Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Grierson's Raid: South to Newton Station

When last we left Col. Benjamin Grierson’s Union cavalry raid, the Federals had just entered the state of Mississippi and had bedded down at Dr. Ellis’ plantation north of Ripley. After spending the night under the stars, the raiders moved on early the next morning with the Seventh Illinois at the head of the column. Now in the second day of their raid into Mississippi, Grierson’s men had seen few Confederates. They suspected, however, that would soon change.

Riding south into Ripley, the Federals found no opposition. In fact, there were few citizens stirring about when the Yankees arrived about 8:00 that Saturday morning. After resting for an hour or so, Grierson decided to send the Second Iowa off to the east as a feint, the first of many such diversions during the next sixteen days. The Second Iowa was led by Col. Edward Hatch, another gifted cavalry officer. A native of Maine, Hatch (left) had worked as a lumber dealer in Iowa before the war and even spent some time as a merchant seaman. When the Civil War began, he joined the cavalry and quickly rose through the ranks, making colonel by June 1862. During the battle of Corinth five months earlier, he had been in command of a brigade, but now he was back to regimental command for this expedition. Hatch was almost given command of the raid; in case Grierson failed to show up on time, he had been tapped to lead the column. Instead, Grierson appeared with just hours to spare. Despite playing second fiddle to Grierson, Hatch was nonetheless a dependable officer. 

Hatch’s diversionary force rode east toward the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Meanwhile, the main column moved toward New Albany after leaving Pontotoc. At the bridge over the Tallahatchie River, Grierson’s advance surprised and scattered a few Confederates guarding the bridge and managed to capture four of them. Moving through New Albany, a “pleasantly situated country town,” Grierson’s men camped about five miles farther south. Unlike the previous night, the heavens opened up and poured rain on the men, making their second night in Mississippi extremely unpleasant. On April 19, Grierson’s raiders moved to Pontotoc, a place which was before the war, according to one of Grierson’s men, “a brisk business place, boasting a population of about three thousand inhabitants, a fine brick court-house, and beautiful residences, denoting wealth.” Here, the Yankees burned a mill and again skirmished with small squads of Confederate cavalry. After camping for the night south of town, Grierson decided to send another detachment north to try and confuse any pursuit. Selecting 175 men who were unable to continue, Grierson sent the so-called “Quinine Brigade” back to LaGrange. Along the way, they were instructed to make as many tracks and as much noise as possible in order to give the impression it was the whole force. The ruse worked to some degree, but by now Col. Clark Barteau, the Confederate commander with the responsibility of protecting the region, was beginning to get a fix on Grierson’s position. A native of Ohio (but a transplanted Tennessean), Barteau (above) attended Ohio Wesleyan University and then taught school for a time. He was also editor of the Hartsville Plaindealer newspaper before the war and used the printed page to advocate states’ rights. With secession, he enlisted in the Seventh Battalion of Tennessee Cavalry and, like Grierson, rose to the rank of colonel. Barteau’s reputation was as a skillful fighter and he would need all his skills now. Saddled with a hodgepodge command composed of Mississippi State Troops, militia and his own regular Confederate cavalry, Barteau had the unenviable task of stopping Grierson. The first job was finding the Yankees, though. For his part, Grierson would make every effort to remain hidden.

After sending the “Quinine Brigade” north, Grierson’s main column moved toward Houston, arriving there in the afternoon of April 20. Moving on, the troopers camped twelve miles farther south, driving deeper and deeper into enemy territory. During the night, Grierson decided to detach yet another diversionary force, this time an entire regiment. Once again, it was Edward Hatch’s Second Iowa which was selected for the job. Directed to move north and east in the direction of West Point, Hatch’s men immediately drew the attention of Barteau’s cavalry. At the little village of Palo Alto, the Confederates caught up with Hatch’s Iowans and the two forces fought a two-hour engagement. Unfortunately for Barteau, the unreliable Mississippi State Troops broke and ran and Hatch was able to continue moving north. After a circuitous route, burning bridges along the way, Hatch retuned to LaGrange on April 26, drawing his pursuers after him. All this time, the other two regiments in Grierson’s command continued moving south. Barteau had been suckered into following the wrong force. The next day, the main column arrived in Starkville, where they captured the mail and some other public property. According to a Columbus, Mississippi, newspaper, the Yankees "robbed the inhabitants of horses, mules, negroes, jewelry and money." Like the first day of the raid, the paper also reported the capture of the "Hale & Murdock's hat wagon, loaded with wool hats." If true, some of Grierson's men apparently had a fondness for hats!

