April 17, 1863, dawned with the promise of an almost perfect spring day. The Federal cavalry camp at La Grange, Tennessee, had been alive with activity since early morning. Anxious soldiers awaited the arrival by train of Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, commander of the 1st Brigade of the Cavalry Division, XVI Corps, Army of Tennessee. Summoned back from a visit to his family, Grierson had spent the late evening hours conferring with his superiors in Memphis. When he arrived in camp, he brought welcome news: the long inactivity of winter would soon be relieved, and not merely by the tedium of scouting and reconnaissance. His orders included nothing less than an invasion of Mississippi–one of the most daring cavalry raids of the Civil War.
Grierson’s men were not the only ones preparing to march that day. Federal forces were in motion across the entire Western front from Memphis to Nashville. Major General Ulysses S. Grant planned to move his army across the Mississippi River from Louisiana to gain a better position from which to assault the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. To mask this movement, he ordered infantry and artillery from Tennessee to push south into northwestern Mississippi along the Coldwater River. At the same time, Colonel Abel Streight and 1,000 mounted infantry were sent to disrupt Confederate communications in northern Alabama. While these maneuvers occupied Confederates, Grant proposed to send a strong mounted column into the heart of Mississippi to smash railroads and divert the attention of Confederate cavalry from his attempt to cross the river.
To execute this thrust, Grant selected Grierson, a 36-year-old former music teacher and storekeeper from Jacksonville, Illinois. Grierson had proven himself a reliable and resourceful cavalry commander while fighting guerrillas in west Tennessee. Major General William T. Sherman had recommended him as ‘the best cavalry commander I have yet had. Tall and lean, the bearded Grierson possessed an iron constitution and a modest and unassuming demeanor that earned him the respect of men under his command.
That command consisted of 1,700 veterans from the 6th and 7th Illinois and the 2d Iowa Cavalry regiments. For speed and surprise, Grierson stripped his command down to essentials. The haversacks his men carried across their saddle pommels held five days’ light rations of hardtack, coffee, sugar, and salt. He instructed company commanders to make those rations last at least 10 days. Each soldier also carried a carbine, saber, and 100 rounds of ammunition. The only carriages were those bearing the six two-pounder Woodruff guns of Captain Jason B. Smith’s Battery K of the 1st Illinois Artillery.
Grierson’s chief concern was the broken-down condition of his horses. Some men in the 2d Iowa rode mules appropriated from the brigade’s wagon train. The expedition would rely heavily on the Mississippi countryside for new mounts, as well as food and forage.
Despite Grierson’s worries, a lighthearted mood prevailed among his Yankee horsemen. The men seemed to feel highly elated, and, as they marched in columns of twos, some were singing, others speculating as to our destination, recalled Sergeant Richard Surby. They would have been surprised to learn their commander had only a vague notion of their goal. Grierson had orders only to disable the section of the Southern Railroad that ran east from Jackson to an intersection with the Mobile & Ohio Railroad at Meridian, just north of Enterprise. Beyond that, his movements had been left to his own discretion. He carried in his uniform pocket a small compass, a map of Mississippi, and a written description of the countryside. Success or failure would depend largely on his skill and ingenuity.
The Federals crossed the Tallahatchie River on April 18 and pressed south through torrential rains the following day. They encountered almost no resistance at first, but news of the raid soon reached Confederates in the state. Lieutenant Colonel C.R. Barteau raced north along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad with the 2d Tennessee Battalion, Colonel J.F. Smith’s militia regiment, and Major W.M. Inge’s battalion. Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the defense of Vicksburg, called on district commanders James R. Chalmers and Daniel Ruggles to mobilize Confederate cavalry in northern Mississippi.
The Federals plodded southward on the 19th over roads that were fast becoming quagmires. That evening they reached Pontotoc, where they halted only long enough to destroy government property and sift through captured documents abandoned by a retreating militia company. They went into camp about five miles south of Pontotoc. Despite the deteriorating roads, the hard-riding horsemen were maintaining a brisk pace of 30 miles per day.
To help keep up that pace, Grierson stripped his command of dead weight. In a midnight inspection he personally weeded out 175 of the least effective troopers. At 3:00 a.m. on April 20, Major Hiram Love of the 2d Iowa led this Quinine Brigade–along with prisoners, broken down horses, and a single artillery piece–out of the Federal camp toward La Grange. By moving in columns of fours under cover of darkness, Grierson hoped Love would deceive local residents into thinking the entire command had turned back.
