Keith A. Sculle, Ph. D.
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (retired)
Think of Illinois and the Civil War and what quickly comes to mind for most of us? Abraham Lincoln, man of the people risen from modest means to perhaps the greatest President, saved the nation from dismemberment in the bloody Civil War. He further added to the United States’ unique idealism in the family of nations by promoting an end to slavery. Yet, nearby, during Lincoln’s years in central Illinois, a lesser known man matured deserving memory too—Benjamin Grierson (1826-1911).
Born of Scots-Irish immigrants in Pittsburgh who later moved west to Youngstown, Ohio, Grierson’s moorings typify many who fought for the Union—finding his way in the world according to his talents. In 1851, Grierson relocated to Jacksonville, Illinois. The city was founded but a few years earlier (1825) as a speculative venture on the Illinois frontier but, it rapidly grew into a sophisticated city for its time and was well connected to the world beyond. The seat of Morgan County, Jacksonville quickly attracted many professionals, one of Illinois’ first public care facilities, a medical school, two colleges, and a railroad. A man of many talents, including music and the written word, Grierson recorded in his autobiography that “During my residence in Ohio, I had composed and arranged a considerable amount of music for bands and orchestras, and after my arrival in Illinois much additional music was written and arranged for the excellent band and orchestra in Jacksonville, of which I was the leader.” After marrying an early sweetheart from Ohio, whom he became reacquainted with during her visits to relatives in nearby Springfield, he decided that his income as a music teacher was insufficient to start a family and moved to nearby Meredosia. There, in 1855, he and a partner opened a store that was lucrative until the financial crash of 1857 but remained open until 1860. Grierson, who gave up his homestead to pay his debts, was, by his own accounting, “virtually left without a dollar” and moved back to Jacksonville.
By no means a quitter, his reflection on why he had spent five years in Meredosia exemplified his faith “that the experience thus gained in sustaining what I deemed a just and righteous cause was absolutely necessary to enable me to put forth greater efforts in the memorable struggle which was soon to follow.” This ‘memorable struggle’ referred to in Grierson’s cryptic note began with his decision to join and support a new political party In an overwhelmingly Democratic county and at seemingly physical peril to himself, he joined the new Republican Party. He campaigned for and helped organize the fledgling party and its first presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. He also remembered that during this time he “composed a great many songs which were widely sung and published throughout the country, and, often met and was intimately acquainted with Mr. Lincoln.”
1863 was the year that saw Grierson’s reputation vaulted to new heights. The raids of April 17th to May 2nd–some 15 days–mark a turning point in the Civil War and represent the legacy of Benjamin Grierson. Might it have ever been guessed that his background prepared him for it?
At his mother’s request, he had refused an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Years later, in April 1861, when southern secessionists bombarded Fort Sumter, he resolved to go to war. He was initially an aide de camp, later rose to major in the Sixth Illinois Cavalry , in April 1862 to a colonel and in November of that year to brigadier cavalry commander in the Army of the Tennessee. Grierson’s assignments were limited to comparatively small operations but, in them, he had earned his men’s respect. General Sherman recommended him to General Grant to command 1700 men in a diversion slicing approximately 600 miles southwestward from the southern tip of Tennessee through Mississippi to Union-held Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This feint would distract the Confederate army, permit Grant’s conquest of Vicksburg, split the Confederate forces to enable Union control along the entire length of the Mississippi River, and end the Confederacy’s flow of material eastward. This bold strategy was successful during a particularly low ebb in Union fortunes. With both Union and Confederate forces bogged down in the East, however, hope glimmered in the West. As skill and as luck would have it, Grierson accomplished his mission. He and his exhausted men were surprised to be greeted as heroes and opinion rose that the Confederacy could be defeated. Even a beaten Confederate commander praised him: “Grierson was here; no, he was there, sixty miles away. He marched north, no, south, or again west… The trouble was, my men ambushed you where you did not go; they waited for you till morning while you passed by night.”
In time, Grierson’s miraculous reputation dimmed, and, after the Civil War, he went on to a long military career in the West where he organized a unit of the black cavalry known as the Buffalo Soldiers . A century later, the Grierson’s Raid rekindled imaginations when Dee Brown, head librarian of the University of Illinois and later famous for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, wrote an account of the raid and Harold Sinclair, a lesser known novelist and creative non-fiction writer from Bloomington, wrote a fictional account, The Horse Soldiers . Hollywood adapted it for a star-studded movie cast.
Grierson—an historian too—penned a true and idealistic testimony deserving memory: “It is said that whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings, and as we can only at most, form a vague conception of the future, the time may not be unprofitably employed in glancing through the past, even if we gain nothing thereby beyond a better acquaintance with the history of our ancestors.” He meant it about his family; but it can just as easily stand for our collective history.