A During Cavalry Strike Through the Heart of the Confederacy
by Tom Laklicki
2004, Farrar Srauss Giroux
War isn't pretty and any attempt to glorify it, especially in a book for young adults, is a little disconcerting. Heroes in uniform are usually only so because of their successes, which come at heavy cost to those whose lives and fortunes are caught in the crossfire. Thus, writing a good book for young readers about guerrilla warfare, even in a war as distant and ennobled in the American consciousness as the Civil War, presents a considerable challenge.
Grierson's Raid: A Daring Cavalry Strike Through the Heart of the Confederacy appears on bookshelves at a curious time in our history. Terrorism is a global threat, both at home and abroad. Images of terrorism are now part of our daily diet of news. Yet here we have a hook about an unlikely American hero whose sanctioned guerrilla raid through the South in the spring of 1863 was calculated to cause terror and havoc on an unsuspecting population in rural Mississippi. Not that such a story isn't worth retelling. Indeed, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the politics and purposes of war, which often have repercussions far beyond those envisioned by the politicians and generals who wage them.
Tom Laklicki is an excellent storyteller and writer. He gives us a very human and memorable hero in Colonel Benjamin Grierson, the failed merchant and talented musician from Morgan County who rose from anonymity in the ranks to the front pages of Harper's Weekly. Using diaries, newspaper accounts, letters, official government records and historic documents, Laklicki presents Grierson as a fearless, duty-bound American who rose to an overwhelming challenge and not only prevailed, but routed his enemy completely, perhaps saving the lives of countless Union and Confederate soldiers.
His narrative is simple but effective. Grierson's raid, we are told, was both necessary and unavoidable, given Union defeats in 1862. The army was disillusioned, broken, and politically under fire. The costly victory at Stones River in January 1863 and the seemingly inpenetrable defenses at Vicksburg, "the key to Union victory," the author asserts, required drastic and daring action to break the Confederates' control of the Mississippi River above New Orleans.
Grierson's secret orders were to ride through the heart of Mississippi with three cavalry and two artillery regiments (about 500 men) and "destroy the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad at Newton Station, Mississippi," and to damage any other military targets he found along the way." The purpose was to demoralize the enemy, frighten the citizenry, and create chaos along the way. To disguise troup movements, some of Grierson's raiders wore "Butternut," the unofficial uniform of the Confederacy.
The plan worked brilliantly. Though surrounded by enemy forces at every turn, Grierson outmaneuvered his pursuers and caused panic throughout the countryside, giving Grant's army the diversion it needed to overwhelm Vicksburg, thereby reclaiming the Mississippi River and its ports for the Union. Laklacki's focus is on Grierson's objectives, and only rarely does he give us a glimpse of the realities of guerrilla warfare as experienced by those caught in its path. One 19-year-old soldier, stunned by the lawless devastation, summarizes the raid rather succinctly:
"Appropriating the last horse of a poor old woman, and driving off a man's team from before his plow, certainly seems to be tolerably small work for a soldier, but then what is all war but one monstrous evil by the use of which we hope to overcome a much greater, and so long as it tends to subdue the rebellion I suppose that the means are justified by the end."
The raiders, we read, had limited supplies, and therefore frequently "requisitioned" the livestock, stores, and harvests of farmers along their route. In one case, a farmer named Sloan was so distraught by the soldiers' banditry that he pleaded to be killed. Grierson commanded that the farmer's wish be granted, though he later changed his mind when the unfortunate's wife pleaded for his life.
Laklicki's story is about heroes, not about collateral damage. Nor is it about the realities and repercussions of guerrilla warfare. It is all too telling that the author's celebration of Grierson's raid makes no mention of another guerrilla raid four months later, when William Quantrill, a former school teacher, led 400 Confederate raiders into Lawrence, Kansas, and murdered 200 men and boys, then set fire to the town. Quantrill and his partisan army undoubtedly knew of Grierson's work in Mississippi, and rode into Kansas to exact their own vengeance. At the time, several Southern papers praised Quantrill's daring raid, yet I doubt any young adult publisher today would consider Quantrill or his raid heroic.
Though well-written, focused, spirited, and engaging, Tom Laklicki's Grierson's Raid, misses an opportunity to be a better book simply because the author chooses not to challenge his readers. I only hope that those who pick it up will read between the lines.
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