“Go do some mischief!” The Grierson Raid and the Development of Cavalry Tactics in the Union Army

By Robert Smith

On 13 April 1863, while on a short leave in Illinois, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson was handed a telegram from Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commander of the Union garrison in Memphis, Tennessee. Just days before, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Department of Tennessee, gave verbal instructions to Hurlbut to send a cavalry brigade deep into Mississippi and “Do some mischief” to Confederate logistics and communications hubs that supported Southern forces in Vicksburg. For months Union forces, to no avail, had attempted to overcome the considerable Confederate garrison in Vicksburg. The mission that Grierson was ordered to attempt was both vital and extremely hazardous. Indeed, the mission was deemed so important and risky that Grant only issued verbal orders to not assume responsibility for its execution (and potential failure). Later, Grierson, in recording his Civil War service, observed, “As I had volunteered for the service [Hurlbut] believed I would be successful and wished me God’s speed.”[1]

In April 1863, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson received orders from Major General Ulysses S. Grant to lead a cavalry brigade deep into Mississippi to “do some mischief” against Confederate logistics and communication hubs. (Library of Congress)

Historians, in studying the cavalry actions of the Civil War, noted that the employment of the horse-mounted arm missed many opportunities to effectively use this branch of service. British military historian Paddy Griffith observed that cavalry participation in major actions of the war appeared negligible.[2] Griffith notes that there were a considerable number of factors why the mounted arm of service rarely effected a decisive effect on Civil War operations, especially in the Western Theater. [3] In the West, terrain played a critical role as rolling forests, fences, and various waterways prevented cavalry operations as employed in European context. Moreover, the Civil War was fought by citizen-soldiers who took many months to train into an effective force.

Until Grierson’s 1863 raid into Mississippi, Grant, like much of the Union Army’s leadership, failed to effectively employ cavalry in its campaigns against the Confederacy. (Library of Congress)

For example, while commanding the Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan insisted that he field a well-trained European style all arms military before he embarked on his 1862 Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. However, the cavalry branch of McClellan’s army never achieved the standard of training and organization like that of European armies. Despite the Union’s extra investment in lavishly equipping the Cavalry, it was rarely employed to decisively affect the outcome of a campaign. Much to the Cavalry’s disgust, infantrymen continued to denigrate the mounted arm with pointed jibes like “Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?” For much of the war cavalry on both sides developed an operational doctrine of roaming the enemy’s rear areas searching for plunder and glory. For the first half of the war, the development of high-quality Union cavalry was viewed as a missed opportunity. 

A Union cavalry trooper raises his saber in an 1863 chalk-on-paper sketch by artist Winslow Homer. (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

Even Grant, whose insight in operational and strategic thinking eventually propelled Union forces to victory in 1865, failed to appreciate the effective role of cavalry. For most of the war, Grant continually used cavalry in an auxiliary role as scouts, couriers, and in a military police capacity. What is surprising is that, unlike horse soldiers in the Eastern Theater, cavalry troopers in the West were familiar with the rudiments of horse management.[4] In the early stages of the Vicksburg Campaign, Grant, with a cavalry force of 5,300 troopers, consistently broke this significant force into penny-packet groups that were distributed to his infantry commands. One explanation as to this situation was that Grant lacked the confidence in his mounted arm.[5]

Grant’s topographical engineer and a member of his staff, Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) James H.  Wilson, summed up his impression of Union cavalry observing, “Excellent material, but all untrained and badly deficient in discipline. In the advance they did well, but in retreat they were entirely unmanageable. [They] were apparently more bent on plunder than fighting. The entire organization was lacking in coherence, cooperation, and steadiness.”[6] Grant’s rare exception was the 1863 Grierson raid in Mississippi and Louisiana. Most historians agree that in the last months of the war, Union cavalry in both the Eastern and Western Theaters, under competent commanders like Major General James I. Sheridan, Major General George A. Custer, Wilson, and Grierson, did become a critical factor in campaign operations.

This map shows the path of the Grierson’s raid through Mississippi that began in LaGrange, Tennessee, and ended in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com)

Grierson’s effective development of cavalry tactics offers insight into the development of the mounted branch as it was employed in the West. Historians have argued that Union cavalry in the Western Theater differed significantly from their blue-clad brothers in the East. The Union cavalryman of the West did not have the spit-and-polish attributes and discipline of the East. The Western trooper generally viewed textbook military art with something between amused tolerance and outright hostility.[7] It is noteworthy that Grierson was neither a born cavalryman nor did he possess the usual attributes of a soldier. A former music teacher who hated horses, Grierson conducted a flawless cavalry operation during Grant’s 1863 operation against the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. In his memoirs, Grierson notes that in 1861 he was a novice in learning military matters observing, “I did not make any great pretensions as to any knowledge of military affairs, being well aware of my inability to properly impart instruction.”[8] As the war progressed, the onetime music teacher gained valuable experience in cavalry operations while leading the 6th Illinois Cavalry on numerous anti-guerilla operations in Kentucky and Tennessee. Nevertheless Grierson, unschooled in formal cavalry tactics taught by antebellum military theorists, effectively utilized innovative methods that embraced technological advances in weaponry and the tactical evolution of battle.