With Love on his way north, the main column resumed its march. The force encamped shortly after dark on the 20th. In four days the raiders had encountered only token resistance, but Barteau’s Confederate cavalry was fast closing in. They had entered Pontotoc well behind the Federal force on the morning of the 20th, but closed the gap with hard riding that night. By daybreak on the 21st they were scant hours behind the Union horsemen.
Grierson did not know how close his pursuers were, but he certainly expected pursuit. To obscure his trail, he detached Hatch’s 500-man 2d Iowa–nearly a third of his command–and a gun from Smith’s battery. Hatch, a bombastic 31-year-old former lumberman, left the main column with instructions to strike the Mobile & Ohio Railroad near West Point, destroying its tracks as far south as Macon, about halfway between West Point and Meridian. He was then to swing through Alabama, doing further damage to rail and telegraph lines during his return to La Grange.
Before joining Hatch’s detachment, Company E of his 2d Iowa and the two-pounder artillery piece followed the main column three or four miles toward Starkville. There the Iowans wheeled about and returned in columns of fours, obliterating hoofprints in the opposite direction. They turned the tiny cannon at four different spots in the road to leave distinct sets of wheel impressions, suggesting that four different cannon had turned. With a little luck, pursuing Confederates would pick up the freshest tracks in the thick mud and conclude that Grierson’s entire force had turned east toward the Mobile & Ohio.
Hatch’s diversion worked flawlessly. Barteau, arriving at the junction shortly before noon, reported, My advance guard fired upon a party of 20 of the enemy, supposed to be the rear guard. This party fled and took the Starkville road. The enemy had divided, 200 going to Starkville and 700 continuing their march on the West Point road. Barteau turned eastward in pursuit.
At 2:00 p.m. Barteau fell upon the Iowans’ flanks and rear two miles northwest of Palo Alto. After a fierce skirmish, the Confederates withdrew. Their position, however, covered the road leading south to West Point and Macon, compelling Hatch to reevaluate his orders. He believed it was important to divert the enemy’s cavalry from Colonel Grierson, so his Hawkeyes began a slow withdrawal northward, drawing the pursuing Rebels along with them. Barteau would finally break off contact on the 24th.
Meanwhile, the 950 troopers of the 6th and 7th Illinois and Smith’s four remaining guns raced southward. Shortly after noon on the 21st, a half-dozen horsemen at the head of the column shed their Union blue in favor of civilian garb. Each cradled a shotgun or long rifle. The brainchild of Lieutenant Colonel William D. Blackburn of the 7th and commanded by Quartermaster Sergeant Richard W. Surby, this unit of Butternut Guerrillas would serve as the eyes and ears of the Yankee raiders.
The next day Grierson again focused his attention on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad that paralleled his line of march 25 miles to the east. Uncertain of Hatch’s fate, he dispatched Captain Henry C. Forbes and 35 men of the 7th’s Company B to disrupt the tracks at Macon.
Forbes found both Macon and the tracks outside it too well guarded for his small band to approach. He turned back in search of Grierson’s trail, leaving the railroad intact. Although his mission failed, it drew attention away from the main body of Federals and focused Rebel eyes on the railroad. During the night of April 22, 2,000 troops moved north by rail from Meridian to protect Macon from assault by a force estimated at 5,000 Union troops.
While the Confederates rushed to protect Macon, Grierson passed swiftly south. News of the Yankee raid had not yet reached the region, and townspeople cheered the dust-covered horsemen who galloped through Louisville shortly after dark on the 22d, mistaking them for Confederate cavalry.
Grierson was almost within striking distance of the Southern Railroad by the night of the 23d. After conferring with his field officers about 10:00 p.m., he sent Blackburn and about 200 officers and men to seize the depot at Newton Station, just south of Decatur, tear up the track and telegraph line, and inflict all the damage possible upon the enemy. The main column followed in Blackburn’s trail within an hour.
Blackburn’s troopers approached Newton Station just as the first rays of sunlight spread across the eastern horizon on the morning of the 24th. Surby and two butternut-clad companions casually slipped into the outskirts of town, where they learned a train was expected soon. The shrieking whistle of a westbound freight train sent one of the scouts speeding back to alert Blackburn, who had barely concealed his men behind the depot buildings when the 25-car freight puffed laboriously into the station. As the locomotive drew abreast of the depot, blue-clad soldiers burst from the shadows and bounded into the cab. With pistols drawn, they ordered the startled engineer to stop the engine.
