Smith, Timothy B. The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi. (Savas Beatie: October 2018). 336 pages, 36 illustrations, 12 maps, notes, bibliography, index.  ISBN: 978-1-61121-428-4. $32.95 (Cloth)

TheRealHorseSoldiersSmith2018Timothy B. Smith’s latest work on the Civil War in the Western Theater, The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi, tackles the larger than life Benjamin Grierson raid through Mississippi in April and May 1863. Made famous by the John Wayne film The Horse Soldiers, Grierson’s Raid so occupied Confederate commander John Pemberton that he completely lost track of what Ulysses S. Grant was doing on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. Ultimately, though Grierson’s Raid was not the only deception Grant threw at Pemberton in this time frame, it was the most spectacular in its damage, endurance, and ultimately its contribution to Grant’s Vicksburg victory.

Author Timothy B. Smith long ago became a personal favorite author of mine.  He has worked in the National Park service system and currently teaches at the University of Tennessee – Martin.  I prize my copy of his book Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg, which was my first exposure to his work. Over the past decade plus, Smith has been steadily working on the famous battles of Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, including multiple books on Shiloh, Vicksburg and the first National Military Parks from the Civil War, as well as single books on Forts Henry and Donelson, the Battle AND the earlier Siege of Corinth, among other topics.

Over the years, Grierson’s Raid has evolved into a legend, with distorted or exaggerated facts.  Dee Brown (of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee fame) wrote a book in 1954 called Grierson’s Raid which, per author Smith, took “liberty with the facts and sources…in a manner no academic historian would allow.” In fact, Smith intentionally kept himself from reading Brown’s novel prior to finishing this book so as not to contaminate the primary sources in his own mind.  Novelist Harold Sinclair penned The Horse Soldiers in 1956, where he used “the historic raid as its basis, but…made up conversations and events.”  Shortly after Sinclair’s novel, the 1959 John Wayne / William Holden film of the same name came out. There have been other books as well, including a popular history paperback by Tom Laliki as well as an entry in the Osprey raid series (#12).  Not too many years ago I reviewed a book on TOCWOC called Fiction as Fact: The Horse Soldiers & Popular Memory by Neil Longley York, published by Kent State University Press. In that 2001 book, York calls Dee Brown’s book the best non-fiction account of Grierson’s Raid.  Thanks to Tim Smith’s new book, this is now an inaccurate statement.

Grierson’s Raid occurred from April 17-May 2, 1863, starting at La Grange, Tennessee midway between Memphis and Corinth, and ending at Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Grierson had three regiments, the 6th and 7th Illinois and the 2nd Iowa.  Generals Hurlbut and William Sooy Smith, along with Grant and Grierson, were involved in the pre-raid discussions.  In fact, Tim Smith writes, Grant’s plan all along was to distract Confederate commander John Pemberton with feints and raids of this nature to distract from almost missed the raid, only returning from a leave of absence hours before it was to begin.

On April 17, 1863, Grierson led 1,700 cavalrymen from his Illinois and Iowa regiments forward out of La Grange.  Their main objective was Newton’s Station on the Southern Railroad of Mississippi.  This railroad ran west and supplied Vicksburg through Jackson, Mississippi, so it was an important point for the Confederates to defend.  Moving fast, using scouts disguised as Confederates, and sending portions of his command on large and small feints, Grierson managed to reach Newton’s Station on April 24, 1863.  To Confederate observers, he had appeared like a lightning bolt out of nowhere.

From that point until the end of the raid on May 2, 1863, the narrative changed to one of pursuit. John Pemberton’s dispatches show he was overwhelmingly focused on catching Grierson’s raiders while ignoring most everything else.  Pemberton’s lack of cavalry, along with other cavalry raids launched further north in Alabama and Tennessee, meant Pemberton was mostly chasing Grierson with infantry.  With a ton of good luck, good scouts, and good leadership, Grierson successfully led his men south through the entire state of Mississippi and ended up in Union held Baton Rouge.  Grant wrote that Grierson had “ripped the heart out of the State of Mississippi.”

In his overage of the results, Tim Smith writes that the actual physical damage wasn’t all that great at Newton’s Station, though other country bridges Grierson had destroyed remained unrepaired until after the war.  The real result, writes Smith, was that Grierson so completely occupied Pemberton and the Confederates that it helped Grant to successfully cross the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg and embark on the successful end stages of the Vicksburg Campaign.

The maps were very good in the book, something ESSENTIAL for a book on a cavalry raid.  You literally cannot have enough maps in a book of this type.  Very few get it right.  Tim Smith did a very good job here.  The text tied to the maps well, and I rarely (though there were a few instances) found myself wondering where the map was for what was being described.

