There are actual American heroes. Not a lot, and you don’t hear much about them, but there are a few.
I don’t mean working moms who spend their Saturdays spooning soup into winos. I mean classic citizen-soldiers who get it right every time, in battle and in everything else. My favorite at the moment is Benjamin Grierson, because he not only led the finest cavalry raid of the Civil War (according to James MacPherson hisself) but managed to be right about everything, all his life—one of the few who look as good now as they did then.
The last straw for me, the thing that made me put “Grierson Column” on the topside of my hand (if I really mean to do something I write it on top of my hand; if I’m lying to myself I put it on the palm where nobody’ll see it) was when I went to what’s left of the library here and found a book actually called Heroes of the Civil War. Grierson wasn’t in it. Not even the index. I can’t forgive that. There’s an old song called something like, “If I ran the world,” and if I actually did a lot of writers would be standing against the nearest pockmarked wall.
If Grierson’s not a hero, nobody is. He looks as good today, maybe even better, than he did back then. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Heroes age pretty fast; a new issue comes up every few years, and these dead guys get vetted like they were running for office. That’s when the embarrassing parts come out: Forrest has Fort Pillow and the whole KKK thing, Grant had to go and ruin it by being President, and Sherman blew his chance to change the life of the freedmen.
But Grierson…I can’t find a bad thing about him. Even on the racial stuff, which is usually fatal to heroes from back then, Grierson comes off more heroic now than ever. I’d never believe that anybody could be that perfect, if it was somebody from these days. But those Victorians were all crazy, so when one of them was good—and there weren’t many who were—the good ones are crazy-good, a perfect mix of Dudley Doright and Subotai.
Even Grierson’s back-story is too perfect, movie-perfect. He was a music teacher in Ohio, a tall skinny Jimmy Stewart guy with the perfect comedy touch: He was scared to death of horses. What makes that perfect is that Grierson went on to lead what James MacPherson called the greatest cavalry raid of the whole war, riding from Tennessee 600 miles almost due south through enemy territory to land safe in Baton Rouge, LA, inflicting ten times the casualties he had himself—and then going on to be the one white officer who stood up for the black freedmen “Buffalo Soldiers” in the far West, at a time when America was using white-vs-black to heal up the raw North-vs-South scars.
It’s a script touch you’d drop if you were doing a movie, because it’s too much to believe.
But he had the scar to prove he came by this horse-o-phobia honestly. As a kid Grierson was kicked in the face by a horse, and carried the hoofprint on his face for the rest of his life, along with a good healthy fear of horses.
If you grew up in church, you get that story in a hot second: He was one of the Elect, horse-wise. God got him kicked, marked with the hoofprint to tell him he’d have to crawl to the ol’ rugged hoss, like it or not, and added the horse-phobia to make it more interesting. Although I’m not sure being scared of horses is even a phobia. It’s just common sense. Any animal with a tiny brain and an iron-tipped back leg cocked like a bear trap is a good thing to be scared of. I had some horsey relatives and every time they wanted to show us Gypsy or Joker, I’d be edging around trying to stay out of range of that twitchy back leg. I’d already read enough military history to know that horses killed and crippled a whole lot of soldiers. One thing I’ll say for cars: they may kill you but at least it won’t be personal. A horse can nurse a little grudge for weeks, then kick your brain out the back of your head.
Or the horse can stop short and send a rider flying into a log. That happened to Sherman in his early career, nearly crippled him. In fact there are still Civil War dudes getting hurt by horses, like these two poor guys, probably UPS drivers in real life, who were just trying to reenact the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, where Frank James got his start shooting people—except their horses weren’t as thrilled about making military history come to life as their riders were:
One man playing a Confederate cavalryman got pinned under his horse, while a Union cavalryman got injured when his horse stepped on his groin. Exactly how he got into a position where his horse could do that is unclear.
Yes, there it is, the tragedy of Civil War, brothers divided, one in gray and one in blue, but both cursing their dumb drooling dinosaur-brained animals while they waited for the paramedics, with the groin-injury Union man groaning, “I regret that I have but two gonads to give to my reenactment society.”
