After I started elementary school, I became the movie partner of my mother. My father rarely went to the movies; my mother had been starstruck since she was a child. During the summer months, and on weekends during the school year, I accompanied her to one of the big theaters in downtown New Orleans to watch the latest movie she was interested in. We started with the Disney films – my earliest remembered movie is Bambi, the 1942 film which I would have seen via re-release in 1956 or 1957.
My most vivid memory was going to the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street to see The Last Voyage, starring Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. Released in 1959, it was a tension-filled story about a passenger liner sinking in the Pacific, with rescue boats too far away to reach it before it sank. I cried through most of the movie. My mother felt so bad for taking me to see what was an adult-themed movie that, when it ended, she took me across Canal Street to see Some Like It Hotat the Joy Theatre. It was certainly funny, but it was even more adult-themed than The Last Voyage.
That same year, she took me to see The Horse Soldiers, a Civil War epic starring John Wayne and William Holden. (She liked John Wayne, but William Holden was one of her three favorite actors, with Robert Stack and Clark Gable rounding out the list.) The movie was based upon a 1956 historical novel of the same name by Harold Sinclair. The book itself was based upon a true story generally referred to as “Grierson’s Raid.”
From April 17 to May 2 of 1863, Colonel Benjamin Grierson (a pre-war music teacher in Illinois who happened to hate horses) led a brigade of three cavalry regiments from LaGrange, Tennessee to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, slicing right down through the state of Mississippi. Grierson’s Rad was intended by Gen. Ulysses Grant to be both a diversionary campaign and an effort to disrupt Confederate supply lines leading up to the siege of Vicksburg.
The raid was an unqualified Union success and proved critical to Grant’s ultimate victory at Vicksburg (William Tecumseh Sherman, who rarely said anything complimentary or even kind about other Civil War efforts, called the Grierson campaign “the most brilliant of the war.” Down through the state of Mississippi, train depots were burned (sometimes igniting nearby homes and businesses), railroad tracks were torn up, and stories of food, munitions, and clothing meant for Vicksburg were destroyed.
In 1954, Dee Brown, who years later would win the Pulitzer Prize for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, published Grierson’s Raid, a historical account of the campaign. Later historians have offered unflattering critiques of the book; Brown does have a tendency to occasionally invent dialogue which, while based on letters and memoirs, was closer to imagined than real. But his day-to-day account provides the sweep of the raid, the people and towns involved, how it was both resisted and (sometimes) welcomed, how the brigade “lived off the land,” and its rather unqualified success. It does provide the narrative sweep of the story, even if even amateurs like myself can easily spot what clearly Brown had to invent.
A more historical account of the campaign can be found in the 2018 book by Timothy Smith, entitled The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Raid Through Mississippi, published in 2018 (more on that book next week).
It’s strange that this campaign, so critical to the Union victory at Vicksburg, one of the two turning points of the Civil War in 1863 (the other being Gettysburg), is rarely mentioned in American or Civil War history classes, at least in pre-college education. Perhaps the paucity of solid historical accounts is one reason.
But there are historical records. Brown cites five primary sources he used for his 1954 book: Grierson’s manuscript autobiography and papers in the Illinois State Historical Library; Grierson’s privately printed Record of Services Rendered the Government; the journals of Stephen Alfred Forbes and his family letters; Griersons Raids, an account published by Richard Surby, a sergeant who took part in the raid; and the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.
The 1959 movie Horse Soldiers changed names, invented scenes that never happened, and added a romantic interest with the Southern plantation owner Hannah Hunter who deliberately eavesdrops on campaign discussions and is taken along for the raid. The movie was fairly popular at the time but never broke even; the two top stops were each paid $750,000.
What neither my mother nor I knew at the time was that Grierson’s Raid was part of our family history, with the Youngs’ home being in the Brookhaven, Mississippi area at the time. The raiders discovered pocket allegiance to the Union among some Brookhaven residents; the town had been established by a New Yorker and named for a town in that state. And when the burning of the train deport threatened to spread to the town itself, Grierson ordered his troops to help the town’s citizens fight the fire. My the 61-year-old great-great-grandfather would have likely been there. His youngest son and my great-grandfather would have been 16 at the time and might have been there or might have already enlisted.