No sooner had they diverted the train from the main track and scurried back into hiding than a second locomotive pulled slowly into the depot from the west. Using the same tactic, the raiders seized 13 cars crammed with weapons, ammunition, and supplies. A passenger car disgorged several distraught civilians fleeing from besieged Vicksburg with their furniture and other personal belongings. After removing the private property, Blackburn’s jubilant soldiers sent flames dancing down the length of both strings of captured cars. Soon, the deep reverberations of shells erupting in the intense heat reached Grierson’s ears five miles away and brought the main Federal column charging briskly to the rescue. Grierson was happy to find the noise was caused not by a pitched battle, but by the destruction of Rebel ammunition. He was less pleased to observe many of his troopers filling their canteens from a captured whiskey barrel.
In addition to the 38 railroad cars and their contents, 500 stand of arms and a large quantity of clothing went up in flames at Newton Station. Explosions ruptured the captured locomotives, and fire consumed the depot. Amid the smoking ruins, Grierson paroled 75 prisoners. After spreading the false rumor that the raiders were headed for Enterprise on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, Grierson was back in the saddle and southbound by 2:00 p.m. The riders would not reign up to sleep until near midnight, about 48 hours after their last bivouac.
During the night, Grierson contemplated his next move. Aware that Rebel forces were converging to block his escape through northern Mississippi, he decided to feint westward and then proceed south slowly, resting his men and animals, collecting food, and gathering information. He would then make up his mind whether to return to La Grange by way of Alabama, or to drive south and try to join with Union forces on the Mississippi River.
The band spent April 25 on the march, stopping near nightfall. Grierson learned from informants that a Rebel force was en route from Mobile to intercept the Yankee raiders. To verify the report and further confuse the enemy, Grierson sent Samuel Nelson, one of Surby’s resourceful scouts, to cut telegraph wires near Forest Station on the Southern Railroad and perhaps destroy a railroad bridge or trestle. Slipping out of camp around midnight, Nelson approached within seven miles of the railroad, where he stumbled upon a regiment of Confederate horsemen on the trail of Grierson’s column. With his benign disguise enhanced by a slight stutter, Nelson passed himself off as an unwilling guide for the Yankee cavalry. He told the Rebels they faced a unit that was 1,800 strong and headed east toward the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Satisfied with Nelson’s story, the Confederates released him and headed off in pursuit of the phantom force.
In fact, Grierson had decided to continue southwest and strike the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad at Hazelhurst, disrupting the movement of troops and supplies between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Following a good night’s rest and with a full supply of forage and provisions, Grierson’s raiders broke camp at 6:00 a.m. on April 26. At Raleigh, Surby’s scouts surprised the sheriff and confiscated $3,000 in Confederate currency. After struggling through a torrential downpour in nearly impenetrable darkness, the sodden troopers halted on the banks of the Strong River outside Westville, 40 miles from their previous night’s encampment. While the weary main column paused for a rest, Colonel Edward Prince and four companies of his 7th Illinois raced ahead to seize the Pearl River Ferry.
Rested and fed, the main column broke camp about midnight. As the clatter of iron-soled hooves echoed across the wooden planks of the Strong River bridge, a wave of shouts and cheers rolled up from the tail of the long column. Grierson shifted in his saddle just as three beaming horsemen reined up sharply at his elbow. Captain Forbes presents his compliments, an excited trooper blurted out, and begs to be allowed to burn his bridges for himself. Astonished and amused, the smiling colonel posted a guard to meet the lost souls of Company B.
Forbes had spent the previous five days engaged in a frantic attempt to overtake the main body of Federal cavalry. He had been misled by the false information planted at Newton Station and veered eastward. At Enterprise, on the Mobile & Ohio, Forbes bluffed his way out of a tight spot by demanding the surrender of the garrison in the name of Major General Grierson. Confederate reports of the number of the Federal cavalry raiders had varied widely; the presence of a major general would have meant it was quite a large force. As the Rebel commander weighed his options, the Yankee captain backed out of harm’s way. Forbes later learned his gambit had drawn Major General W.W. Loring to Enterprise, pinning down three regiments of potential pursuers while Grierson escaped in the opposite direction.
The unexpected presence of Confederates in Enterprise had alerted Forbes that Grierson had not taken that path. After a 34-hour ride through rain-shrouded forests, fording swollen streams and following a trail of fire-blackened bridges, Forbes miraculously found his way back to the column. While guards awaited his company at the Strong River crossing, the advance force under Prince approached the Pearl River at two o’clock that morning. Finding the ferry swinging from its mooring on the opposite shore, Prince summoned his best Southern accent and commandeered the flatboat.
