A Tip of the Hat to Old Starkville by Morgan Gates
My wife and I just returned from a little winter vacation. A few days in Savannah Georgia, yes, I eat, drink, and sleep history even on vacation. The first leg of the trip took us to Starkville Mississippi to drop off the fur baby -- a sixty pound Pitt/Dane mix that thinks he is my lap dog -- with my daughter. Of course, we made time to visit with her and her young man for a couple of hours, dinner at a nice restaurant a late movie, we then spent the night in her spare bedroom and were up and off to an early start the next morning. Starkville is home to Mississippi State University (Go Dawgs) and has a surprising number of amenities for such a small city because of this. We ate breakfast at an excellent local diner on main street the next morning and as we made our way to the highway, my lovely wife asked me if anything of historical significance had occurred in Starkville – she’s good like that, she knows the best way to get me talking is to ask me a history question. I replied not much, it was originally known as Boardtown, but the name was changed to Starkville in honor of a Revolutionary War hero, the University’s first president had been a former Civil War General, Oh and Grierson’s Raid had passed through Starkville. About that time, we passed the historical marker for the raid in front of the local Walgreen’s Pharmacy. That’s when it hit me, here we were one hundred and sixty-seven road miles from home and we were looking at a marker related to Vicksburg! Grierson’s Raid, ordered by U.S. Grant, was part of the Vicksburg Campaign! ---- You were beginning to wonder how I was going to bring this back around to Vicksburg weren’t you?
At the beginning of the Civil War the Confederacy owned the cavalry field, