150 Years Ago This Week: The ‘Horse Soldiers’ raid begins

April 1863

The siege of almost a month of the Federal troops garrisoned in Suffolk, Va., by Confederates commanded by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (on detached duty from the Army of Northern Virginia) began on Sunday, April 12, the second anniversary of the start of the war.

Out west in the Utah Territory, Federal troops from Camp Douglas began an 11-day expedition against Indians using Spanish Fork Canyon as a base for raids against local settlers and citizens. President Lincoln, back from meeting with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and reviewing the Army of the Potomac at Falmouth (across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg), received a dispatch from Gen. Hooker.

The Federals proposed to outflank Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg by crossing the river, turning the Confederate left flank and using his cavalry to sever connections with Richmond.

More Federal military action against marauding Indians, this time from Camp Babbitt to Keysville, Calif., opened on April 13. President Lincoln ordered Adm. Samuel DuPont to hold the position of his naval forces inside Charleston Harbor, S.C. Lincoln expressed anxiety over the failure of his navy in their operations against the Confederates there.

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commanding the Dept. of the Ohio, ordered the execution of anyone found guilty of aiding the Confederacy, and ordered the deportation of Southern sympathizers to Confederate lines. In Louisiana, on April 14 at Bayou Teche, a major engagement forced Confederates at Fort Bisland to evacuate.

The Confederates burned two of their own gunboats to avoid capture; the former Union gunboat Queen of the West, a veteran of so many engagements and now a Confederate vessel, was destroyed by Federal artillery fire. In Virginia, in the vicinity of Rappahannock Bridge, and at Kelly’s, Welford’s and Beverly fords on the Rappahannock River, Union cavalry of Gen. Hooker’s army made a number of probing excursions against Confederate outposts.

The following day, April 15, President Lincoln expressed concern to Gen. Hooker about the apparent lack of initiative of Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s cavalry operations along the Rappahannock. The same day, near the island of Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, the Confederate raider CSS Alabama captured two Federal whalers.

Flames and tar barrels burst into flames along the bluffs of Vicksburg, Miss., shortly before midnight on April 16, as Acting Rear Adm. David Porter’s flotilla of 12 Union vessels attempted to run past the Confederate guns overlooking the Mississippi. They came downriver to assist Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s army’s crossing of the river.

Although hit by the Confederate artillery, 11 of the vessels got through safely and concentrated near Hard Times, La., on the west side of the river. This dramatic passage of the Union flotilla was another step in the buildup of troops for the forthcoming campaign to capture Vicksburg. The same day, President Jefferson Davis approved acts of the Confederate Congress to allow minors under the age of 21 to hold army commissions, and to prevent absence of soldiers without leave.

On Friday, April 17, some 1,700 U.S. cavalry commanded by Col. Benjamin Grierson of Illinois, left LaGrange, Tenn. on a startling and daring raid into Mississippi and Louisiana. The intent was to draw Confederate attention from Gen. Grant’s planned offensive at Vicksburg. This raid provided the historical backdrop on which director John Ford’s epic 1959 motion picture “The Horse Soldiers” was based.

Starring John Wayne as the fictional Col. Marlowe, William Holden as the fictional Major Dr. Kendall, along with Constance Towers and Judson Pratt, the cavalry is ordered to cut the rail line between Newton Station, Miss., and Vicksburg to stop the westward flow of men, supplies and equipment needed to reinforce the Confederates in Vicksburg. Newton Station is actually located west of Meridian, and is an important Southern rail center; Newton was one of the objectives of Col. Grierson’s raid in April 1863.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.