Smith also goes into great detail on the how the plan evolved over time, who was involved, and who should get the credit for its conception.  I won’t spoil the author’s conclusion, but two men stand out as deserving the most praise.

A lovely feature at the end of the book covered what happened to the raiders and their pursuers after the Civil War, with an obvious focus on Grierson.

Despite many books being written on Grierson’s Cavalry Raid through Mississippi in 1863, Timothy Smith’s new book The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi finally presents the facts without unnecessary exaggerations.  The truth, as Smith is quick to point out, is more than fascinating enough. Obvious readers will be those interested in the Western Theater in general, in Grant’s Army of the Tennessee (a Smith specialty), the Vicksburg Campaign, and cavalry operations during the war. If you want to read about the single greatest cavalry raid of the entire Civil War, you want this book.  It is one more feather in the cap of Tim Smith, whose cap is getting fairly full of feathers at this point.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

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Hess, Earl J. Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War. (University of North Carolina Press: October 2018). 408 pages, 19 halftones, 19 maps, 3 tables, notes, bibliography, index.  ISBN: 978-1-4696-4342-7. $45.00 (Hardcover)

FightingforAtlantaHess2018In Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War, Earl Hess continues both his prolific writing career as well as his series of books on Union and Confederate Field Fortifications, maintaining his usual standard of excellence.  This, the fourth book in the series, moves readers to the Western Theater and the Atlanta Campaign.  The hills and mountains of northern Georgia created a whole new set of challenges for Civil War commanders, and they steadily learned to conquer those challenges as necessity dictated. Hess also focuses on the common soldier and how they tried to adapt to the brutal conditions of almost daily trench warfare. All in all, this is a worthy addition to the series.

Author Earl J. Hess is no stranger to either the Atlanta Campaign or field fortifications.  He has steadily gone through some of the more famous large battles of Sherman and Johnston (and Hood), including:

In addition, his line of works on field fortifications in the east is also excellent.  In fact, I highly recommend reading all of these if you find this book enlightening, because it is more of the same:

Those of you who know I run a Siege of Petersburg site probably know which of these my favorite is.

For those of you who are familiar with Dr. Hess’ work, you know this is just the tip of the iceberg.  He has written widely on the Civil War about many topics, including but not limited to The Crater, the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, the 1864 Siege of Knoxville, Pea Ridge, and many, many others.

The University of North Carolina Press has published not only this book, but all of those listed in the bullet points above.  Clearly Dr. Hess has found a willing partner, and the formula has worked to everyone’s benefit, especially readers.

My assumption is that most people who are going to read this book are already intimately familiar with the Atlanta Campaign.  It is definitely not the first book you want to read on the operations in northern Georgia in 1864.  Given that, we will keep this brief.  Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign proceeded down the Western & Atlantic Railroad from Dalton, Georgia to the Gates of Atlanta from May to July 1864.  Three major fights occurred around Atlanta itself in late July, followed by maneuvering by Sherman to get around Hood’s flank and cut his supply lines.  This maneuvering resulted in the Battle of Jonesboro in late August, followed by the fall of Atlanta on September 2, 1864. That’s the short, short version of the Atlanta Campaign, to paraphrase the Mel Brooks classic Spaceballs.

So now that we’ve given a cursory look at the basics, let’s dive in to what this book is really about.  As the author indicates I the Preface, this isn’t just a book describing the field fortifications.  It looks instead at how the rough terrain shaped how leaders built fortifications, and how these fortifications grew more elaborate over time, just as the soldiers’ ability to create them grew and grew over the course of the campaign. This book attempts to link the terrain, the fortifications which grew from the terrain, and the altering of tactics due to both of these factors.  And the Atlanta Campaign featured much less forgiving terrain than that found in Virginia between Fredericksburg and Petersburg. Hess notes that his three previous books on the Atlanta Campaign, featuring Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek, and Ezra Church, all give ample space to the field fortifications and their effect on the fighting.

Through the course of the book, Hess covers eighteen (!) separate, distinct sets of field fortifications dug by the Confederates to oppose Sherman’s advance.  Hess shows how the earthworks grew increasingly more elaborate over time.  Interestingly, he makes an excellent point about how Sherman’s men started to use earthworks for OFFENSIVE purposes, moving skirmishers ever closer to Confederate positions and digging earthworks on the fly.  This allowed Sherman to hold far more line with far less men, allowing him to send large bodies of troops around the Confederate flanks and moving unrelentingly south to and beyond Atlanta.