In the decades before the Civil War, military theorists on both sides of the Atlantic continued to embrace the Napoleonic method of conducting an offensive battle. Within this scheme, cavalry played a significant role. According to Lieutenant Colonel William J. Wood in his work, Civil War Generalship: The Art of Command, a decisive Napoleonic battle consisted of a combined arms operation of infantry, artillery, and cavalry.[9] Artillery would blow holes in the adversary’s formations which would then be followed up by an assault by infantry and heavy cavalry. British military historian J.F.C. Fuller summed up the successful Napoleonic battle as four elements of a well-choreographed operation. Fuller notes that “While columns advanced artillery would compel the enemy to remain in line,” cavalry would then be deployed causing the enemy to deploy in a defensive square, making the square vulnerable to further artillery and infantry assault, lastly when the enemy’s squares were thrown into confusion, a cavalry force would advance by annihilating the retreating enemy fugitives. Lastly, cavalry would take part in the” exploitation” of pursuing the enemy’s disorganized retreat designed to complete the destruction of the adversary.[10]

These lessons, echoed in the military work of Baron Antoine Henri Jomini, one of Napoleon’s staff officers, were studied in West Point and taken to heart by America’s antebellum senior military leadership. Jomini’s Summary of the Art of War, published in 1838, failed to consider the rapid development of weapon technology making massed Napoleonic style horse-mounted charges suicidal. Nevertheless, American military theoreticians such as Joel Poinsett and Dennis Hart Mahan continued to promote the employment of horse-mounted charges against infantry armed with rifle-muskets. Indeed, the War Department’s Cavalry Tactics Regulations of January 1860 reiterates the American military’s desire to imitate European cavalry doctrine. Colonel Philip St. George Cooke of the 2d Dragoons and author of the authorized cavalry regulations employed during the Civil War, copied “…the best points found in the [cavalry] armies of France, Prussia, Russia, Austria, and England.”[11] 

However, Napoleon’s grand and successful operations failed to consider the uniqueness of the American military experience. By the time of the Civil War, American cavalry was still a novelty, having only been a part of the Army’s establishment for less than three decades. In doctrine and experience American cavalry had little to contribute. Furthermore, during the antebellum period, there were few theorists who clearly delineated what were the cavalry’s roles and missions in war. In The Art of War: Waterloo to Mons, historian William McElwee argues that the Napoleonic/European cavalry ideal was not viable in North America, causing Civil War generals to rethink and develop innovative cavalry tactics.[12] McElwee cites two factors as to why the European Napoleonic cavalry model was not feasible.[13] First, there was simply not enough time to train American cavalry troopers in the necessary skills in arms, and to train horse-mounted formations in the proper evolutions of maneuver. Secondly, Union mounted units were equipped with breech-loading arms capable of firing multiple rounds that made attacks by massed formations nearly suicidal. Central to McElwee’s argument is the general temperament of the individual Civil War American soldier, as many of them would have had difficulty in the severe discipline required for Napoleonic cavalry tactics.[14] The final element was a distinct American doctrinal resistance to the employment of “battle cavalry” in set-piece battles. What emerged was a novel American tactic of employing significant horse-mounted forces to raid the enemy’s territory.

Senior American military leaders in both the North and the South had to grapple with the best method of employing the horse-mounted soldier. Traditional methods of using cavalry included reconnaissance, operations against an enemy’s flanks and rear, masking the movements of the main army, and as a mobile mounted force to immediately seize an objective until infantry and artillery could be brought up. The solution to the problem was the reemergence of a cavalry role that developed in sixteenth century Europe, the dragoon.[15] A dragoon was a mobile, horse-mounted soldier able to fight dismounted employing both a multi-round carbine and a saber. Paddy Griffith notes that when equipped with mobile horse artillery, the mounted force performed the functions of a combined-arms force.[16]