Ridiculous as it sounds, they probably did a better job of reenacting the real battle than most, because real Civil War cavalrymen (and officers, who rode most of the time) got kicked, stepped on, thrown, rolled on, trampled and bit by their horses all the time. Having your horse step on your balls has to be the worst, because you know everyone’s going to make a joke of it when they’re with their friends. Even the reporter here can’t resist, with that chuckly last line about “Exactly how he got into a position where his horse could do that is unclear.” When something like that happened in a real war—and it did, all the time—they probably didn’t even bother to hide the laughs.
Grierson, growing up with a reminder on his face of what horses could do, just wanted to play his trumpet, make a little extra teaching music, and keep out of trouble. He was Southern and when the war started he said he couldn’t imagine fighting against his family. Besides, he was broke, deep in debt, with a wife to support.
Interesting thing about the best men in the Civil War: Most of them were lousy businessmen. It took the war to show what they could do. That backs up something I’ve been thinking lately, now that we’re all supposed to worship business: I don’t like business. Business is good for some people and bad for others, and the ones who are bad at it generally turn out to be the best soldiers.
Grierson finally faced the fact that he was going to have to go to war and started studying from scratch, recruiting a company, the 10th Illinois Infantry. The way he backed into command was typical of a lot of Union officers, especially the ones from the West. In the newer states like Ohio, it all came down to local politics. That’s one big change between their time and ours. These days local politics is nothing, but in 1861 it made way more difference in your life who was the local postmaster or mayor than it did who was in the White House. And the bitchy fights over influence carried right over to the command of all the units that formed up in the early days of the war.
Grierson got caught up in the fight between Grant and Ben Prentiss. Grant took quick and hard dislikes to some people and Prentiss was one of them. A good soldier—proved it at Shiloh—but Grant was elbowing for influence in the Western theatre and Prentiss was in his way. Since Grant was a natural power forward, he got the rebound and Prentiss ended up retiring mid-war, bitter about the whole thing.
Grierson was one of the extras in their fight and got bounced into the cavalry. Now this had to be one of the funniest moments in the whole war, this geeky, skinny music teacher with a hoofprint on his face and a huge fear of horses finding out he was transferred fro the 10th Illinois Infantry to the 6th Cavalry.
Grierson went from horse-hater to regimental commander because he lucked into another of those classic early-Civil War situations: The commander of the regiment, Col. Cavanaugh, was one of those hopeless drunks (Irish too, from the name) who from what I can tell made up about half the male population of the country back in 1861. Cavanaugh didn’t make much of an impression on the men, what with being gone most of the time and bombed out of his mind the rest, so they petitione the governor of Ohio to get rid of him and put the new guy, Grierson in his place.
He took to it in a second. God knows, maybe they found a horse he could relate to, or maybe he just had that insane duty-bound attitude that made battlefields like Franklin and Cold Harbor such unhealthy places for a few hours at a time. One way or another, he got back on the horse–like literally. And in a few months he turned into one of the few Federal cavalry commanders who stood out at a time when the Union cavalry was considered a joke by the rebels.
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.
And he hadn’t even started the raid that won him the real glory. That came in the spring of 1863, one of the distractions Grant used to cover his cross-river move south of the city. Grant wanted Pemberton to look anywhere but downstream toward Grand Gulf and Bruinsburg, where the surviving riverboats from the big gun-running gauntlet ferried his men across to the Vicksburg side. So he sent Sherman to Snyder’s Bluff—and “bluff” was a good name for it because Sherman’s job was to pretend he was going to try his big failed Chickasaw attack again. To make sure Pemberton wouldn’t know where to send his reinforcements, Grant sent out cavalry expeditions in different directions.
