On April 17th, 1863, Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson led a cavalry brigade of 1700 horsemen out of La Grange, Tennessee, and took them southward to plunge deep into Mississippi in a raid that would traverse the length of that state, and reemerge at the other side and the safety of Union lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
En route, the Raiders sought to discomfit the enemy and disrupt his communications by tearing up railroad tracks, destroying bridges, wrecking and destroying Confederate installations and facilities, and otherwise wreak havoc and sow confusion throughout Mississippi.
In addition to the damage inflicted, both physical and to the enemy’s morale, the raid was to be the opening salvo of the Vicksburg Campaign, with the strategic aim of acting as a diversion from General Ulysses S. Grant’s planned attack against Vicksburg, Mississippi. Also, until then, Confederate cavalry had been markedly superior to that of the Union, literally riding circles around them.
Thus, an additional motive was to demonstrate what federal horsemen could do with a daring exploit of their own to match the headline-grabbing ones of Confederate cavalrymen J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Commanded by a former music teacher who hated horses, Grierson’s cavalrymen traveled light, packing only 5 days’ worth of rations for what planners envisioned would be a 10-day mission, 40 rounds of ammunition, and oats for their mounts. Preceded by scouts in enemy uniform, they rode for 600 miles through the heart of enemy territory that had never before seen enemy soldiers or felt the touch of war.
Mississippi felt it now, and went into a panic as Union horsemen burned storehouses, tore up railroads and twisted them atop burning crossties, freed slaves, wrecked bridges, destroyed trains, and put commissaries to the torch. Throughout, Grierson added to the Confederates’ confusion by peeling off detachments and sending them on feints to baffle and confuse the enemy about his actual whereabouts, intentions, and direction of march.
The raid was a smashing success, literally as well as figuratively. Rampaging at will for 15 days deep in the heart of enemy territory, Grierson’s cavalrymen wreaked significant damage upon the enemy property and enemy morale. Although vigorously pursued by Confederates, the Union cavalry eluded their pursuers while causing mayhem in the enemy’s heartland.
After a 15 day rampage during which they lost only 3 killed, 7 wounded, and 9 missing, the federal horsemen crossed into the safety of Union lines near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
In addition to its immediate impact, the raid’s demonstration of Union soldiers’ ability to live off the land within Confederate territory started the gears turning in the mind of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman about the vulnerability of the Confederacy’s interior, which he compared to soft innards surrounded by a brittle shell. A year and a half later, those turning gears would lead to the March Through Georgia and the even more devastating March Through the Carolinas that would seal the Confederacy’s doom.