The last of Prince’s horsemen clambered up the steep opposite bank of the river as day broke, and Colonel Grierson arrived at the landing with the rest of the Federal column. Learning that Prince had intercepted a courier bearing orders for the destruction of the ferry, Grierson hurried up the crossing by crowding men and mounts 24 at a time onto the flatboat. As soon as the first boatload touched the opposite shore, a detachment rushed several miles upstream to lie in ambush for an armored transport rumored to be anchored in the vicinity. The Rebel gunboat failed to appear and, with the arrival of Captain Forbes’s errant company, the entire force was safely across the river by early afternoon.
Suspecting that Confederate authorities in Jackson, barely 40 miles to the north, were aware of his presence, Grierson had started Prince’s battalion toward Hazelhurst while he personally supervised the Pearl River crossing. Surby’s scouts led the way and directed a steady stream of prisoners back to Prince’s trailing column. Four miles outside Hazelhurst, Prince handed Surby a dispatch addressed to Pemberton, informing him that the Yankees had advanced to Pearl River and finding the ferry destroyed they could not cross and had left taking a northeasterly course. Minutes later, two butternut-clad strangers strode confidently into a circle of Rebel officers idling away time in the Hazelhurst depot. They calmly handed their message to the operator and watched as the misleading telegram raced across the wires to Confederate headquarters.
The pair pressed their luck, though, when they decided to take a meal at the hotel. As they approached the square, a prisoner who had been captured and released by the raiders on the previous day suddenly appeared brandishing a sword and a pistol, and shouting for help in stopping them d—-d Yankees. With revolvers drawn, the unmasked scouts wheeled in their tracks and spurred their mounts into a blind dash out of town. Collecting the rest of Surby’s Butternuts, they raced back through a torrential midday downpour to the Hazelhurst depot, only to discover its occupants had scattered, taking the telegraph key with them. In their haste, however, the Confederates had neglected to countermand the forged dispatch.
Following closely behind Surby, Prince’s vanguard thundered down the empty streets. In a familiar movement, the blue-coated troopers fanned out to seal escape routes. At that moment, the southbound Jackson train chugged slowly into the outskirts of Hazelhurst. The conductor sounded the alarm at his first glimpse of a blue-clad picket posted at the bridge north of town. Brakes screeched and the engineer brought the locomotive to an abrupt halt and reversed its course. Prince watched in agonized frustration as the train backed rapidly up the tracks, carrying its cargo to safety–a cargo that included seventeen commissioned officers and eight millions in Confederate money, which was en route to pay off troops in Louisiana and Texas.
After discharging ineffectual shots at the fast-retreating train, Prince’s men turned to matters close at hand. Gathering together commissary and quartermaster stores, along with four carloads of powder and ammunition, the Yankee raiders ran their captured booty a safe distance out of town and ignited it. Other squads of Federal soldiers raced north and south along the tracks tearing up rails, demolishing trestlework, and disrupting telegraph wires.
The thud of captured artillery shells exploding in the bonfire startled Grierson as he approached Hazelhurst from the east. With orders to trot, gallop, march echoing down the column, the horsemen flew to the aid of their comrades, only to discover they had been sold again. Sharing a good laugh, Grierson’s troopers broke ranks and retired to the hotel, where they partook of a banquet of captured food. With full bellies, they remounted and rode westward out of town, toward the river. All evening they fended off Rebel vedettes who harassed the front and flanks of their column.
That night and the following morning, Confederate forces converged on the Yankee horsemen from the north and west. Learning of Grierson’s appearance at Hazelhurst, Pemberton threw his forces into action. He most feared that the enemy would swing back to the northwest, cross the Big Black River, and strike again at the Southern Railroad, interrupting communications between Jackson and Vicksburg. Unable to second-guess the elusive Grierson, he restlessly maneuvered far-flung cavalry in a fruitless effort to defend all possible targets at once. He dispatched a battalion of cavalry under Captain W.W. Porter south from Jackson along the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad. He ordered Colonel Wirt Adams’s cavalry at Grand Gulf to move eastward to cut the Federals off from Port Gibson. Until Adams arrived on the scene, Colonel R.V. Richardson, the unorthodox leader of the 1st Tennessee Partisan Rangers, would hold overall command of the operation. Another courier carried orders to Barteau at Prairie Mound to move without delay to Hazelhurst.
With Confederates closing in, Grierson broke camp at 6:00 a.m. on the 28th. Dry, hard roadbeds were a welcome change from the muddy quagmires of the past several days. Near mid-morning, he sent Captain George W. Trafton and four companies of the 7th east to strike the railroad at Bahala. Trafton’s detachment returned before dawn on April 29, bringing Grierson the dismaying news that he was poised in the jaws of a Rebel trap. Its mission of destruction at Bahala completed, the battalion was approaching the Federal camp at Union Church around 1:00 a.m. when Sergeant Surby and Private George Steadman stumbled upon Rebel pickets belonging to old Wirt Adams’ cavalry. The soldiers revealed that when reinforcements arrived in the morning, Adams intended to give the ‘Yanks’ h—-l between Union Church and Fayette, a few miles to the west.
