I just returned from a weekend trip to St. Simons Island, Georgia. It’s a marvelous little beach town, with an attendant gentility. I saw this sign in a yard near the Lighthouse: “Where tramps must not, surely ladies and gentlemen will not trespass.”
A beach weekend demands a good beach book, so I brought along Neil Longley York’s Fiction as Fact: The Horse Soldiers & Popular Memory (2001). I reviewed it in Blue & Gray in December of that year. I liked the book a lot and explained why at considerable length.
My review prompted a complimentary e-mail from John Hubbell, who had recently retired from Kent State University Press (York’s publisher). “Just a thank you note for your perceptive review,” John wrote. “You read the book!”
If you’ll remember, John Ford’s film, The Horse Soldiers (1959), tells the story of a Union cavalry raid through Mississippi in 1863, based on Col. Benjamin Grierson’s expedition of that spring.
The director did not found his screenplay on Dee Brown’s history, Grierson’s Raid (1954), but on a novel about it by Harold Sinclair, The Horse Soldiers, published two years later.
That’s why the commander of the Federal mounted column in Ford’s movie is not named Grierson at all, but a Col. John Marlowe, just as in the novel. Sinclair at least kept the action in Mississippi, through which Grierson rode in April 1863, arriving in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on May 2.
Sinclair’s novel emphasizes the themes of honor and duty among the soldiers, notions very familiar to Civil War novels. Ford plays them up even more.
That’s why my favorite part of The Horse Soldiers—about everyone’s, I suspect—is the charge against the Yankees by the young cadets from Jefferson Military College.
The segment, ninety minutes into the film, obviously echoes the charge of the VMI cadets at New Market, May 15, 1864.
Nothing like that, of course, actually happened during Grierson’s raid. It wasn’t even in Sinclair’s novel. Yet It is so typical of John Ford that the director, who as a buff knew something about the Civil War, wanted to include the VMI charge in his movie.
Never mind historical accuracy. You may recall the line from The Man Who Shot Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (Liberty Valance, by the way, is also by John Ford.)
So Ford put the legendary cadets’ charge into his Civil War movie. It helped that the director’s son Pat found an actual military academy near Natchez.
“The cadets became enthusiastic extras who marched in unison, fired by volley,” York writes, “and shrieked Rebel yells as they broke ranks to chase the raiders.”
Yep: a bunch of teenagers whipped John Wayne. “I’m gonna get the hell out of here,” Colonel Marlowe announces. As his troopers retreat before the charging cadets, Marlowe salutes them with a wave of his hat. Ford even has “Dixie” played in the background.
That was back in 1959, y’all!
They don’t make ‘em that way anymore!