Monday, July 6, 2009

Benjamin H. Grierson’s Civil War Memoir

A Just and Righteous Cause: Benjamin H. Grierson’s Civil War Memoir
Edited by Bruce J. Dinges and Shirley A. Leckie.
This review appears in the July issue of Civil War News.

If you desire a highly detailed account of cavalry operations in Mississippi from the Union’s perspective this book is for you. For much of Grierson’s service he commanded the cavalry in the vicinity of Memphis, Tennessee which required him to conduct many raids and scouting operations in Mississippi. He provides a ton of details on what roads were taken, what time his units moved at, the order of march of the units and much more. He must have kept incredible notes during the war that he was later able to turn them into this memoir. He also later served in Alabama at the close of the war but there was very little fighting by that time.

Grierson of course is most well known for his raid through the entire length of Mississippi in April-May 1863. That raid is recounted here in amazing detail, down to the names of the plantations he stopped at, although some of this detail is provided by the editors. Since Grierson’s memoir has remained unpublished until now his addition to the story of the raid will improve our knowledge of that operation.

Grierson’s superiors thought highly of his skill conducting operations in the Memphis area. His combat record suffered because when he went on joint operations in the field he was often saddled with a less than stellar superior officer. William Sooy Smith and Samuel Sturgis were no match against Nathan Bedford Forrest no matter how good their cavalry was handled. Eventually Grierson would benefit from having AJ Smith lead the joint operations and they would then gain victories against Forrest in northern Mississippi.

As a memoir there are two things I especially liked about Grierson’s memoirs that is not standard among all other memoirs. First is that he shows very little ego, in fact sometimes he is so humble as to seem ridiculous. This is probably because the memoir was originally crafted for his family’s eyes only, although at the end of the book he does make it seem that his intention has expanded to include a much wider audience. His supreme humble moments tend to center on his musical talents. He showed musical aptitude at an early age and when just a young man became leader of his town’s band. He will later mention that he played the piano at a Southern plantation and the assembled crowd that he did a good job. Of course he did a good job, he was a musical teacher before the war, he was writing his own songs and he had learned how to play a large variety of instruments.

The second thing I liked about Grierson’s memoirs is that he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to laying praise or blame for any action. One example I found refreshing was at the end of his chapter on the battle of Brice’s Crossroads. His commanding officer, Sturgis, was justly receiving a lot of blame for how the battle turned out. Sturgis sent Grierson a letter asking if he was to blame for the results of the battle. Sturgis probably was gathering information in case he had to face a court of inquiry or prevent one from being formed. Grierson wrote a letter back that the charges of drunkenness were false but that he did not know enough details of the orders Sturgis received to know if he was at fault for the battle. Grierson provides both letters in his text and then goes on to explain why he would send such a letter since his telling of the battle pointed out many things that Sturgis failed at. Basically Grierson says that at the time he knew that blasting his superior would reflect badly on himself plus he knew Sturgis would never have an important command again, which is true. Then Grierson recited all the ways Sturgis had performed badly and how he truly was to blame for the defeat. Reading why he wrote what he did in 1864 and something different twenty years later makes perfect sense.

The one drawback to this book is a lack of maps. There are only two maps in the entire book. One shows Illinois and the other shows Mississippi. The Mississippi map should have been more detailed. In addition his late war operations in Alabama are not visible on either map. And a map of the battlefield at Brice’s Crossroads would have been nice because he goes into great detail concerning troop dispositions there.

This is a well written memoir that while highlighting the talents of its author does not make it seem like he was the prime reason the Union was victorious, which does happen in some memoirs. If Grierson had just provided a nice memoir of his service that would be enough to recommend this book but he also provided a highly detailed account of his service. If someone wanted to learn details about the cavalry operations in Mississippi they would not have to compile it from the Official Records, they could use Grierson’s memoirs first and use the Official Records for additional information.

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