Grierson summoned Colonel Prince, Lieutenant Colonels Blackburn and Reuben Loomis, and Adjutant Samuel Woodward to a council of war. Surby estimated Confederate forces in the vicinity at 400 cavalry, supported by a battery of artillery. Even as they conferred, Adams was passing around the Union flank to join with Captain S.B. Cleveland’s 100-man cavalry force west of Union Church. The trap was closing, but Grierson and his officers had a daring response in mind.
At 6:00 a.m. the Yankee troopers boldly rode into the teeth of the Rebel ambush. Then, a short distance outside Union Church, the main column veered sharply from its westward course toward the Mississippi River and headed southeast toward Brookhaven, leaving behind a small company to occupy the Rebels on the westward road. After waiting several hours, Adams realized his trap was sprung. The frustrated colonel informed Pemberton he was marching from Fayette with five additional companies to intercept the enemy’s southward movement.
While Adams stewed in his embarrassment, the Federal raiders followed a confused maze of back roads through piny woods. Considerable dodging was done the first three or four hours’ march of this day, Surby recalled. I do not think we missed traveling toward any point of the compass. In the western distance, the Yankee soldiers could hear the leaden reverberations of Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s gunboats bombarding Grand Gulf. With Adams’s cavalry squarely between him and the river, however, Grierson could not join Porter.
Instead the raiders pushed south and thundered down the dusty streets of Brookhaven, startling dazed residents. While the 7th rounded up prisoners, Loomis’s 6th charged a conscript camp concealed in a grove of live oak a mile and a half south of town and found it vacant. The previous day, Pemberton had ordered Major M.R. Clark to evacuate the camp.
As the 6th destroyed abandoned arms, ammunition, and stores, Captain John Lynch’s two companies tore up track and trestlework. Loomis’s troopers returned to Brookhaven just as flames enveloped the depot, a railroad bridge, and a dozen freight cars. An officer and 20 men armed with buckets prevented fires from spreading to civilian property.
Some of the hardest work of the day fell to Lieutenants Samuel L. Woodward and George A. Root, the young adjutants of the 6th and 7th Illinois regiments. Civilian morale, never high in some of Mississippi’s southern counties, bordered on open disloyalty. After paroling over 200 officers, soldiers, and able-bodied citizens, Woodward was astonished to see a flood of military-age men lining up to receive paroles: slips of paper that would exempt them from military service until exchanged. Many who had escaped [conscription] and were hiding out were brought in by their friends to obtain one of the valuable documents, Woodward recalled.
The Yankee raiders had covered almost 40 miles since dawn and were happy to bed down outside town that night. The next morning, still uncertain about events along the river, Grierson decided to continue tearing up track along the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern. An easy two-mile ride brought him to Bogue Chitto, a forlorn cluster of perhaps a dozen buildings straddling the railroad. In short order, his raiders destroyed the depot and freight cars, ripped out rails and trestlework, demolished a bridge across Bogue Chitto Creek, and returned to the saddle to head south.
From Bogue Chitto, Grierson pushed on toward Summit, some 20 miles south. To the raiders’ surprise, that small community welcomed them with open arms. Surby judged Grierson’s popularity at least equal to Pemberton’s, and the colonel himself recalled a local woman who promised that if the north should win and I should ever run for president, that her husband should vote for me or she would certainly endeavor to get a divorce from him.
The blue-coated soldiers lingered most of the afternoon among these congenial civilians. After the townspeople had helped themselves to government supplies, the troopers rolled 25 freight cars a safe distance out of town and put them to the torch. Noticing the depot’s proximity to private residences, Grierson ordered the building spared. As at Brookhaven, the regimental adjutants handed out paroles to prisoners captured during the day and to civilians eligible for conscription into Confederate service.
At this seemingly harmless village, Grierson confronted an enemy more dangerous…than Wirt Adams’ Cavalry. Several enterprising troopers had uncovered a cache of Louisiana rum hidden in a swamp about a mile outside of town. Grierson dispatched an officer and a squad of men to investigate. They staved the heads of 30 or 40 barrels of the potent brew and watched the balm of a thousand flowers mingle with the Mississippi clay.
Near sunset, the raiders filed out of Summit. Having learned nothing of Grant’s army, Grierson had finally concluded to make for Baton Rouge. His men moved southwest, away from the broken railroad and toward Liberty. They bivouacked near midnight, 15 miles southwest of Summit.
