I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with The Real Horse Soldiers—no, not John Wayne and William Holden. But rather Timothy B. Smith’s book, which recounts “Benjamin Grierson’s epic 1863 Civil War raid through Mississippi.” It is a tale of derring-do and dash, deep in the heart of Rebeldom. But in Smith’s hands, the story transcends the adventure tale that John Wayne’s movie made of it and becomes a key part of Smith’s growing definitive body of work on the Vicksburg campaign.
Smith’s aim, he says, is threefold. “The first is to tell a good story. . . . The second is to provide more social context to the raid than previous histories have done, with larger emphasis given to the soldiers in the saddle with Grierson and the inhabitants of Mississippi along the way who were affected by the raid. Finally, I seek to put the raid in the proper military context.”
Smith defines his terms and then hits them all square-on.
Grierson’s raid played a vital role in Ulysses S. Grant’s move on Vicksburg. From April 17 through May 2, Grierson stabbed from LaGrange, Tennessee, southward to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was one of several movements Federals executed across Mississippi—Smith explains them all—which successfully scattered Confederate Gen. John Pemberton’s limited capacity for focus. Unsure where to look or how to respond, Pemberton fanned his forces out and away from the Mississippi River, giving Grant the opening he needed to get across the river and strike into the interior of the state.
Of the several actions, Grierson’s was the most noteworthy, but previous studies have emphasized its audacity at the expense of insight. “Other accounts downplay, through a lack of attention, the larger context while focusing on the adventure itself,” Smith laments. “Without proper context, however, it is impossible to fully understand the real reasons for the raid and its true impact on the course of the Civil War.”
The emphasis on adventure has also resulted in a patina of mythology that has discolored the history over the last 159 years, and not just because of Wayne’s 1959 film. Writers have tended to romanticize the adventure, taking “liberty with the facts and sources . . . in a manner no academic historian would allow.” Smith offers no examples—and as a fan of Civil War-related pop culture, I would’ve enjoyed an appendix, perhaps, that discussed artistic departures from the historical record—but that may have been beyond Smith’s intended scope. “While novelists and hybrid books on the raid may display deeper character development and more conversation,” Smith concedes, “the basic adventure story itself is enough to keep the reader’s attention even when told strictly in a factual, academic manner.”
Smith’s too good of a storyteller to take his book down the dry, dusty road of an academic treatise, though. He knows a thing or two about pacing, and he always handles large chunks of information adroitly—two factors that keep this narrative moving without sacrificing any of its intellectual integrity.
Even as Smith pieces together his monumental five-part study on the Vicksburg campaign, The Real Horse Soldiers deserves a place alongside those sturdy volumes. Time with Grierson’s Raid is time well spent.
The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi
Timothy B. Smith
Savas Beatie, 2020
(Note: The hardcover edition was originally published in 2018.)