Thrown from his horse and kicked in the head as he tried to answer his brothers frantic calls, for two weeks the 8 year old boy lay in a coma, teetering on the edge of life and death. When he eventually regained consciousness, and the bandages were removed he had lost sight in one of his eyes. Though the blindness would eventually fade, his fear of the powerful animal would not.
Distrustful of horses for the rest of his life in many senses Benjamin Grierson was perhaps one of the most unlikely of soldiers, let alone a Calvary Officer. Yet, with the drums of war now beating, and the bonds of union between the states shattered, the music teacher from Jacksonville, Illinois, deeply in debt, with his wife and children living with his parents, enlisted as an unpaid aid to Major General Benjamin Prentiss. It was here that he flourished, rising first to the rank of Major, and then Colonel of the 6th Illinois Calvary. Now, with the resignation of General Charles Hamilton, and his eyes set on the last Confederate Stronghold along the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, General Ulysses S. Grant, looked to Grierson to pave the path to it.
Up until this point it had seemed that the Union Calvary Commanders weren’t up to the tasks place in front of them. They were no match for giants of the Confederacy. With nicknames like “The Wizard of the Saddle”, “The Knight of the Golden Spur” and “Thunderbolt”, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Jeb Stuart and John Hunt Morgan dominated the battlefields against their counterparts. Yet, on April 17th, 1863 the 36 year old Grierson, with the 6th and 7th Illinois Calvary, the 2nd Iowa Calvary and a battery of 6 two pounders, launched a raid that would prove him every bit the equal of those great strategic minds in the South.
Having written to his wife, “You must not be alarmed should you not hear from me inside a month… my movements are to aid a great movement which is to take place at a distant point or points. You will understand what I refer to.” he would carry with him a compass and a cotton map to guide him and a report made by a Union Loyalist in Mississippi, containing travel routes, locations of Confederate depots and warehouses and the loyalties of the people throughout the State. He knew that he and his troops were to lose no time. There Grierson and his men covered thirty miles in their first day, before splitting to cross the Tallahatchee River at three different points by the next morning. Perhaps, had General Forrest not been putting down the raids of Colonel Abel Streight in Alabama he could have offered resistance to Grierson’s efforts, perhaps even meeting him measure for measure. But he was and the Union Calvary pushed forward, with the efforts of other Confederate Calvary Commanders ultimately unsuccessful against him.
Each and every step of the way he hardened his men, pushing them to the brink, often only eating one meal a day as they continued undaunted, all efforts by the Confederacy to oppose him ultimately lacking. General Wirt Adams, one point would write to Lieutenant General John Pemberton, commander of the Vicksburg Garrison, declaring, “During the last twenty-four hours of their march in this state they travelled at a sweeping gallop, the numerous stolen horses previously collected furnishing them fresh relays. I found it impossible to my great mortification and regret to overhaul them.” Another Confederal Calvary Commander, Colonel Robert Richardson would declare, “We had forces enough to have captured and destroyed him but his movements were so rapid and uncertain of aim we could not concentrate our scattered forces.”
By the time the raiders rode into Baton Rouge on May 2nd, Vicksburg was only a push away from falling. Pemberton had already dispatched an entire division to protect the Vicksburg-Jackson Railway line from Grierson’s assaults, as stories of the size of his force grew. In their last assault, they had pushed forward for 28 hours straight without food, sleep or even the briefest of rest as they covered about 76 miles. In 17 days over 600 miles were covered, 2 railway lines were disabled, with over 50 miles of the railway destroyed, over 100 confederates were killed or wounded, another 500 were captured along with a thousand horses and mules. With the lose of less than 30 men, three dead, seven wounded, five too sick to carry on and nine missing, he had, according to General William Tecumseh Sherman, launched “the most brilliant expedition of the war.” A short time later when General Grant would join Sherman to take Vicksburg, they would find the Confederacy spread too thin to mount any real resistance.
Grierson, who often shunned the spotlight, would, to his chagrin, become a national hero if but for a short time.
Having found his calling he would remain in the military after the war. Stationed in the West, the commander of an African American regiment it would largely be his attitude that would be his undoing. Considered a fair and consistent man, he was not only fiercely protective for his regiment, but also a constant advocate for them in a time when many didn’t believe they should be serving. Seen as too sympathetic in his dealings with Native Americans, arguing in favor of honoring treaties rather than war, it made him an unpopular figure in the west. A firm opponent of total war, though his raids were quick and decisive he would refuse to commit his troops to anything he considered having to high of a casualty rate, nor would he destroy civilian farms, or pillage and plunder private citizens.
For him there were limits, and it would be his undoing before he faded into the obscure, eventually retiring in 1890, two years after the death of his wife Alice and two months after being promoted to Brigadier General.