While the Federal troopers caught a few fitful hours of sleep, Confederate cavalry struggled desperately to overtake them. After an agonizing nine-hour delay in leaving Jackson, Richardson had finally locked onto Grierson’s trail near Hazelhurst on the 29th. Following a path of burned depots and twisted rails, the Rebel colonel reached Summit at 3:00 a.m. on May 1, nine hours behind his prey. The Yankees had planted the suggestion there that they were headed for Magnolia and Osyka, the next stations on the railroad. Receiving that news, the eager Confederates pressed southward in the hope of falling upon the Union column’s rear.
Wirt Adams, meanwhile, had marched to Liberty after failing to trap the Yankees at Union Church. On the evening of April 30 his men were camped within five miles of Grierson. Like Richardson, he hoped to do battle with the Federals near Osyka.
At the same time, other Confederate units were riding northeast from Port Hudson. Colonel W.R. Miles transferred his Louisiana Legion to Clinton on the 29th and set out for Osyka the next day. Lieutenant Colonel George Gantt’s 9th Tennessee Cavalry Battalion had been ordered to the vicinity of Tangipahoa. For several days, Gantt responded to one contradictory report after another regarding the Yankees’ position and destination before finally settling in near Osyka, covering the roads to Liberty and Clinton.
In the midst of all this confusion, it would be easy to overlook a small detachment of Wingfield’s Battalion of the 9th Louisiana Partisan Rangers–a mere 80 men under the command of Major James De Baun. On the 28th De Baun had moved to intercept the Union cavalrymen at Woodville. Two days later, he was ordered to reinforce either Miles or Gantt at Osyka. Augmenting his command with 35 men of Gantt’s battalion, De Baun set out immediately and by 11:30 a.m. on May 1 was camped at the Wall’s Bridge crossing of the Tickfaw River, eight miles west of Osyka.
Only vaguely aware of the Rebel forces closing in on him, Grierson woke his men to a breathtaking dawn on May 1. As the first narrow slivers of sunlight sliced through the branches of towering pines, the Illinois troopers mounted their horses and resumed their march. The command felt inspired, Surby recalled, and various were the conjectures as to what point on the Mississippi we would make. Oblivious to the glories of nature, their commander concentrated on throwing his pursuers off the scent. He ordered an abrupt turn to the south, and his raiders disappeared into the dense woods. After an arduous ride, interrupted by frequent halts to lift the small cannon over fallen timbers, the bruised and scratched horses and men finally stumbled onto a little-used path and resumed their march at a brisk trot.
Near midday, they emerged on the Clinton and Osyka road just west of the point where Wall’s Bridge crossed the Tickfaw River. Fresh hoofprints indicated a large body of cavalry had passed east just a short time earlier. Dense underbrush, however, obscured the Tickfaw crossing a few miles distant, and the road itself disappeared from view beyond a sharp bend approaching the bridge.
Suspecting an ambush, Grierson sent his Butternut Guerrillas to scout the bridge, while the main column remained concealed behind the tree-covered bend in the road. Surby learned from Confederate pickets that a cavalry force was bivouacked along the river bank. At that moment, a shot rang out behind him. Seizing the disconcerted Rebels, Surby rushed them to the rear, where he learned that the alarm had sounded during a chance encounter between Union and Confederate stragglers at a nearby plantation house.
Undaunted by the close call, Surby’s scouts returned to the place where they had stumbled upon the Rebel outpost. With similar luck, they captured Confederate Captain E.A. Scott and his orderly, who revealed that De Baun’s 115-man battalion had reached the river crossing scarcely 15 minutes before the raiders’ arrival. Alarmed by the same shot that had alerted Surby, De Baun had deployed his dismounted troopers in an ambush.
Although aware of each other’s presence, Grierson and De Baun both maneuvered blindly because of the sharp bend in the road. Grierson hoped to avoid an engagement; much of his success so far had been the result of surprise and subterfuge. Reluctant to waste precious time and lives, he planned to approach, show a bold front, feel out the enemy’s strength, and then pass rapidly around his flank.
He erred, however, in choosing Blackburn of the 7th to execute this delicate maneuver. Itching for a fight, the brash and excitable officer called to Surby: Bring along your scouts and follow me, and I’ll see where those Rebels are. Spurring their horses, Surby and three Butternuts dashed off in pursuit. Dressed in full Federal uniform and rapidly outpacing his escort, the burly Blackburn seemed oblivious to the scattered gunfire his approach to the Tickfaw crossing summoned.
