by Mae Helen Clark
Note: The source of information for this article is Grierson’s Raid: A Cavalry Adventure of the Civil War, by D. Alexander Brown.
It has been 147 years since Col. Benjamin Henry Grierson with his Union cavalry brigade reached Newton Station—the raid that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman called “the most brilliant expedition of the war.”
This raid on Newton Station was not an isolated stunt like so many dashing cavalry adventures of the Civil War. It was well planned and was an important part of the maneuverings that won Vicksburg.
In the spring of 1863, the Northern grip on the Confederacy was slowly tightening. Yet there was still a chance for the South to win the war. If Vicksburg and the Mississippi River could be held, the Confederacy might be able to survive. The Union army knew this. The raid on Newton Station by Col. Benjamin Grierson and his brigade on April 24, 1863 was a vital part of General Grant’s campaign for the capture of Vicksburg.
Vicksburg, built on bluffs high above the Mississippi River, was heavily fortified, and could not be taken by water. Gen. Sherman tried it and was repulsed in December 1862. In the spring, Gen. Grant decided to march against Vicksburg. He knew he would have to cut Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton’s lines of communication with the rest of the Confederacy, herd Pemberton’s troops into the Vicksburg entrenchments, lay siege to the city, and then capture the Confederate army and city. In order to do this, he knew it would be necessary to screen his actions and to divert the attention of the Confederate troops away from his intended target.
On February 13, 1863, Gen. Grant sent a message to Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding the Sixteenth Army Corps headquartered in Memphis: “It seems to me that Grierson, with about five hundred picked men, might succeed in making his way south and cut the railroad east of Jackson, Mississippi. The undertaking would be a hazardous one, but it would pay well if carried out. I do not direct that this shall be done, but leave it for a volunteer enterprise.”
A month later, his instructions were more specific. The strength of the force had been tripled, and the volunteer provision had been removed. Hurlbut was to have all “the available cavalry put in as good condition as possible in the next few weeks for heavy service…”
Orders were given to Gen. Hurlbut on April 10 at LaGrange to “strike out by way of Pontotoc, breaking right and left, cutting both roads, destroying the wires, burning provisions, and doing all the mischief they can, while one regiment ranges straight down to Selma or Meridian, breaking the east and west road thoroughly, and swinging back through Alabama”.
Grierson, age 37, a music teacher and bandmaster before the war, was on furlough in Illinois that week, but Hurlbut telegraphed him to return to LaGrange immediately. On April 15, Hurlbut forwarded the final orders to Gen. William Sooy Smith: “If Grierson does not arrive in time, Hatch will take command. The details must be left discretionary.”
Plans worked out—Grierson arrived and received verbal orders from Gen. Smith. Smith ordered Lt. Col. Grierson and his cavalry brigade of 1,700 men to make a raid right through the middle of Mississippi. Grierson’s orders were to ride south from LaGrange (40 miles east of Memphis, Tennessee) until he reached the Southern Railroad, which ran east and west and connected Vicksburg, Newton and Meridian, and the rest of the Confederacy. Grierson would have discretionary power once he passed to the rear of the enemy’s lines and lost communication with LaGrange. It would be his duty and privilege to use his own best judgment as to the course it would be safest and best to take.
Map is from The Civil War, by Shelby Foote
The raid began at dawn on April 17, and they crossed the Mississippi line by sunup. Only Grierson himself, riding at the head of the column, knew the true objective of the mission.
Grierson carried in his blouse the special equipment that he deemed essential for the hard ride: a Colton pocket map of Mississippi, a compass, and a jew’s harp. He also carried an unsigned report made by a Mississippian loyal to the Union. The report contained intelligence concerning names of Unionists, routes of travel that the cavalry column might take on their move through Mississippi, locations of Confederate depots and warehouses, plantations where food and forage could be found, and the varying loyalties of the people in different sections of the state.
Grierson and his men moved rapidly. They lived off the land, taking whatever they needed, wherever they found it. They raided plantation cellars, smokehouses and cribs. They sacked country stores. They took horses, food and other supplies. Since nearly all able-bodied men were away fighting in the Confederate army, only the women, children and elderly were in the homes.
They made thirty miles the first day, halting just short of Ripley. On the second day, they camped near New Albany. On the third day, April 19, they rode south through Pontotoc. On the fourth day, 80 miles from his base, Grierson inspected his troops, and culled out 175 victims of dysentery, chills and fever, and saddle galls and sent them back, instructing them to pass through Pontotoc in the night, marching by fours to obliterate tracks and give the illusion that the raiders had all returned. On the fifth day, he detached Col. Edward Hatch’s regiment, along with another of guns, and ordered them to strike eastward for the Mobile and Ohio railroad, inflicting what damage they could before heading north to follow the convalescents back to LaGrange. Grierson and the remaining troopers rode on past Starkville, where he detached one company for a strike at Macon. They cleared Louisville by sundown. Just beyond Philadelphia on the 23rd, he called a halt at nightfall at a well-stocked plantation. Grierson decided to hold up for a few hours to rest and feed the horses before beginning the final drive to the railroad, now only twenty-five miles away.
About 10:00 p.m. that evening, he ordered Col. Blackburn to take the First Battalion of the Seventh Regiment and make a rapid march to Newton Station on the Vicksburg Road. The main column would follow within an hour.
Around 3:00 a.m. on the morning of April 24, Blackburn ordered Sgt. Richard Surby to take scouts, enter the town of Decatur, and learn as much as they could about Newton Station, train schedules and Confederate troops stationed there.
The streets of Decatur were quiet, and Surby stopped at an inn and was able to get the old gentleman to invite him in. He learned that Newton Station was about 10 miles down the road and that a hospital was located there.
Blackburn’s battalion was 6 miles from Newton Station when the sun rose on Friday morning, April 24. In Sgt. Surby’s words, “Col. Blackburn ordered me to proceed lively with my two men to the [Newton] station and reconnoiter and report what force was stationed there, what time the train would arrive, and so forth.”
In less than an hour, the three Union soldiers, dressed in Confederate uniforms, topped a rise in the road and saw the town in front of them with the single track slicing through the middle of it. Near the station, they could see a large building with men walking around it, and they guessed this to be the Confederate hospital mentioned by the Decatur informant and that the men were convalescent patients.
Sgt. Surby in his eyewitness account of the raid said, “I told the men we’d proceed a little more before reporting. We started leisurely along, stopped at a house, found a white man, called for a drink of water, and asked him how long before the train would be in. He said it would be three quarters of an hour. I ascertained that no force was stationed here, and was obtaining other information when my ears were startled by the whistle of a locomotive. It seemed a long way off. I inquired what train that was, and the man said it was the freight train coming from the east, due at nine o’clock a.m.”
Realizing that no time could be lost if they hoped to capture the train, Surby dispatched one of the scouts to inform Col. Blackburn. Surby and the other scout hurried into town, heading for the railroad station.
There were no pickets, and the town seemed deserted. The station was not open, and they could not see the telegraph equipment through the dingy windows. Surby wanted to capture the telegraph station to prevent warning of the raiders’ presence being flashed to any Confederate forces.
They saw several Confederates coming out of the hospital 100 yards away. He drew his revolver and walked slowly toward the rebels. “Remain inside!” he shouted. “Don’t come out on peril of your lives.”
The cavalry arrived in moments with Blackburn waiving his hat and cheering. Pickets were dispatched immediately to block roads. Men were sent on the double to each of the sidetrack’s switches and told to hide in the tall grass beside the railroad. If the engineer attempted to take sudden flight, they were to spring up and throw the switches.
To the east, black streams of smoke marked the slow approach of the train. In a moment the oversized cowcatcher of the squat little freight engine emerged from the pines. It was a noisy little train, wheels pounding, cars rattling, locomotive chugging and blowing with the weight of 25 cars loaded with new railroad ties, bridge timbers and planking, and commissary supplies.
