Review In Brief: Fiction As Fact: The Horse Soldiers & Popular Memory

Why Does Brett Review Older Books?

Books on the Civil War and Film
My Film History Books

Fiction As Fact: The Horse Soldiers & Popular Memory. Neil Longley York. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press (May 2001).
176 pp. 1 map, many illustrations.

I’ve been a film history buff almost as long as I’ve been a Civil War buff. I’ve also grown increasingly interested in Civil War historiography thanks to guest blogger Johnny Whitewater and also thanks to Kevin Levin’s work on the Crater during the Petersburg Campaign. Fiction As Fact is an endlessly fascinating look at how the truth of Grierson’s Raid was changed, sometimes subtly and other times not so subtly, over the course of Dee Brown’s historical non-fiction book Grierson’s Raid, Harold Sinclair’s historical novel The Horse Soldiers, and of course John Ford’s classic John Wayne cavalry tale The Horse Soldiers.

Author Neil York first examines the raid as it exists on historical record. Colonel Benjamin Grierson took his under strength cavalry brigade, consisting of the 6th and 7th Illinois, the 2nd Iowa, and a six gun battery of two pounders of the 1st Illinois Artillery, on a raid through the heart of Confederate-held Mississippi in April 1863. Grierson’s raid was a spectacular success. Over a time frame of just over two weeks, he took his men from La Grange, Tennessee to Union-held Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Through a lot of skill and even dumb luck, he was able to tie up a large number of Confederate pursuers just as Grant was starting the final offensive of his Vicksburg Campaign by crossing east over the Mississippi and driving inland. The Union cavalry lost very few men and destroyed numerous stores along the way as an added bonus.

Next, Dee Brown’s non-fiction book on the raid, called simply Grierson’s Raid, is discussed. Brown is most famous for his western epic Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. I own a copy handed down to me by my Grandfather. York shows that although the book professes to be an accurate account of the raid, Brown did take some literary license. In some places, he uses diary accounts from a raid participant, but uses entries from similar actions before and after the raid. In another instance, he creates conversations that did not necessarily happen. Still, York praises Brown’s book as the most accurate, and still the best, non-fiction book currently available on the raid, over 50 years later.

Working on a similar timetable as Brown but creating an entirely different animal was John Sinclair. His historical novel The Horse Soldiers was released several years after Brown’s book, but the author apparently didn’t use Brown’s book as a source. Instead, he used many of the same sources Brown had used, including the Official Records. However, unlike Brown, Sinclair applied far more creative license. He changed the protagonist from Benjamin Grierson to John Marlowe. In addition, he changed the names of several regiments and eliminated the artillery entirely. Sinclair didn’t change everything. He kept many of the famous historical figures, such as Grant and Sooy Smith intact. In addition, he kept the correct names of Grierson’s Confederate pursuers. It was extremely interesting to follow along as York catalogued the ways in which Sinclair changed the record. For the most part, however, he stayed true to the story.

This was not so in John Ford’s film version, released in 1959, also called The Horse Soldiers. Grierson was again John Marlowe, though by this point he had become a railroad engineer rather than the historical music teacher Grierson was in real life. As always seems to be the case in Hollywood, a love interest was added. John Wayne, in the role of Grierson/Marlowe, meets a southern belle that he is forced to take along on the trip when she threatens to reveal his whereabouts and eventual destination of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Other details are changed as well. Nathan Bedford Forrest, rather than Wirt Adams and others, becomes the pursuer. Other details such as Andersonville POW Camp are added, even though Andersonville had not yet been built at the time of the raid. These things were added to streamline and popularize the story for the non-history buffs which would make up a large part of the audience. York argues persuasively that movies can define an event for the generation that goes to see it. He quotes James Cameron, director of Titanic, in making his point.

The last chapters are dedicated to looking over how Brown, Sinclair, Ford, and others involved in the books and the movie affected how the material was presented. York shows how people involved in the projects, especially John Ford, changed the way the story was told. He continues by emphasizing that all three had the common themes of duty and honor at their core, though they differed in the details. York also points out that the various forms of telling the tale ultimately allow people to become interested in something they otherwise never would have found. As an example, I know for a fact that Albert Castel cites Gone With The Wind as a seminal event in his life, and mentions it in the foreword of his excellent book Decision In The West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864. In the end, the author concludes that the truth can be elusive. Sometimes someone finds a new piece of evidence that allows us to interpret an event in a new way. Thus a commonly held “truth” many years old can become an inaccuracy in a moment.

I read York’s book in one day. I literally could not put it down. As someone who has watched many John Wayne films repeatedly, including The Horse Soldiers, I found the topic to my liking. I would recommend this particular historiographical study to anyone interested in the film, the books, or Civil War historiography in general. It really is a fascinating look back at the subtle changes that can creep into the public consciousness, similar to many long-cherished myths about the Civil War.

176 pp. 1 map, many illustrations.

Check out Beyond the Crater: The Petersburg Campaign Online for the latest on the Siege of Petersburg!