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Brig.Gen.Benjamin Grierson, U.S. Civil War & post-war cavalry leader


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Hello readers.

It is hoped that this somewhat obscure officer receives attention which he deserves. Benjamin Grierson was born on July 8, 1826. He was the son of Scotch Irish immigrants who had first settled in Pittsburgh but moved to Youngstown, Ohio later. . His father was a succesful merchant and had a shoemaking business. Benjamin grew up with three sisters and a brother. At the age of eight he was struck in the head by a horse and lay in a coma for two weeks. He had lost sight on one eye and had to spend several months in a darkened room. His face was marred by a long scar. His vision returned but he had a profound distrust of horses thereafter. The young fellow developed into a good musician, learning to play the flute and also all major instruments under the tutoring of the local band instructor. The band was led by Benjamin at age thirteen and upon graduation from Youngstown Academy he clerked at a local store with free time spent on teaching music and repairing instruments.

In 1849 the entire Grierson family moved to Illinois where economic prospects were very promising and had chosen Jacksonville, only thirty miles from the state capital, Springfield. Jacksonville offered Illinois College, a recently opened female seminary as well as musical, reading and discussion groups.

Benjamin had met a young woman, Alice Kirk, in Youngstown who was a teacher had a position offered to her at the Springfield Female Academy in Springfield, Illinois. This position she accepted. Alice and Benjamin were married in the Fall of 1854 despite Alice's misgivings  about her future husband' indifference towards religion, his indulgence in cigars and occasionally in hard liquor and billiards.

The newly married husband had a hard  time providing a living from being a musician and bandleader so he took an opportunity to become a partner in a store about twenty miles from Jacksonville. Benjamin became activ in politics having Abraham Lincoln as guest in his home during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. His tireles efforts brought him close to Congressman Richard Yates, the furure governor during the Civil War years.

Unfortunately his business failed and he moved his family which now included two sons back to Jacksonville to live in his parents house on the eve of the 1860 elections. He had foreseen the coming of the war and when it broke out he volunteered his services. Upon carrying dispatches to Cairo, Illinois to Colonel Benjamin M. Prentiss ( later to become a General) at the request of now governor Yates, he was offered and accepted a position as unpaid aide with rank of lieutenant.This evolved inti a commission of Major in the 6th Illinois Cavalry in October 1861 which enabled him to pay off some of his remaining obligations from the business failure.

The regiment was in a poor condition led by a colonel who was absent most of the time, poorly equipped and quartered in a ver unsuitable location. A petition by many of the regiment's officers following Major Grierson's efforts to correct the many shortcomings when the incompetent colonel still in command finally brought a necessary change. Grierson was now put in command. Meanwhile successful actions by U.S. forces under the command of General Grant were taking Forts Henry and Donelson followed by "Bloody Shiloh" in April 1862. In June of that year the 6th Illinois Cavalry relocated to recently occupied Memphis, Tennessee and began small scale operations against Confederate guerillas. These operations gave the new regimental commander and his officers and men necessary, practical  exposure to real campaigning by cavalry and were quite successful. General Sherman in command in this theatre was satisfied with Colonel Grierson's performance  and remained his fiend and supporter throughout his military career.

General Grant now began his operations against Vicksburg, Mississippi and the Sixth Illinois Cavalry was screening the advance by Gneneral Sherman's wing towards that objective.. In December Colonel Grierson received  a brigade command from General Grant upon General Sherman's recommendation. This brigade was formed by the Sixth and Seventh Illinois Cavalry and the Second Iowa and moved to La Grange, Tennessee while Grant's first attempt towards Vicksburg fizzled out. To support further efforts diversions were necessary and Colonel Grierson's brigade was to strike south with the objective of cutting the Southern Mississippi Railroad east of jackson which would isolate Vicksburg from the east. This expedition was to cause as much damage as possible to Confederate facilities, supplies and communications as they moved speedily through enemy country. The troopers therefore had to travel light and Grierson carried a small scale map of Mississippi, a Jews harp and a very valuable document. This contained suitable cavalry routes, Confederate locations and plantations given by a Unionist. Six two-pounders guns provided artillery support. The raid began on April 17, 1863 with 1,700 men while diversions began elsewhere. After two days of hard riding and a first contact with the enemy on the second day, Colonel Grierson selected 175 men who appeared unfit to continue to return to Tennessee under the command of Major Love, Second Iowa Cavalry. They were to give all possible indications that the whole command was returning was returning as the Confederates were by now alerted to the raid. This detachment made it back unscthed. The Second Iowa Cavalry was detached to destroy the Mobile and Ohio Railroad at West Point and the return to Tennessee also. This regiment destroyed barracks, a cotton warehouse, large stores and an ammunition dump and captured 600 horses and mules. The Confederates  were misled and the regiment under Colonel Hatch with some small losses made it back as well after fighting to protect Grierson's rear. Colonel Edward Hatch, later a Major General, also had a distinguished career. He remained friends with Grierson until he died on active service in 1889 as commander of the Ninth US Cavalry. One of the two cavalry regiments raised after the war and composed of black troops, the other being the Tenth commanded by Grierson.

