Book Review: The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi


by Timothy B. Smith

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2018. Pp. xxiv, 350. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 1611214289

The Raid Behind the Movie

Former National Park Service historian Dr. Smith has written several notable Civil War books, such as Grant Invades Tennessee, and in his new work, we get an outstanding account of the 1863 cavalry raid on which the 1958 novel The Horse Soldiers and 1959 motion picture of that name were very loosely based.

The raid, commanded by then Col. Benjamin Grierson (1826-1911), was the principal element in a remarkably sophisticated deception plan to intended to divert Confederate attention from U.S. Grant’s surprise crossing of the Mississippi at the end of April, 1863 to get himself behind Confederate lines below the fortress, and it worked brilliantly.

Smith opens with a chapter on the origins of the plan, followed by one giving us a profile of Grierson, and a third on his brigade, composed of two Illinois cavalry regiments plus one from Iowa, and a small artillery battery.

Smith follows this with eight chapters on the events, covering Grierson’s movements together with those of the other diversionary operations. At times he is following the movements of several columns – even individual companies and patrols – a juggling act which Smith carries off quite well, while providing useful details on terrain, weather, and the condition of the troops at particular moments. He tells of much hard riding, hot skirmishes, tearing up railroads, foraging, daring escapes, torching bridges, and more – even some amusing incidents, as we follow the troopers from, LaGrange, Tennessee on April 17th, until they reached at Baton Rouge on May 2nd. This arrival was four days after Grant had secured a foothold on the east side of the Mississippi, some 15 miles south of Vicksburg, an accomplishment that greatly benefited from the "Confederate chaos” which Grierson and his troopers had helped create.

Smith gives us a lot of information about soldiering in the period, such as the frequently ignored effects of long periods in the saddle on the health of the troopers; he mentions several men who, although not having suffered any injury from the enemy, were permanently disabled by the battering they took in more than two weeks of hard riding, little sleep, frequent skirmishing, bad food, and the like. In addition, he gives us some little glimpses into the lives of people on both sides – soldiers, citizens, those enslaved – affected by the raid.

A very valuable contribution to the literature of the Vicksburg campaign and the role of cavalry in the Civil War, this also throws some light on the art of deception as practiced at the time.


Note: The Real Horse Soldiers is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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