Furthermore, the forested and broken terrain indicative of the Civil War theaters of combat lent itself to the development of this specialized military unit. The distances between logistic and communication hubs indicative of the Civil War’s Western Theater were ideal for the employment of this form of cavalry. Employment of this mobile force allowed senior commanders to employ this force either supporting an infantry army or acting as a separate mobile cavalry army. Talented cavalry generals on both sides, such as Major General J.E.B. Stuart, Sheridan, Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Major General Judson Kilpatrick, Major General John Hunt Morgan, Wilson, and Grierson, who were not imbued with Napoleonic traditions, found novel means of carrying out large-scale mounted operations. These leaders were swift to apply classic examples of surprise, deception, speed, and confusion against the enemy. At the end of the Civil War, Wilson, commander of cavalry forces in the Military Division of the Mississippi, wrote to Lieutenant General Grant, stating, “I regard this [cavalry] corps today as the model for modern cavalry in organization, equipment, armament and discipline.”[17]

The deep cavalry raid developed during the Civil War was the product of innovative Confederate cavalrymen who rejected the traditional Napoleonic cavalry doctrine. There are several factors why Confederate horsemen such as Colonel Turner Ashby, Morgan, and Forrest became avid practitioners and advocates of the cavalry raid. All these leaders were unorthodox and aggressive, characteristics later found in the leadership of Union officers such as Grierson, Brigadier General Wesley Merritt, Sheridan, and Wilson. Initially, these Confederate leaders had the requisite material at hand, and Confederate troopers enjoyed a knowledge and familiarity of horses which allowed them to readily adapt to the duties of mounted warfare.[18] Moreover, it is important to note that for much of the war, Confederate forces operated on their native soil and were familiar with the local terrain and road networks. Lastly, since the Confederacy could not adequately equip and supply their troops, raiding Union logistic hubs allowed them to supplement their supplies of weapons, ammunition, wagons, horses, food, and forage. Raids were either used to create a diversion or to target important communication or logistical centers. 

Civil War cavalry had found its new purpose along with the traditional roles of reconnaissance, flank protection, and scouting. Cavalry on both sides of the conflict began to utilize the branch for large-scale raids intended specifically to destroy logistical hubs, wreck transportation arteries, and create mayhem behind enemy lines. Forrest’s and Brigadier General Earl Van Dorn’s notable raids of 1862 behind Northern lines offer early examples of striking the enemy’s vulnerable rail and logistics hubs. For the first time in military history, railroads played a significant role in the movement and supplying of troops, and these were important targets for cavalry raiders on both sides.  

In addition to destroying Confederate logistics, Grierson’s raid was intended to distract Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commander of Southern forces in Vicksburg, from Grant’s maneuvers against the Rebel stronghold along the Mississippi River. (Missouri History Museum)

 As noted previously, Grant was not especially adept at employing his mounted arm. However, Grierson wrote that in February 1863, Grant entertained the novel idea of a deep penetration be made into Mississippi with the intent of disrupting Confederate communications and to distract maneuvers he was making toward Vicksburg. Plans were soon made for an all-volunteer force of cavalry “…equipped and supplied with everything necessary to put it in a thoroughly excellent condition for the field.”[19] However, Grierson observed that the intended scout…”came to nothing at the time.”[20] Three months later, the idea of a deep raid was again raised by Grant. The intended purpose of the raid was to confuse the Confederate commander in Vicksburg, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, as to Grant’s true intentions. Thus, Grierson’s orders were two-fold in substance: the destruction of Confederate property and supplies, and to distract Pemberton from Grant’s maneuvers. Grant’s choice to command the raid was admirable in that Grierson was a natural leader who had trained his brigade to a high degree of effectiveness. In the aftermath of the war, Confederate cavalryman Captain John W. Wyeth observed, “I knew Grierson personally, and have always had the highest regard for his skill and courage…in anything else that he did, although he was always doing well.”[21] In addition to being a highly skilled and motivated leader, Grierson had shaped his brigade into a model unit. Charles W. Willis, an Illinois infantryman, observed, “I don’t believe that Napoleon had any better cavalry than his brigade here for fighting. Second Iowa, 6th and 7th Illinois are the regiments, and well-handled they’d whip the devil.”[22]   

Colonel Edward Hatch (shown here as a brigadier general) commanded the 2d Iowa Cavalry during Grierson’s raid. (Library of Congress)

Grant now had the critical instrument at hand to carry out his intentions. Grierson’s raid began at La Grange, Tennessee, on the morning of 17 April 1863. The raiding force consisted of three cavalry regiments: 2d Iowa Cavalry numbering 607 troopers and commanded by Colonel Edward Hatch; 542 men of the 7th Illinois Cavalry under the leadership of Colonel Edward Prince; and the 6th Illinois Cavalry with 500 men and led by Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Loomis.[23] Also attached to Grierson’s command was Company K, 1st Illinois Light Artillery, consisting of six 2-pound Woodruff guns under the command of Captain Jason B. Smith.