In short Grierson's brigade raised holy hell all over. He had the option of going north through Alabama to return to Federal lines. Or else go west and join General Grant at Grand Gulf to find Federal outposts there. Rail tracks and rolling stock was  destroyed and Confederates troops prevented from opposing General Grant.

Colonel Grierson had made good use of several scouts disguised as Confederates and now received ample warning that the only safe road was toward Baton Rouge. They had now been on the road for fourteen days but speed was still uppermost required to reach safety. A defended rivercrossing had to be forced with a determined cavalry charge across the bridge. In the next twenty-eight hours they covered sevent-five miles to enter Federal lines near Baton Rouge.

This raid over a distance of more that sixhundred miles in less that sixteen days cost 3 killed, 7 wounded and 14 missing but inflicted about 100 enemy casualties, captured and paroled over 500 prisoners, destroyed between 50 and 60 miles of track and telegraph wires and over 3,000 stands of arms. In addition many stores and  other government installations were destroyed and 1,000 horses and mules  captured. A considerable number of blacks had also joined the expedition on the way to freedom.

General Grant later described this raid as one of the most brilliant cavalry exploits of the war. Also noteworthy is the discipline of the troops as besides needed food and forage no private property was taken nor any other excesses committed.. This is no doubt caused by the influence and control of the commander who was also able to demand and get utmost performance out of his troops. His tactical dispositions were very good as was his application of reconnaissance. The raid and its astounding success received wide publicity in the north which was in need of good war news.

After a period of rest and reorganization the brigade was not returned to its command by General N.P. Banks, commander of the Department of the Gulf. who deployed it on some unsuccessful operations. 

After repeated efforts by Generals Grant and Sherman was the brigade returned but only after Port Hudson and Vicksburg had fallen. Grierson was promoted to Brigadier General on June 3. General Grierson sustained another injury from a horse, only his high cavallry boots prevented a more serious injury..

General Grierson was put in command of the cavalry of Sixteenth Army Corps or three brigades. They were deployed in western Tennessee to prevent Confederate infiltrations.

The rest of General Grierson's noteworthy career will follow.

Bernhard h. Holst


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After a power-outage deleted my nearly finished continuation of a biographical sketch of this exceptional United States Army cavalry officer I will now finish it.

General Grierson's command was activ in preventing attempted Confederate infiltrations until early 1864 when

he was participating in a subordinated role in a raid into Alabama to destroy installations in Selma. This raid was aborted due to poor leadership and poor weather conditions but during the retreat the Confederates attacked. Only General Grierson's intervention prevented a complete rout.

On June 1, 1864 with General Grierson again in a subordinate position, a cumbersome taskforce of infantry and cavalry set out to protect General Sherman's rear while he invaded Georgia. Much artillery encumbered this force as did 250 supply wagons with rainy weather further slowing down the march. The expected difficulties by General Grierson promptly happened when the infantry became separated from the cavalry due to faulty command and control. The following engagement known as the Battle of Brice's Crossroads turned into a near disaster with the Union forces loosing nearly all their artillery pieces, the entire wagon train, more than 1,600 prisoners and 617 other casualties.

A third and fourth  expedition fared somewhat better and  prevented the Confederates from disturbing Sherman's supply lines. The cavalry was now in dire need of resupply and reorganizsation.

In late 1864 and into 1865 General Grierson led one more successful raid with his conception of a swift cavalry raid travelling light. This one penetrated eastern and central Mississippi for 459 miles which were covered in just sixteen days. During this operation his command destroyed 100 miles of railroad track, 20,000 feet of bridges, 20 miles of telegraph wires, 4 locomotives, 95 rail cars, 300 army wagons, 32 warehouses, 5,00 stands of new arms and 500 bales of cotton. 1,600 prisoners, 800 head of stock were taken and 1,000 blacks were brought in. This succes cost 27 killed, 93 wounded and 7 missing. This raid deprived the Confederates of badly needed supplies and again proved the validity of a need for swift movement and surprise to assure success.

In February of 1865 General Grant met with General Grierson in Washington and also took him to see President Lincoln and other notables. His next assignment led him to the command of the cavalry of the Military Division of West Mississippi under Major General E.S. Canby. He was to lead the cavalry in the planned offensive against Mobile, Alabama which then fell before the cavalry was completely organized.

