April 17, 1863 – Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson set out with 1,700 Federal cavalrymen to divert Confederate attention from Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s landing below Vicksburg.
Grierson, a former music teacher, had been in the military for just 18 months before this assignment. He led the 2nd Iowa, the 6th and 7th Illinois cavalry regiments, and a battery of horse artillery from Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut’s division based at Memphis. Grierson’s main objective was to ride between the Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads and cut the vital Southern Mississippi Railroad, which connected Vicksburg to Jackson and Meridian, and eventually Mobile, Alabama.
Grierson also had instructions to disrupt as many enemy communication lines and destroy as many enemy supplies as possible. This would not only cripple the Confederates’ ability to defend Mississippi, but it would draw their attention away from Grant’s plan to march his army down the west bank of the Mississippi River and cross below Vicksburg.
The troopers left La Grange, Tennessee, and headed south, with only Grierson knowing the true object of their mission. They quickly entered northern Mississippi and clashed with Confederates at New Albany before reaching the vicinity of Pontotoc by Sunday the 19th.
Grierson sent over 150 wounded and ill troopers back north; their comrades called them the “Quinine Brigade.” These men returned on the same tracks they used to move south, deceiving Lieutenant Colonel Clark R. Barteau’s Confederate cavalry into thinking Grierson’s entire force was going back north. This gave Grierson more time to widen the distance between he and Barteau.
Grierson divided his force near West Point on the 21st, sending Colonel Edward Hatch’s 2nd Iowa east to threaten the Mobile & Ohio Railroad at Columbus before returning to La Grange, 175 miles north. Barteau’s Confederates pursued Hatch, giving Grierson freedom to attack the Southern Mississippi Railroad with his two Illinois regiments.
Two days later, the main Federal force reached the Southern Mississippi at Newton Station, about 100 miles east of Vicksburg in the heart of enemy territory. The troopers captured two locomotives pulling 36 railcars filled with Confederate supplies and ammunition. They destroyed the locomotives and the railcars, cut the telegraph lines, wrecked the railroad tracks, and burned nearby bridges. They also burned a government building that housed a large quantity of small arms and Confederate uniforms.
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, was aware of Grant’s attempts to move below Vicksburg, but he considered Grierson the greater threat and dispatched valuable resources to stop him. Grierson, having achieved his main objective, decided not to return to La Grange, but to instead join Grant’s main force crossing the Mississippi at Grand Gulf.
Meanwhile, 35 Federals of the 7th Illinois/Company B under Captain Henry C. Forbes arrived at Enterprise. Grierson had detached them to ride along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and cut the telegraph lines at Macon. Grierson also released a report stating that the main Federal force would be heading for Enterprise. This was intended to fool the Confederates, but it fooled Forbes as well, who had gone to Enterprise to meet up with the main force.
When Forbes learned that the town was heavily garrisoned by Confederate troops, he demanded their surrender and then rode off while they debated what to do. A Confederate report stated that Grierson’s main force was east of Newton Station, but most of Grierson’s men were actually moving west toward Grand Gulf. Forbes’s men hurried to join Grierson’s main force, which was difficult because the Federals had burned so many bridges. Forbes finally reached Grierson on the Pearl River on the 27th.
Meanwhile, news of Grierson’s raid reached Richmond, Virginia, and caused anxiety among the Confederate high command. Pemberton continued focusing mainly on the cavalry raids of not only Grierson, but also a smaller force east of Grierson under General Grenville Dodge, which had captured Tuscumbia, Alabama.
Pemberton frantically tried raising a cavalry force of his own to track down these raiders. He wrote Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus on the 25th, “I have the honor to call upon you to exercise the right vested in you by the Legislature of Mississippi, and to seize or impress the requisite number of animals–587–with trappings when possible.”
Pemberton continued, “The people residing in the immediate vicinity of each important depot of supplies and manufactures, and each railroad connection can easily render the Government an essential service and greatly relieve the army and increase its efficiency in protecting the country from the raids of the enemy.” For this, he asked Pettus “to organize all the citizens within a radius of 10 miles of each locality, not now in the Confederate or State service, into companies, battalions, and regiments, as the number at each place may justify.”
Both Pemberton and General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Western Department from Tullahoma, advised the Confederate commanders at Meridian and Newton Station on how best to track down Grierson’s troopers, which were headed southwest toward Grand Gulf. Pemberton next warned General Franklin Gardner, commanding Confederates at Port Hudson, that Grierson may be riding to join Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf at Baton Rouge. Pemberton then explained to Johnston that “these raids cannot be prevented unless I can have more mounted men.”
Grierson’s Federals continued west toward the Mississippi, burning a line of boxcars on the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad at Hazelhurst. They also clashed with Confederates near Union Church before learning that large numbers of Confederates were closing in from all directions. Realizing that he was cut off from Grand Gulf, Grierson resolved that he had to press on to Baton Rouge, another 150 miles away.
Pemberton notified Major General Carter L. Stevenson, commanding the Confederates at Vicksburg, that he may need to pull troops to deal with the raiders:
“It is indispensable that you keep in your lines only such force as is absolutely needed to hold them, and organize the remainder, if there are any of your troops as a movable force available for any point where it may be most required.”
Grierson’s raid succeeded beyond all Federal expectations. While Pemberton sent messages to various commanders to focus on the Federal troopers, Grant’s 45,000-man army continued its movement across the river from Vicksburg, soon to land in the city’s vulnerable rear.
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 127-29; Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 326; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 275, 277-79; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 334, 336-37; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 282-85; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 87-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 339; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 627; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 781-84