The fire increased as the Federal horses pounded across the narrow plank bridge. Blackburn’s mount, pierced by a dozen balls, collapsed, pinning its wounded rider to the ground. Close behind Blackburn, another horse reeled and fell, throwing a butternut-clad Yankee hard against the wooden planks. A ball burned across the neck of Surby’s mount and buried itself in the sergeant’s thigh. Clinging desperately to his reins, he wheeled around and retreated across the bullet-pocked bridge.
In his dash to safety, Surby passed Lieutenant William H. Stiles racing forward with the 12-man vanguard of the Federal column. Charging blindly, the group made it to the opposite bank of the river before reeling under a deadly volley from unseen carbines. A second assault likewise withered under the galling enemy fire, and the battered Yankee troopers scrambled back across the river.
Grierson soon arrived on the field, dismounted and deployed companies A and D of the 7th to the left and right of the bridge. While those men pinned down the Rebel marksmen, Smith’s artillery began firing round shot and canister into the woods. When the replying volleys abated, Union skirmishers advanced across Wall’s Bridge. The outnumbered Confederates had abandoned their position.
The fierce skirmish had cost Grierson one dead and five wounded. Two of the latter, including the overzealous Blackburn, were mortally wounded. De Baun placed the Confederate loss at 1 captain, 1 lieutenant, and 6 privates, all captured by Surby’s scouts.
As a burial detail interred Private George Reinhold of the 7th regiment’s Company G, soldiers carefully removed the wounded to the nearby Newman plantation. Surgeon Erastus D. Yule of the 2d Iowa helped Surby’s comrades replace the injured sergeant’s butternut garb with a proper Federal uniform, at least ensuring the clever scout would not be executed as a spy.
By crossing the Tickfaw at Wall’s Bridge and recrossing it again at a ford some six miles downstream, Grierson’s men were able to cut diagonally across a westward bend in the river. After they made the second crossing and turned southeast, just two major obstacles stood between them and the Union lines at Baton Rouge: the rain-gorged Amite and Comite Rivers.
The troopers reined up that evening a mile short of the Amite River bottom as two butternut-clad riders advanced toward them along the darkened road. A calm whisper identified the grime-covered scouts as Confederate couriers bearing dispatches for Port Hudson. In an instant, the pair of chagrined Rebels slipped silently and securely into Union hands.
With a bright moon lighting the way, the Federal cavalrymen crossed the Amite River at the Williams Bridge. Grierson urged the column steadily forward while a company of the 6th filed off to disperse enemy cavalry camped nearby. An ear-shattering volley sent 75 partially clad Confederates scrambling for their lives. After collecting a handful of prisoners, the troopers raced to overtake the moving column.
As they pushed on through the early morning darkness toward the Comite River, the jaded cavalrymen began to drift off to sleep. Men by the score, and I think by fifties, were riding sound asleep in their saddles, Captain Forbes recalled. The horses, excessively tired and hungry, would stray out of the road and thrust their noses to the earth in hopes of finding something to eat. A handful of officers and enlisted men passed up and down the flanks of the ragged column, riding herd on straying men and mounts.
Daylight on May 2 found the Yankee raiders approaching Big Sandy Creek, seven miles east of the Comite River ford. As sleeping soldiers jerked stiffly upright in their saddles, the scouts spotted 150 tents dotting the opposite bank. A quick charge by two companies of the 6th secured the camp. Most of the men were off in Mississippi looking for Grierson’s raiders; of the 40 who had remained to guard the crossing, all but one fell into Yankee hands. While the 6th stayed behind to destroy tents and equipment, Grierson pressed on with the 7th toward the Comite.
Captured officers told Grierson of the Confederate guard at Roberts’ Ford on the Comite. Yankee scouts confirmed the presence of an encampment amidst a cluster of trees on the river’s eastern bank. The Rebels seemed oblivious to the approach of Yankee cavalry. On the morning of May 2, at about 9 a.m., I was surprised by a body of the enemy, under command of Colonel Grierson, numbering upward of 1,000 men, wrote Captain B.F. Bryan, the Confederate commander at Roberts’ Ford. They made a dash and surrounded me on all sides before I was aware that they were other than our own troops, their advanced guard being dressed in citizens’ garb.
A dozen shots from Yankee carbines transformed the tranquil grove into a scene of chaos. In the confusion, Bryan escaped by hiding in the moss-draped branches of a nearby tree. Most of my men being on picket, and having only about 30 of them immediately in camp, he reported, there was no possible chance of my making a stand. Few of his soldiers escaped; he assessed his loss at 38 men, 38 horses, 2 mules, 37 pistols, 2,000 rounds of cartridges, and our cooking utensils.
