By C.J. Johnson
A flotilla of Union gunboats successfully moved down river past
Vicksburg on the night of April 16.
Grant was preparing to cross the river, moving 27,000 troops from the
Louisiana side to Grand Gulf, just south of Vicksburg. Grierson’s
Raid was intended to draw Confederate troops from the Vicksburg area
toward the eastern half of the state. Not only did Grierson succeed
in misdirecting the Rebels, the bigger objective – to seize Vicksburg
– was also a success.
Union cavalry had been practically non-existent during the first two
years of the war. By far, the South had the premier cavalry and
“irregular forces,” with spectacular leaders and raiders like J. E.
B. Stuart, John S. Mosby, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Wade Hampton, John
Hunt Morgan, William Clarke Quantrill, and Earl Van Dorn.
Hands down, Southerners were superior horsemen. Riding was part of
Southern life. Whether Rebel or Yankee, the best cavalry leaders
were creative, innovative thinkers, who could improvise quickly.
Benjamin Grierson had these talents, although he disliked horses,
having been thrown by a horse as a child.
Grant wanted Grierson to lead this raid. Grierson eagerly
volunteered. The initial plan evolved, with emphasis on destroying
the Southern Railroad tracks between Meridian and Jackson. Grant
didn’t want supplies or troops sent to Vicksburg while he was moving
into the area, plus it was an added distraction from his activity at
Grierson’s 1,700 men were camped at LaGrange, Tennessee, just across
the line from Mississippi. Hitting the Southern Rails meant
traveling 250 miles into Mississippi. The orders read, “strike out by
way of Pontotoc, breaking right and left, cutting both [rail]roads,
destroying the [telegraph] wires, burning provisions, and doing all
the mischief they can, while one regiment ranges straight down to
Selma or Meridian, breaking the east and west [rail]road thoroughly,
and swinging back through Alabama.”
They left on April 17; only Grierson and his aide knew the real
objective. After traveling 30 miles the first day, they camped
outside Ripley. The next day, after capturing a bridge and engaging
in minor skirmishes, they camped south of New Albany.
Days of rain began on the 19th and Grierson split his force, with a
small group headed back to New Albany, another headed southeast, and
the rest to the northwest. Regrouping later, they passed through
Pontotoc and camped south of town.
Shortly after midnight on the morning of the 20th, Grierson sent “the
Quinine Brigade” back to LaGrange, with instructions to make it
appear the entire brigade was returning. Before dawn Grierson and
his remaining troops headed to Houston. They traveled cross country
to avoid detection around Houston and camped at Clear Springs that
night, having ridden 40 miles that day. However, they had been
spotted in Pontotoc, and now Confederates were in pursuit.
On the 5th day of the raid, sensing that he was being followed and
the Quinine Brigade deception wasn’t going well, Grierson detached a
regiment, commanded by Edward Hatch, to head east, toward the Gulf &
Ohio railroad. Their orders were to destroy the rails between West
Point and Macon and then cut over to Columbus. Hatch briefly
encountered Rebels, but continued. Passing through swamps, the
regiment found 200 slaves with their masters’ horses. The slaves
joined the Union cause and Hatch gained 600 fresh horses, as they
returned to La Grange.
Meanwhile, Hatch’s diversion gave Grierson an uninterrupted ride to
Starkville. Despite bad weather, they made 25 miles, and camped on
high ground in a swampy area south of Starkville.