Grierson’s specific orders were to move with “rapidity” while destroying “wires and use up as much of the [railroad] track as they can and do it thoroughly; break up all provisions depots they can find, burn tanks, and do as much damage as possible.”[24] Breaking camp on that mid-April morning, the Union cavalrymen covered 100 miles by the fifth day of the operation.

 When the Union column approached Starkville, Mississippi, Grierson wisely detached Colonel Hatch and the 2d Iowa Cavalry and ordered them to move east to confound pursuing Confederate cavalry and destroy railroad tracks belonging to the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. Hatch was also ordered to move to Macon, Mississippi, to destroy any Confederate logistics before turning north and returning to La Grange. While on detached duty, Hatch skirmished with a number of Confederate units that included the 2d Tennessee Cavalry, Major J.S. Smyth’s Mississippi Partisan Rangers, and a battalion of Mississippi militia cavalry. As he moved north, Hatch’s column repelled numerous attacks and suffered minimal casualties.[25] 

While Hatch was confounding pursuing Confederate cavalry, Grierson rode with the remaining 950 men and continued the march south. At Starkville, Grierson detached thirty-five troopers to move west with the task of further destroying Southern rail lines and attracting additional attention away from his column’s main effort. It appeared that the diversion was successful as it caused Lieutenant General Pemberton to detach 2,000 infantry troops from Vicksburg to defend Macon, Mississippi, and the Confederate war materiel located there. With the Rebels distracted, Grierson was now free to seize and destroy the important Confederate Vicksburg and Jackson rail hub at Newton Station, Mississippi. The successful capture of Newton Station yielded two trains and the destruction of bridges, culverts, trestles, telegraph lines, and track on both sides of the village.[26] Having completed his primary mission of destroying significant Confederate military infrastructure in Mississippi, Grierson led his command further south into the safety of Union lines in Louisiana.

 By now, widely scattered Confederate cavalry began to concentrate their forces in an attempt to hunt down the Union raiders. On 1 May, Grierson’s troops were ambushed by Major James DeBaun’s 9th Louisiana Partisan Rangers at Wall’s Bridge near Gillsburg, Louisiana.  Grierson’s losses during the action that followed were minimal, with the Union forces suffering three wounded and five captured. One day later, Grierson and his troops arrived at Baton Rouge, ending their successful sixteen-day raid. Richard W. Surby, a trooper with the 7th Illinois Cavalry, summed up the operation observing, “The raid had been one grand success. A kind of Providence has smiled upon our efforts all through our perilous journey, and finally crowned it with victory.”[27]

Grierson’s raiders rode 600 miles in sixteen days to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the process, Grierson’s cavalry destroyed sixty miles of railroad tracks from three different lines, as well as telegraph lines and large amounts of Confederate stores and munitions. In addition, they lured most of Pemberton’s cavalry and a full infantry division on a wild-goose chase. Upon completion of the raid, Grierson observed to Harpers Weekly that “…nothing had surprised him more than the utter hollowness of the rebellion.” It was, he remarked, “…a mere crust—an empty shell.”[28] Grant biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote that the raid was designed to sow confusion, which it admirably accomplished.[29] Grant and Grierson delivered a long overdue payback after being previously victimized by cavalry raids of Rebel leaders Forrest and Van Dorn.

Grierson’s troopers rest their mounts towards the conclusion of their successful 600-mile raid in early May 1863. (Special Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries)

The question thus becomes, how did Grierson’s employment of cavalry in 1863 play a decisive and critical role in the conduct of war in the mid-nineteenth century? As observed earlier, the Army, since the American Revolution, had placed little emphasis on cavalry. The battles of the Revolution and the subsequent War of 1812 featured few cavalry actions. In many cases, Army leaders tended to use their cavalry as mobile infantry. Midway through the Civil War, Union forces developed a cavalry arm that gave it considerable combat power and usefulness in making a decisive impact in the conflict. Additionally, by 1863 Union cavalry in both the East and Western theaters were well armed and equipped and had, through difficult experience, gained considerable confidence and experience to conduct raids of their own.