The unsuspecting engineer brought the train to a stop at Newton Station. If the engineer glanced toward the station, he saw only Col. Blackburn and the scouts dressed in Confederate uniforms lounging casually in the shade of the station. On a signal from Blackburn, cavalrymen swarmed out from behind the buildings. Within a few seconds, the first train was captured.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Surby spotted the smoke of another train approaching from the west. As soon as the freight’s crewmembers were under guard, the Yankee soldiers were ordered out of sight. Blackburn and the three men in Confederate uniforms resumed their careless poses beside the station.
In a few minutes, the mixed freight and passenger train whistled for Newton Station. Sgt. Surby again describes the event. “On it came” he said, “rounding the curve, her passengers unaware of the surprise that awaited them. The engineer decreased her speed. She was now nearly opposite the depot. Springing upon the steps of the locomotive, and pointing my revolver at the engineer, I told him if he reversed that engine, I would put a ball through him. He was at my mercy and obeyed orders. The men rushed from their hiding places, cheering and shouting.”
The mixed train consisted of one passenger car and twelve freight cars, four loaded with ammunition and arms, six with commissary and quartermaster’s stores, and two with household goods belonging to families fleeing Vicksburg.
Startled by the sudden stop, passengers in the rear coach looked out and saw movement of a hundred blue-clad men. Some of the passengers tossed their valuables out of the car windows on the opposite side of the station, and everything fell into a ditch filled with water. Sgt. Surby wrote, “Revolvers, papers and a considerable amount of money was thrown out. One old wallet contained about $8,000 in Confederate greenbacks.”
Giddy with success, the Yankee raiders began smashing in car doors and windows of the station office, looking for personal loot. Blackburn restored order and a systematic inspection of the train was begun. One of the Vicksburg refugees begged them not to burn his household goods. Blackburn assigned a squad to remove the Southerner’s furniture from the train.
When he discovered that both trains carried several hundred loaded artillery shells and other explosives, Blackburn had the trains moved down the tracks some distance from the hospital, and they were set on fire and burned. The heated shells began exploding in ragged volleys, booming like an artillery duel at close quarters.
Col. Grierson with the main column was now only a short distance from Newton Station. Unaware of the capture of the train, he assumed that his men had walked into a trap and were being shelled by artillery. “Trot, gallop, march!”, he ordered.
“On they came”, said Sgt. Surby, “expecting battle, but instead, found the men had charged on a barrel of whiskey, which they were confiscating. I did not see a man that had more or less than a canteen full.”
Grierson dispatched an officer with two battalions to the east with orders to burn bridges and trestles, cut telegraph poles, and destroy the lines all the way to Chunky River. Another officer was sent west on a similar mission.
Grierson kept the other troops occupied in town. They burned a building containing 500 small arms and a considerable quantity of Confederate uniforms. Taking wrecking tools from the depot, they tore out rails and heaped them on piles of burning crossties, warping them with heat. They exploded the two locomotives.
Seventy-five hospitalized Confederate soldiers filed by to receive paroles. The hospital’s surgeon was permitted to remove food and other supplies from the storeroom in the depot and then Grierson ordered it burned.
They burned McGrath’s store, some goods, and the storehouse of Mr. Hamilton. They did not destroy any private residences or any private property. [A. J. Brown’s History of Newton County 1864-1894]
By 2:00 p.m., Grierson was convinced that the east/west railroad had suffered a severe blow and it would take days to restore transportation and communication. Grierson’s buglers sounded rally call, and the smoke-blackened, bleary-eyed cavalrymen, some of whom were showing effects of the rebel whiskey they had “rescued”, began assembling into companies for departure.
Where Could They Go?
The men had not been out of the saddle for three days. They sat in the midday sun with eyes drooping, smelling of sweat, whisky and wood smoke, while they waited for the order to march on, mounts going lame with worn and thrown shoes, nosebags empty, and muscles spent to the limit of endurance.
Their mission accomplished, Grierson knew they must move swiftly away from the area. The enemy lay at every compass point and would surely pursue them with renewed fury.
By mid-afternoon on the 24th, Grierson and his brigade were 5 miles below Newton Station, caught up in a wave of frightened citizens fleeing in wagons, in buggies and on foot. Some were carrying loads of bacon, flour and even household goods and valuables. The raiders seized such food stocks as they could carry in their haversacks after overtaking some of those fleeing.
