6. Grierson’s Raid Threw Mississippi Into a Panic
As part of his Vicksburg Campaign, Union general Ulysses S. Grant wanted to divert Confederate attention from his main planned attack against Vicksburg, Mississippi. So on April 17th, 1863, colonel Benjamin Grierson led a cavalry brigade of 1700 horsemen southward from La Grange, Tennessee, and plunged deep into Mississippi. Their raid would traverse the length of that state, and reemerge at the other side and the safety of Union lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The raiders discomfited the enemy and disrupted his communications by destroying bridges, tearing up railroad tracks, wrecking and destroying installations and facilities, and otherwise sowed confusion and wreaked havoc throughout Mississippi.
In addition to physical damage, the raid depressed the enemy’s morale, while boosting that of the Union – especially its cavalry. Until then, Confederate cavalry had routinely bested Union horsemen, literally riding circles around them. So Grierson wanted to demonstrate what Union cavalry could do, with a daring exploit to match the headline-grabbing ones of Confederate cavalrymen Nathan Bedford Forrest and J.E.B. Stuart.
Grierson, a former music leader who hated horses, was an unlikely cavalry leader, but proved himself a highly effective one. His men travelled light, packing only 5 days’ rations for what planners estimated would be a 10 day mission, plus 40 rounds of ammunition, and oats for their mounts. Preceded by scouts in Confederate uniforms, 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 panicked as Union cavalrymen destroyed trains, tore up railroads and twisted them atop burning crossties, wrecked bridges, freed slaves, burned storehouses, and torched commissaries. Grierson added to the Confederates’ confusion by peeling off detachments and sending them on feints to baffle the enemy about his whereabouts, intentions, and direction of march.
Both figuratively and literally, Grierson’s raid was a smashing success. Union cavalrymen rampaged at will for 15 days deep in the heart of enemy territory, damaging property and enemy morale. Although vigorously pursued by Confederates, the Union horsemen eluded their pursuers while causing mayhem in the enemy’s heartland. After 15 days, during which they lost only 3 killed, 7 wounded, and 9 missing, Grierson’s cavalry reached the safety of Union lines near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The raid’s consequences went beyond the immediate impact upon property and morale. It demonstrated that Union soldiers could live off the land deep within Confederate territory. That 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. The result, a year and a half later, was Sherman’s March Through Georgia, and the even more devastating March Through the Carolinas that sealed the Confederacy’s doom.