- Grierson’s route: Straight South
The unlucky raid was commanded by Abel Streight, and the unlucky part of it was that he was tracked by Nathan Bedford Forrest. Streight started from Nashville with a brigade of about 1600 cavalry, tiptoed downstate to the Mississippi-Alabama line, and staggered east/southeast across ‘Bama. Streight’s diversion ended at Cedar Bluff, almost at the Georgia border, where Forrest bluffed Streight into surrendering by marching his few dragoons back and forth to make them look like a whole corps. Weird how these old tricks work sometimes, but you’ll notice they usually work better when they’re played by somebody like Forrest who inspired sheer terror in their opponents.
Misdirection was going to turn out to be crucial in the whole Vicksburg campaign, at tactical and strategic level. Grant’s strategy was to make Pemberton, commanding the defense of the city, fling units around against feint attacks while Grant landed the real force far to the south, on the east bank. Tactically, units operating in the West, where there was a huge territory to be covered by mostly small units, were fighting a more mobile force than the slow gyro-carving in Northern Virginia and had much more opportunity to use false moves, and old-school deceptions like Forrest’s in Cedar Bluff, to fool the enemy.
But capturing Streight took Forrest out of the Vicksburg campaign and left the second brigade under Grierson free and clear. Streight was set up to lose; his men got the nags, Grierson’s got prime horseflesh. You have to figure the choice of commanders went the same way: Streight wasn’t a bad officer, but he wasn’t a star either. Grierson already had a reputation.
And with Forrest busy chasing Streight, Grierson was up against some real C-League Confederate commanders, like Robert Richardson, whose only contributions to Civil War lore are a whiny letter home begging for more skillets and the fact that he survived the war just to get himself shot in the back outside a tavern, proving that even back then the most dangerous thing you can do is win a fight in a bar.
Subtract Forrest and the Confederate talent pool in the West is as shallow as the L. A. River. Pillow, Van Dorn, Price—it’s a hall of shame. Of course it didn’t help that some of their best, like Col. Rogers of the 2nd Texas, were slaughtered early on or blocked for promotion by that fool Jeff Davis (Rogers had both those handicaps) but that waste of talent happened on both sides, so you have to go with the survivors.
Forrest, who made it through the war and had enough energy left to start the Klan and make a fortune, made some of his best military decisions when he disobeyed these fools’ orders, like when he carried 4000 troopers out of the wreck of Fort Donelson by himself, or near the finish of his career as a cooperative subordinate, when he told Braxton Bragg that if they ever met again, one of them would die and it wouldn’t be the guy who looked like Chuck Liddell in a bad mood. (Although Bragg was a looker himself–living proof that great-grandma Bragg had a thing for Neanderthals.)
Forrest, Definitely Not Gump
Chuck Liddell Looking Forrest-al
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.
Grierson 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 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. Nobody understood Grierson’s nerf-war CI tactics, either. But there was a bigger, maybe the biggest, strategic gain that was another year showing up in Sherman’s raid: Grierson was showing, by pushing right through the heart of Mississippi, what Sherman figured out a year later: “The South is hollow, all hollow inside”—over-mobilized and helpless once the outer defenses were beaten, classic defenseless-villager stuff that in any other country, any other era, would have meant rape’n’pillage galore. All that was holding the Union back from winning the war Mongol-style was a notion that white Americans weren’t fair game for the classic cavalry campaign, the kind that explains why Genghis Khan’s personal genes can still be found in some huge percentage of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Me, I’d’ve gone for it, mounting all Federal troops and giving them sabers, torches and compasses that pointe south—but then you wouldn’t pick Jimmy Stewart to play me.
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. Again, it was me I’d be annoyed: We’re in their territory, and we don’t get so much as a gold watch? I mean c’mon, sir, you think we signed the enlistment papers for the generous wages or the medical plan? It’s like you don’t even want to kill people or something, all these
But there you go—the Jimmy Stewart thing. Wannabe Bummers like me need not apply when Grierson was in command.
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. Then, for once, there was work for the guys like me in his command, a few hours to pay the locals back for all those saddle sores. 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. 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.
Grierson’s brigade reaches Baton Rouge
When Grierson’s men rode into Baton Rouge, half of them were zombies, since they’d been going on about three hours’ sleep a day for way too long. But they were heroes in the North, with an illustration in Harper’s Weekly and everything, and at a time when most of the opinion-makers in NYC were as on-top-of-it as they usually are, moaning about Grant being “bogged down in the mud before Vicksburg, no good to themselves or anybody else.”