Grierson would have preferred to march until well after dark, but it was obvious, due to the condition of his men and horses, that the column must halt. Upon reaching a plantation along the Bogue Falema Creek1, he ordered a short bivouac. After a three-hour rest, they moved on in the cool of the late afternoon. They reached the outskirts of Garlandville just before dark.
At Garlandville, in Jasper County 8 miles below Newton Station, they encountered citizens, many venerable with age, armed with shotguns and organized to resist their approach. Grierson ordered a charge, and the old men of Garlandville met it bravely, firing blindly into the advancing Yankees. One raider was severely wounded, and a horse fell dead under another, but the charge swept on through town, capturing several citizens. According to Grierson, the prisoners were apologetic, “acknowledging their mistake, and declared that they had been grossly deceived as to our real character”. One of the citizens volunteered his services as guide to lead them out.
Before leaving, they entered an empty home where they found hot food on the table. Col Grierson and his staff sat down and ate supper at ease, but never learned for whom the meal had been prepared.
After supper, the volunteer guide riding ahead to assist the Butternut Guerillas, they turned southwestward and bivouacked at C. B. Bender’s plantation two miles west of Montrose at about midnight. They had covered about 50 miles that day and had wreaked havoc on Newton Station.
The man wounded at Garlandville was left with Dr. Mackadore, a physician, at or near Raleigh on April 26.
Grierson and his men continued on south and west, crossing over into Louisiana at Baton Rouge on May 2. In 17 days time, Grierson and his men had covered more than 600 miles. This major thrust deep into the Confederacy repeatedly engaged the enemy, disabled railroads, captured many prisoners and horses, and destroyed vast amounts of property (although no personal property was destroyed). More importantly, as a diversionary tactic, the raid diverted the attention of Confederates away from Vicksburg, just as Grant had intended. Three of Grierson’s men were dead, seven wounded, five were too sick to continue and had been left behind, and nine men were missing. Added to Hatch’s losses, casualties numbered 36, about 2% of the total command. Grierson was promoted to Brigadier General in June.
An in-depth study has been made of the roads that Grierson could have followed to Garlandville. There was no Highway 15 at that time, and all roads that I found were farther to the east. A stagecoach line ran from Enterprise through Garlandville on to Newton Station. He probably went out on the Enterprise Road (Airport Road today) and then turned southward on Wickware Road, going around by Kennedy’s pond and entering Garlandville on the east side, because all roads entered Garlandville from the east at that time.
A. Z. Lewis and her sister Mamie Alice Weir Thames told me the story about their grandfather seeing Grierson when he came through Newton Station. His father was away in the war, and he was at his grandfather’s house upstairs looking out the window. He recalled that the black people took to the swamp. This house is believed to have been located on the hill above the old hospital between Tatum Street and Byrd Street.
Richard Carr, son of Mr. and Mrs. Allen Carr, was raised in Newton. He writes about Grierson’s raid and gives the route Grierson came in on from Decatur. He said the road came by the Banks home and W. B. Crosby home and the Baptist Church. This is Wood Street today. The Crosby home location is 204 Wood Street. These homes are of course present day homes built long after the Civil War. Roger W. Doolittle lived on the site that is Dear Street today. This road would have come by his house. Carr says in his column that the man who talked to the scouts at the edge of town was Tom Doolittle, a son of Roger W. Doolittle. No doubt these comments and the route are correct.
George Davison/Davidson was one of the engineers. He was a prominent planter and merchant of Newton after the war and often related the damages the Yankees did to their trains and tracks.2
You can find the volumes of The War Of The Rebellion, a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies, at the J. Elliott McMullan Library, Newton, Mississippi.3
- Bogue Falema comes from Potterchitto Creek down south to Kennedy’s pond. A. Z. Lewis (Henry) of Newton grew up at Garlandville. She recalled stories about the raid and said, “The old timers always said Grierson came down around Kennedy’s pond.”
- Newton County, Mississippi Newspaper Items, 1872-1875, W. P.A. Manuscripts by Jean Strickland and Patricia Nicholson Edwards, available at J. Elliott McMullan Library.
- These volumes were donated to the library by Richard Carr.