Moving on, Grierson’s men slogged through a driving rainstorm. At this point, Grierson sent a company of the 7th Illinois on another side mission. This small band of men would be led by Captain Henry Forbes. In the next few days, they would head toward Macon and Enterprise. Another group was sent to destroy a tannery south of Starkville, where “a large number of boots and shoes and a large quantity of leather and machinery” was burned. With all these diversions, the Confederate high command had no real idea where the raiders were and began sending out parties on all directions to locate them. Knowing the chase was on, Grierson decided to utilize another type of deceptive strategy: he asked for volunteers to serve as scouts dressed in civilian garb. Later called the “Butternut Guerrillas,” the nine volunteers were led by Sgt. Richard Surby, a native of Canada. Time and again during the remainder of the raid, these men would ride ahead and seize telegraph offices, secure bridges, etc. If captured, they would likely be hung as spies. Surby and his men were especially valuable on April 23. After moving through Starkville and Louisville, the Union column approached the Pearl River at Philadelphia. Unable to ford the river, the raiders needed the bridge captured intact. Surby and his band went ahead and managed to disperse a small home guard and took the bridge. Now able to cross the Pearl River, the main column moved into Philadelphia, stopping for a brief time before moving on toward their ultimate objection: Newton Station. 

Riding throughout the night on April 23-24, Grierson’s men passed through Decatur around sunrise. Sent ahead of the main column were two battalions of the Seventh Illinois and the ever-vigilant “Butternut Guerillas.” The advance units arrived in Newton about 6:00 in the morning on Friday, April 24 and immediately moved to the depot, where the men took position along the track to await the arrival of the trains, which could be heard in the distance. In a post-war account, Sgt. Surby described the capture of one of the trains as follows:

On she came rounding the curve, her passengers unconscious of the surprise that awaited them. The engineer decreased her speed. She was now nearly opposite the depot. Springing upon the steps of the locomotive, and presenting my revolver at the engineer, [I] told him if he reversed that engine I would put a ball through him. He was at my mercy, and obeyed orders. It would have done any one good to have seen the men rush from their hiding places amid the shouts and cheers which rent the air of "the train is ours." It contained twelve freight cars and one passenger car, four loaded with ammunition and arms, six with commissary and quartermasters' stores, and two with dry goods and household property belonging to families moving from Vicksburg.

After capturing the trains and unloading the passenger baggage, both trains were set on fire. The exploding ammunition was heard for miles around and hastened the arrival of Col. Grierson with the main column, who feared a battle was under way. Upon arrival, he found – much to his relief – that everything in order and set the rest of the brigade to work destroying the military facilities at Newton Station.  East of town, men from the Sixth Illinois destroyed bridges, railroad trestles and telegraph lines. Unlike the John Wayne movie “The Horse Soldiers” (where a climactic battle took place in the streets of Newton), the only Confederates encountered were about seventy-five patients at a Confederate hospital. These men were immediately paroled. The hospital, despite folklore to the contrary, was not burned. 

Grierson’s many diversions had done the job thus far of hiding his true whereabouts. Up to this point, Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton had no idea where the raiders were, although reports seemed to indicate they were heading toward the Mobile & Ohio Railroad (due in part to the appearance of Forbes’ men at Enterprise). But now, with the telegraph cut on the main line of the Southern Railroad of Mississippi, Confederate authorities were finally able to locate Grierson and began moving swiftly to intercept them. Having reached his main objective, Grierson now had a decision to make. He could return the way he came – which did not seem wise – or go east into Alabama. This option was fraught with danger. Certainly, heading toward Vicksburg was out of the question. So, despite the odds, he decided to continue south, even deeper into Confederate territory and farther away from his starting point at LaGrange. For the next week, Benjamin Grierson would need every trick up his sleeve just to get his men out of Mississippi alive.

In a subsequent installment, we will continue to follow the progress of Grierson through Mississippi. Today, April 24, 2013 is the 150th Anniversary of the capture of Newton, Mississippi. 

Photo and Image Sources: 
(1) Hatch:
(2) Barteau:
(3) Grierson:
(4) Train:
(5) Newton Station:
(6) Newton Depot:

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