, but Grierson’s raid showed something even more important: the fact that there was no defense worth mentioning inside the walls of Festung Dixie.

Grierson led another raid, and survived the war.  Afterwards he commanded a regiment of black troops—”buffalo soldiers”—on the western frontier.

It was while he commanded a regiment in the Indian Wars that Grierson proved he was more than a raider. He was one of the few Union officers who got the point that it wasn’t enough to free the blacks and leave them to hang with the surviving relatives of the people who used to own them down South.

He volunteered as Colonel of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which Sherman had ordered formed from black Union vets.  It was the usual Civil-War setup: White officers with black troops.  The 10th was posted to Kansas in 1866, assigned to protect the Kansas Pacific RR from Injun attacks, then Oklahoma (“Indian Territory” at the time) and finally the Dakota Territory.

You didn’t get sent to Dakota if you were the brass’s pet unit.  Once the Civil War was over, the race issue was done as far as most of America was concerned. 

Col. Hoffman, the commander of Fort Leavenworth, the 10th’s first assignment, made it real clear to Grierson and his troops that they weren’t wanted by ordering them to camp in a swamp a mile from the fort.  Just in case the blacks hadn’t got the message, Hoffman ordered them not to line up within 15 yards of the white units at Leavenworth.

Grierson stood up for his troops and had a yelling match right in front of the assembled troops.  Since Hoffman was base commander—and more important, Hoffman had the whole place behind him, nobody in the mood to let the blacks into their little club—Grierson pushed to get the 10th transferred to another base, Fort Riley, as soon as he could.

There were gunfights between white and black troops—just like Nam almost exactly 100 years later, after Tet broke morale.  [snip]

Grierson kept trying, picking the best spots he could to put the reservations, get respect for his buffalo soldiers, make the land-grabs that were bound to come a little less brutal.

Sheridan thought he was a wuss, and his brother officers thought he was crazy for refusing a transfer away from the black regiment and the plains winters.  He stayed on the job until 1890, which is not bad when you consider it was one of those situations where there’s no good solution.

… … Imagine a Grierson born in 1860, in time for the Robber Barons.  He’d be ground up and sold to Purina, like Grant would—like both of them would if they were around now.


There’s a lot of good stuff in Brecher’s article I left out.  To read it all, click on War Nerd: Ben Grierson, Actual Hero.

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One Response to “Ben Grierson, a forgotten hero”

  1. johncoyote Says:

    A outstanding story. I enjoyed it.


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