From April 17 to May 2 of 1863, a group of some 1,700 Union cavalry traveled from LaGrange Tennessee to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In less than three weeks, they cut a swath through central Mississippi surprising Confederate forces, Mississippi’s governor, and a number of cities and small towns along the way. Their goal: disrupt Confederate supply lines and draw attention from General Grant’s crossing of the Mississippi River right below Vicksburg.
The cavalry, under the command of Colonel Benjamin Grierson of Jacksonville, Illinois (and a music teacher in civilian life), were wildly successful. Grierson’s Raid, as it became known, was celebrated in the North and even grudgingly admired in the South. It had pulled off what few thought possible.
One might think that such an event would have been the subject of numerous books. For whatever reasons, possibly including a bias toward the eastern battle front in the Civil War, few book-length accounts are to be found. Dee Brown, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, published Grierson’s Raid in 1954. It was not well received by critics, and its reputation has not improved with time. Brown often made fast and loose with his account, inventing conversations and scenes out of whole cloth. Even a non-historian like myself can read it today and see where Brown fudged, or invented, his facts.
In 1956, a writer named Harold Sinclair published a novel about the raid, The Horse Soldiers, embellishing history even more. The novel because the basis for the 1959 movie of the same name, starring John Wayne and William Holden. The movie moved the story even farther away from the historical record.
In 2018, Timothy Smith, a professor at the University of Tennessee – Martin, published The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi. Proving that history books do not have to be dry and dull, Smith wrote a historically accurate account that tells the story in an engaging and fascinating way. Having read both the account by Brown and this account by Smith, the historian’s book is far superior and loses nothing in the telling.
Sixty-four-years after Dee Brown’s book, Smith had more sources to draw upon, but he used many of the same sources used by the popular writer. His account provides far more context than Brown’s, especially about Grierson’s background, the politics that was ongoing among the Union army leaders, and the importance of the raid to Grant’s ultimately successful attack on Vicksburg.
Reading about Grierson’s Raid is also personally intriguing. I had ancestors who died at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in 1862, and other relatives who were living in the Brookhaven, Mississippi, area at the time of the raid. They experienced first-hand what I know only as history, and it expands my understand of my family’s life during the Civil War.
Smith has published numerous books about the Civil War, including several on the Battle of Shiloh, the war in Tennessee and Mississippi, and the siege of Vicksburg. He’s appeared on the History Channel and C-Span and spoken widely about the Civil War. A former park ranger for the National Park Service at Shiloh Battlefield, he is currently a professor of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee – Martin.
The Real Horse Soldiers is a fine book. Smith not only tells a thrilling story; he also tells a historically accurate story.