As MacPherson said in Battle Cry of Freedom, Grierson’s raid outshines anything Forrest did (except maybe capturing steamboats with cavalry, but that’s more of a Buster Keaton novelty act than a strategic victory). 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.
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 survived the war and fought Forrest twice, coming out of it with a 1-1 record, which was about the best anyone ever did against Forrest. But the rest of his wartime service was a letdown after the Raid, and it deserves the capital letter.
Grierson took a drop in rank when the war ended, like most Union officers. (Well, you could say Confederate officers took a bigger one.) Grierson was a brevet Major General in 1865, dropped back to Colonel after Appomatox. But 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.
10th Cavalry troopers
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. The theatre commander was Phil Sheridan, who wasn’t exactly a racist—when he was in charge of reconstructing Texas, a job which would be right up there with reconstructing Afghanistan, he was disgusted by the white mobs who killed three dozen blacks and said, “If I owned Texas and Hell I would rent Texas and live in Hell.” But Sheridan was a total-war man; he’d proved that in the Shenandoah and he kept the same policy on the plains. If the Sioux were the enemy, starve ’em out, kill the last buffalo—no mercy. Sheridan gets called a racist and blamed for that “only good Indian” remark, but it’s not all that clear he really said it and my take is, if he’d been in any other war in history, he’d have said the same thing about the planter families of Dixie. He was just a natural war-of-extermination man.
Grierson leading 10th Cavalry
Grierson wasn’t. In fact, Grierson’s position on the plains makes Job’s troubles look like a casual Friday afternoon in a cushy civil service job. In the first place Grierson was trying to prove that black Americans could make good troopers, but he also sympathized hard with the Indians—who were the only enemy those black troopers had to prove their worth
as soldiers against. Dudley Doright would’ve shot himself, but Grierson stayed on the horse like he always did, did his best in a rotten world. He fought the other white officers who wanted his troops out of sight, out of the army, just plain out; but he fought for the Indians too, as much as he could.
There were a few decent people out there, and Grierson worked with them, especially this Quaker Indian agent. It’s kind of a constant: Over and over, in the worst place, you can count on the Quakers. Too bad they’ve disappeared. On second thought, that’s probably WHY they disappeared.
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. It’s got nothing much to do with that Wounded-Knee/bleeding-heart dumbed-down story of bad whities and good Injuns. When the power difference is as big as it was between the US and the Sioux, it’s going to end the same way if both sides are purple with green spots. But it’s not something you can feel good about.
Maybe that’s why it’s so much easier to think about The Raid than Grierson’s way longer time on the plains afterward. The Indian Wars could only end one way: Extinction of the Plains Tribes. The Civil War was one of the real few other kinds of war—the only other one I can think of is the English Civil War—when people who see themselves as being the same blood, the same language, the same everything, fight each other hard but clean, at least by normal standards—one of those rare wars where most encounters are actual battles, not massacres. Grierson, who doesn’t seem to have had either a weak or a mean bone in his body, was made for a war like that. The Plains wars brought out what you might call a more standard kind of warrior, people as messed-up as me.
The other Americans, the Griersons, are hard to believe in sometimes. There don’t seem to be a lot around right now, and they went away pretty fast after 1865 too, turned fast to a generation of bankers, like now—scum of the earth. Weird process, that quick turn, but we seem to do it over and over. The only Grierson I ever met was this big kindly Swede from Minnesota who taught my Social Studies class. He actually believed in democracy and debate, which in Bakersfield, believe me, put him in the world’s tiniest minority.
We laughed at him; he retired for psych stuff after his wife left him for another woman and it got around. We thought that was the funniest thing in the world. He told us on the last day, “I thought I was a teacher, but you have shown me otherwise.” That was his style, full-sentence with no contractions—raw meat for class-clown types.
Maybe there has to be what a bio teacher would call a habitat for people like that. 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.
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