American Civil War: Major General Benjamin Grierson

Benjamin Grierson
Major General Benjamin Grierson. Library of Congress

Major General Benjamin Grierson was noted Union cavalry commander during the Civil War. Serving in the Western Theater of the conflict, he came to fame while assigned to Major General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee. During the campaign to capture Vicksburg, MS in 1863, Grierson led a famed cavalry raid through the heart of Mississippi which did substantial damage and distracted the Confederate stronghold's garrison. In the final years of the conflict, he commanded cavalry formations in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Grierson spent the latter part of his career on the frontier until retiring from the US Army in 1890.

Early Life & Career

Born July 8, 1826 in Pittsburgh, PA, Benjamin Grierson was the youngest child of Robert and Mary Grierson. Moving to Youngstown, OH at a young age, Grierson was educated locally. At the age of eight, he was badly injured when he was kicked by a horse. This incident scarred the young boy and left him afraid of riding.

A gifted musician, Grierson began leading a local band at age thirteen and later pursued a career as a music teacher. Traveling west, he found employment as a teacher and band leader in Jacksonville, IL during the early 1850s. Making a home for himself, he married Alice Kirk on September 24, 1854. The following year, Grierson became a partner in a mercantile business in nearby Meredosia and later became involved in Republican politics.

Major General Benjamin Grierson

  • Rank: Major General
  • Service: US Army
  • Born: July 8, 1826 at Pittsburgh, PA
  • Died: August 31, 1911 at Omena, MI
  • Parents: Robert and Mary Grierson
  • Spouse: Alice Kirk, Lillian Atwood King
  • Conflicts: Civil War
  • Known For: Vicksburg Campaign (1862-1863)

The Civil War Begins

By 1861, Grierson's business was failing as the nation descended into the Civil War. With the outbreak of hostilities, he joined the Union Army as an aide to Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss. Promoted to major on October 24, 1861, Grierson overcame his fear of horses and joined the 6th Illinois Cavalry. Serving with the regiment through the winter and into 1862, he was promoted to colonel on April 13.

Part of the Union advance into Tennessee, Grierson led his regiment on numerous raids against Confederate railroads and military facilities while also scouting for the army. Displaying skill in the field, he was elevated to command a cavalry brigade in Major General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee in November. Moving into Mississippi, Grant sought to capture the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. Seizing the town was a vital step towards securing the Mississippi River for the Union and cutting the Confederacy in two.

In November and December, Grant began advancing along the Mississippi Central Railroad toward Vicksburg. This effort was cut short when Confederate cavalry under Major General Earl Van Dorn attacked his main supply depot at Holly Springs, MS. As the Confederate cavalry withdrew, Grierson's brigade was among the forces that mounted an unsuccessful pursuit. In the spring of 1863, Grant began planning a new campaign which would see his forces move down the river and cross below Vicksburg in conjunction with efforts by Rear Admiral David D. Porter's gunboats.

Benjamin H. Grierson seated in blue Union Army uniform surrounded by his staff officers.
Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson (seated, center) with staff. Public Domain

Grierson's Raid

To support this effort, Grant ordered Grierson to take a force of 1,700 men and raid through central Mississippi. The goal of the raid was to tie down enemy forces while also hampering the Confederate's ability to reinforce Vicksburg by destroying railroads and bridges. Departing La Grange, TN on April 17, Grierson's command included the 6th and 7th Illinois as wells as 2nd Iowa Cavalry regiments.

Crossing the Tallahatchie River the next day, the Union troops enduring heavy rains but met little resistance. Eager to maintain a fast pace, Grierson sent 175 of his slowest, least effective men back to La Grange on April 20. Learning of the Union raiders, the commander at Vicksburg, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, ordered local cavalry forces to intercept them and directed part of his command to guard the railroads. Over the next several days, Grierson used a variety of ruses to throw off his pursuers as his men began disrupting the railroads of central Mississippi.

Attacking Confederate installations and burning bridges and rolling stock, Grierson's men created havoc and kept the enemy off balance. Repeatedly skirmishing with the enemy, Grierson led his men south towards Baton Rouge, LA. Arriving on May 2, his raid had been a stunning success and saw his command only lose three killed, seven wounded, and nine missing. More importantly, Grierson's efforts effectively distracted Pemberton's attention while Grant moved down the west bank of the Mississippi. Crossing the river on April 29-30, he embarked on a campaign that led to Vicksburg's capture on July 4.

Later War

After recovering from the raid, Grierson was promoted to brigadier general and ordered to join Major General Nathaniel Banks' XIX Corps at the Siege of Port Hudson. Given command of the corps' cavalry, he repeatedly skirmished with Confederate forces led by Colonel John Logan. The city finally fell to Banks on July 9.

Returning to action the following spring, Grierson led a cavalry division during Major General William T. Sherman's abortive Meridian Campaign. That June, his division was part of Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis' command when it was routed by Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads. Following the defeat, Grierson was directed to take command of Union cavalry in the District of West Tennessee.

Major General William T. Sherman seated in a blue Union Army uniform.
Major General William T. Sherman. National Archives & Records Administration

In this role, he took part in the Battle of Tupelo with Major General Andrew J. Smith's XVI Corps. Engaging Forrest on July 14-15, Union troops inflicted a defeat on the daring Confederate commander. On December 21, Grierson led a raiding force of two cavalry brigades out against the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Attacking a dismounted part of Forrest's command at Verona, MS on December 25, he succeeded in taking a large number of prisoners.

Three days later, Grierson captured another 500 men when he attacked a train near Egypt Station, MS. Returning on January 5, 1865, Grierson received a brevet promotion to major general. Later that spring, Grierson joined Major General Edward Canby for the campaign against Mobile, AL which fell on April 12.

Later Career

With the end of the Civil War, Grierson elected to remain in the US Army. Though penalized for not being a West Point graduate, he was accepted into the regular service with the rank of colonel in recognition for his wartime achievements. In 1866, Grierson organized the new 10th Cavalry Regiment. Composed of African-American soldiers with white officers, the 10th was one of the original "Buffalo Soldier" regiments.

A firm believer in his men's fighting ability, Grierson was ostracized by many other officers who doubted the African Americans' skills as soldiers. After commanding Forts Riley and Gibson between 1867 and 1869, he selected the site for Fort Sill. Overseeing the new post's construction, Grierson led the garrison from 1869 to 1872. During his tenure at Fort Sill, Grierson's support of the peace policy on the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation angered many settlers on the frontier.

Over the next several years, he oversaw various posts along the western frontier and repeatedly skirmished with raiding Native Americans. During the 1880s, Grierson commanded the Departments of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. As in the past, he was relatively sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans living on the reservations.

On April 5, 1890, Grierson was promoted to brigadier general. Retiring that July, he split his time between Jacksonville, IL and a ranch near Fort Concho, TX. Suffering a severe stroke in 1907, Grierson clung to life until finally dying at Omena, MI on August 31, 1911. His remains were later buried in Jacksonville.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Benjamin Grierson." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). American Civil War: Major General Benjamin Grierson. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Benjamin Grierson." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).