The Yankee raiders forded the swollen Comite half a mile upstream, and Grierson ordered them into bivouac four miles outside the Union lines at Baton Rouge. Sleep came easily to the exhausted troopers, but their commander, having come this far, felt he could hardly afford to relax his vigilance. After posting a guard, the former music teacher proceeded to a nearby house, where he astonished the occupants by sitting down and playing upon a piano which I found in the parlor, Grierson recalled. In that manner, I managed to stay awake, while my soldiers were enjoying themselves by relaxation, sleep, and quiet rest. A breathless orderly interrupted his recital with news of enemy skirmishers advancing from the direction of Baton Rouge. Confident that the enemy must be part of Major General Nathaniel Banks’s Federal command in that city, Grierson rose from his piano stool and rode out to meet his visitors.
Dismounting and pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, the mud-spattered Grierson hailed Captain J. Franklin Godfrey and two companies of the Federal 1st Louisiana Cavalry. The raiders had reached Union-controlled territory.
At 3:00 p.m. on May 2, a cloud of dust rose over the Bayou Sara Road. Citizens and soldiers flocked to the streets of Baton Rouge, eager to catch the first view of the daring raiders. With sabers drawn, the dusty troopers of the 6th Illinois Cavalry rode four abreast through the crowd-lined avenues. Close behind, the four guns of Smith’s battery wobbled ludicrously on makeshift wheels that had been improvised to replace those broken during the expedition. A hundred or more morose prisoners trudged in the wake of the swaying artillery pieces and, behind them, 500 former slaves in every conceivable style of plantation dress and undress, each one mounted, and leading from two to three other horses, and many of them armed with shotguns and hunting rifles. Behind the contrabands (slaves who had fled from their owners to Union lines) lumbered a ragtag assortment of wheeled vehicles. Aboard were the sick and wounded, most suffering from painfully swollen legs caused by extended riding. Colonel Prince’s 7th Illinois, also in columns of fours and with drawn sabers, brought up the rear.
With the cheers of the flag-waving crowd echoing off the cobblestones, Grierson’s motley band circled the city square and proceeded to water their horses in the Mississippi. As the sun descended, the tired, dirty cavalrymen settled into camp in a fragrant blooming magnolia grove.
Grierson slipped off to well-earned rest. In 16 days of nearly continuous riding, he had led his men on a 600-mile path down the length of Mississippi. They had disrupted between 50 and 60 miles of vital rail and telegraph lines leading from Confederate headquarters at Jackson east to Alabama and Georgia and south to the river strongholds of Port Hudson, Grand Gulf, and Port Gibson. Grierson estimated the cost to the enemy at 100 dead or wounded, 500 prisoners captured and paroled, 1,000 horses and mules confiscated, 3,000 stand of arms, and huge quantities of army stores and other government property seized and destroyed.
Even the Federal raiders were astonished at the relative ease with which they had passed through what was presumed to be the armed heartland of the Confederacy. In spite of the enemy’s superior numbers and intimate knowledge of roads and terrain, Grierson’s cavalry had encountered only token resistance. The entire loss sustained by the two Illinois regiments amounted to three killed, seven wounded, and five left along the route.
All the while, Grierson’s mysterious movements had confounded Confederate commanders and diverted cavalry to the state’s interior during the Union army’s crucial movement across the Mississippi for the final assault on Vicksburg. Notified of Grierson’s success through Southern newspapers, Grant pronounced the expedition one of the most brilliant cavalry exploits of the war and predicted that it will be handed down in history as an example to be imitated.
Equally important was the effect of Grierson’s raid on Confederate morale. The Federal invasion heightened popular distrust of military and civilian authority and threw Mississippians into a frenzy. Grierson has knocked the heart out of the State, an anonymous Unionist reported.
To a Northern public weary of a long winter of inactivity, news of the brilliant cavalry feat came from the west like an invigorating breeze of spring air. You have only yet received the first installment of events that will electrify the world, announced the New Orleans correspondent of the New York Times. I should not be surprised if the Mississippi should prove, at last, the base of operations by which we can most instantaneously reach the innermost heart of the mighty rebellion.
Fresh from a firsthand tour behind the Rebel lines, Grierson spoke directly to the earnest hopes of his fellow citizens when he informed a New England chaplain, The Confederacy is an empty shell. Two more years of bloody warfare lay ahead before the Union armies would finally pierce that shell, but Grierson’s remarkable raid showed the way.
This article was written by JBruce J. Dinges and originally published in the February 1996 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!