Grierson and his cavalry brigade make their triumphant entrance into Union-held Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on 2 May 1863. (Library of Congress)

It can be argued with some certainty that Grierson’s 1863 raid was one of the most successful Union cavalry operations of the Civil War. Operationally this raid diverted Pemberton’s attention so that Grant could successfully arrive on the eastern side of the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, Mississippi. Throughout the raid, Grierson employed deception and speed (averaging over thirty miles per day) that kept the Confederates guessing as to Grierson’s true objective. Moreover, Grierson was instrumental in preventing General Joseph Johnston’s forces in Jackson from uniting with Pemberton’s troops around Vicksburg. It is possible that if the two major Confederate forces in Mississippi had combined, Grant’s masterful campaign against Vicksburg would have taken longer and resulted in greater bloodshed. Military historian James Arnold best summed up Grierson’s raid, writing, “What is certain is that Grierson did tie down at least 2000 scarce Confederate infantry, whom Pemberton ordered off to protect certain installations, and most available Confederate cavalry—which left him almost blind from the point of view of intelligence. Furthermore, it was the first time in the West that a Yankee mounted force had driven deep into enemy territory.”[30]

The 2 June 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly detailed the exploits of Grierson and his raiders during their sixteen-day trek through Mississippi. (Library of Congress) 

Civil War scholar David Martin echoes Arnold’s assessment, noting, “[Grierson’s] raid had been a complete success by distracting Pemberton’s attentions from Grant’s movements, especially the river crossing to Bruinsburg on 29 April.”[31] Sergeant Stephen Forbes of the 7th Illinois Cavalry provided a classic appraisal of the raid noting, “A cavalry raid at its best is essentially a game of strategy and speed, with personal violence as an incidental complication. It is played according to more or less definite rules, not inconsistent, indeed, with the players’ killing each other if the game cannot be won in any other way; but it is commonly a strenuous game, rather than a bloody one, intensely exciting, but not necessarily very dangerous.”[32]

Grierson’s raid paved the way for other successful Union cavalry operations, including Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s March-April 1865 raid against Confederate manufacturing facilities in Alabama and Georgia. (Wilson’s Charge, by Don Stivers, www.donstivers.com)

However, Grierson’s raid appeared to be the model for other significant Union raids of the war. Stephen Z. Starr, in his comprehensive three-volume history of Union cavalry during the war, wrote that Grierson’s raid was the first long-range expedition by Union mounted troops into enemy territory.[33]  Grierson’s exploit exhibited a singular daring that was praised by his peers who reported to Washington that this raid was a “gallant exploit…unequaled in war.”[34]  After the summer of 1863, Union raids deep into Confederate areas became more common, such as Sheridan’s raid on Richmond in late spring 1864 and Wilson’s campaign against Selma, Alabama, one year later. Sheridan, a dedicated cavalryman with a volcanic temper, faced Confederate cavalier J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry on equal terms during Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign in central Virginia. During that campaign, Sheridan’s cavalry threatened the Confederate capital, thereby luring Stuart into a fight that the Confederates lost and resulted in Stuart’s death on 12 May 1864 after he was mortally wounded the previous day at Yellow Tavern. Wilson’s campaign in the West yielded even greater dividends by destroying remaining Confederate infrastructure, capturing large amounts of war stores, and besting Forrest’s cavalry. Nonetheless, the Grierson raid was one of the highpoints for Union cavalry during the Civil War in the Western Theater and provided a model for future mounted actions.   

For the mid-century American cavalry trooper, it was apparent that they had moved beyond traditional cavalry doctrines to develop a new doctrine for mounted warfare. Starr notes that in 1861, Union cavalry were trained to participate in battle in the true European sense.[35] However, within the span of months, Union cavalry eschewed European principles and developed a doctrine like that of the dragoon concept. Numerous factors led to this sort of evolution—issues such as Union troopers who were unfamiliar with the proper handling of horses, making units unfit and even unable to participate in a massed cavalry saber charge. Other issues were the lack of uniformity of weapons issued within a unit and officers unwilling to adhere strictly to the tactical manuals governing the handling of cavalry. One final factor, as mentioned earlier, was the nature of American terrain. Nevertheless, in 1863, Benjamin Grierson was able to create a formidable cavalry brigade and conduct the first successful Union raid while working within these limiting factors. It is noteworthy that Grierson prepared the way for other Union cavalry leaders to follow.

About the Author

Robert J. Smith, Ph.D., is the Director of the Fort Riley Museum Complex (the 1st Infantry Division Museum and the U.S. Cavalry Museum), Fort Riley, Kansas. He received his doctorate in Military History from Kansas State University in 2008. He has contributed numerous articles on military history subjects and co-authored a Fort Riley book with William McKale. In his spare time he lectures on military history topics to veterans and retirees through the Kansas University/Kansas State University Osher Life Learning Program.