Hess has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the terms associated with field fortifications in the Civil War.  Thankfully, he accompanies the text with two items of great importance to work such as this: maps and detailed drawings of specific fortifications on almost every one of the eighteen lines the Confederates dug.  The campaign maps do not show the terrain, possibly the only minor gripe I have about the entire book. That said, the extremely detailed drawings of the fortifications, based on Hess’ own exhaustive field work, more than makes up for this drawback.  In addition, the book is filled with photographs of the various field works and trenches after the fighting had moved on.  Comparing images of the early campaign to those covering Atlanta itself show a staggering increase in the complexity of the works built by both sides, keeping in mind that this campaign only lasted just short of four months. I alluded to it earlier, but Hess’ conclusion is fascinating in that he sums up how the Union and Confederate forces used earthworks differently.  I, at least, tended to assume that these earthworks were made in almost exactly the same way.  But the extent of the earthworks created, combined with the speed in which they needed to be built, meant men were constantly improvising and improving the process as they went.  Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.

In an appendix called “Fortifying during the Atlanta Campaign,” Hess goes into details that didn’t fit so neatly into the main text.  These include the extent of fortifying, which dwarfed any previous experience of every soldier involved in the campaign.  Hess estimates hundreds of miles of earthworks were created in these four months.  He also looks at the various units in the campaign.  Just as with fighting, some units were better than others at digging, and that includes both motivation for and ability to dig. The end of the appendix again covers the differences in Union and Confederate works.  A Union soldier commented that the Federals had been better at digging at the beginning of the campaign, but the Confederates had equaled and then exceeded them in this ability by the fall of Atlanta.

Fighting for Atlanta: Tactics, Terrain, and Trenches in the Civil War is an excellent next level look at the Atlanta Campaign.  It is for veteran readers of the campaign, and not recommended for those new to these operations.  For anyone with a good grasp of what happened, this book is meant to extend your knowledge, and give more insight into why Sherman, Johnston, and Hood made some of the moves they did. As readers have come to expect, this is another in a long, long line of excellent Civil War titles by Dr. Hess.  It is extremely difficult to create one rock solid book on the Civil War, much less dozens, all while maintaining the highest quality of work.   This one is highly, highly recommended for veteran readers of the Civil War.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

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Tagging the Official Records and More: A Siege of Petersburg Update

by Brett Schulte February 21, 2019

For those of you who follow TOCWOC but are not regular readers of my Siege of Petersburg Online site, I thought I’d provide a little update here, the first in quite awhile. I’ve been VERY, VERY busy, so much so that my blogging here has dropped off more than I’d like.  That said, here’s where […]

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Civil War Book Review: The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign, November 26 – December 2, 1863 by Chris Mackowski

by Brett Schulte February 4, 2019

Mackowski, Chris. The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign, November 26-December 2, 1863. (Savas Beatie: November 2018). 192 pages, 175 illustrations, 8 maps, notes, bibliography, index.  ISBN: 978-1-61121-407-9. $14.95 (Paperback) Chris Mackowski’s new book The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign, November 26-December 2, 1863 is another in the now lengthy […]

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Civil War Book Review: The Army of the Cumberland: Organization, Strength, Casualties, 1862-1865 by Darrell Collins

by Brett Schulte January 28, 2019

Collins, Darrell L. The Army of the Cumberland: Organization, Strength, Casualties, 1862-1865. (McFarland (www.McFarlandBooks.com), January 2019). 199 pages, orders of battle, notes, index. ISBN: 978-1-4766-7507-7 $49.95 (Paperback). With The Army of the Cumberland: Organization, Strength, Casualties, 1862-1865, Darrell Collins has produced the fourth in a series of “Army” books for McFarland.  His previous three books focused on […]

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Apologies for Lack of Posting

by Fred Ray January 20, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following post is from Fred Ray, a frequent and long time contributor to this blog.  We wish him well in his recovery. *** I’m sorry to say that I’ve not posted anything since early November of last year. It’s not because I’ve lost interest or don’t have anything more to say, but […]

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Civil War Book Review: The Vermont Brigade in the Seven Days by Paul G. Zeller

by Brett Schulte January 16, 2019

Zeller, Paul G. The Vermont Brigade in the Seven Days: The Battles and Their Personal Aftermath. (McFarland http://www.McFarlandBooks.com : 2019). 201 pages, 65 illustrations, 8 maps, notes, bibliography, index.  ISBN: 978-1-4766-7661-6. $39.95 (Paperback) The Vermont Brigade in the Seven Days: The Battles and Their Personal Aftermath by Paul G. Zeller is another fine book on a […]

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