The death of President Lincoln reached the general amid the preparations to penetrate Alabama further and deeply affected him. Because vengeful actions by his troops could be expected, he issued orders that threatened severe punishment against straggling and pillaging, even entering a privated home without special permission was prohibited. Near the Georgia stateline news of the surrender of the confederates in North Carolina reached him after having earlier learned of General R.E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox . These good news were followed by word of surrender of all remaining Confederates forces in Mississippi and Texas. Brigadier General Benjamin Grierson was promoted to Major General US Volunteers on May 27, 1865. He also received  Brevet rank as general in recognition of his conduct of successful raiding operations during 1863 to 1865. During a visit to Washington he received wide support from the Illinois Delegation to Congress to serve as colonel in the regular army, Generals Grant and Sherman also recommended that. General Grierson was mustered out of service in April of 1866 but received an appointment to command one of the two newly authorized cavalry regiments manned by black troops.

Colonel Grierson was assigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kansa to raise his new regiment, the Tenth US Cavalry. This process proved slow, Colonel Grierson wanted officers with prior experience with black units, only fit enlisted men and qualified men to fill specialist positions. It took nearly a year for this and meanwhile first difficulties arose with the commander of the post who disliked black troops. It came as a relief to Grierson when the regiment was gradually moved to Indian Territory and central Kansas to protect the Kansas Pacific Railroad and stage routes against warring Indians. Problems were caused by several officers including abuses towards enlisted men which resulted in transfers if such behavior was not ended.

Colonel Grierson's family now included five children and living conditions and educational opportunities varied from post to post where the family would be living for the next several years. General Ph. Sheridan was now the area commander and relations between him and Colonel Grierson were never good. This situation, further cuts in army strength in 1869, 1870 and again in 1874, allegations of lax discipline in the regiment, the unpopularity of black troops including their commanders, too lenient treatment of Indians and Grierson not having graduated from West Point, all contributed to his not receiving promotion to Brigadier General until shortly before his retirement.

Colonel Grierson was instrumental in the creation of several military posts in Indian Territory and elsewhere including Fort Sill in what is now the State of Oklahoma. He apparently liked this activity and was good at it. He was very successful in fighting Indins but always kept a humane approach when dealing with them. His regiment, the Tenth US Cavalry developed into an efficient unit, Indians called them "Buffalo Soldiers".

Alice, Colonel Grierson's wife died in 1888 after a long illness and he made arrangements for his children as best as he could before beginning his next assignment to command the department of Arizona. There he was occupied by two interests: the welfare of the Indians in his department and an increase in productivity in this arid area as an incentive to settlement.He proposed an enlargement of the Navaho reservation to provide adequate space and had a vision of government sponsered developement of water resources and irrigation, something that would happen over time.

On April 5, 1890 Colonel Grierson received his long overdue promotion to Brigadier General, just three months before his retirement. His submission of proposals for certain improvements to be made to the conditions under which enlisted personnel served including higher pay, better living conditions, more possibilities for recreation and better terms of enlistment were not acted upon and would be introduced only much later.

General Grierson had served for twenty-four years after the Civil War without further promotion and when it came shortly before his leaving the service, it came about only through the death of a general officer which opened a slot for him. His background as a volunteer officer, commander of a black regiment, his good treatment of Indians as well as his own troops were ill regarded by those in position to hamper his advancement. His son Charles, a graduate of West point served as Lieutenant Colonel of the same regiment as his father. Charles did not accede to its command due to later mental illness after his father had died. This affliction also hit another brother shortly after his mother died and he spent many years in institutions.

General Grierson later remarried, much to his sons disagreement. He lived in Jacksonville with visits to Texas where he owned some property. Some of his other investments had not been successful but he could live comfortably enough. A stroke disabled him somewhat four years before his death which came in 1911. A life ended which led  from an ordinary one into the service of his country and his home state with much distinction and recognition during the Civil War. However, the recognition of his further service in the regular army after the Civil War was not forthcoming but General Grierson served his country well and was ahead of many of his contemporaries in his vision of what the West could be and what the army could be.

Sources :

- Mark M. Boatner III:The Civil War Dictionary, October 1966;

- Shelby Foote: The Civil War, A Narrative Vol.Two, 1963;

- William H. and Shirley A. Leckie: Unlikely Warriors, General Benjamin Grierson and his Family; 1984

- Robert M. Utley: Frontier Regulars, The United States Army and the Indians 1866 - 1890;  1973

- Ezra J. Warner: Generals in Blue, Lives of Union Commanders, 1981.

BTW: the movie " The Horse Soldiers" form 1959 is loosely, quite so based on Gen. Grierson. It is still in my memory one of the better Hoolywood products. Directed by John Ford with John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers and Althea Gibson ( the late African-American sportswoman).

Bernhard H. Holst


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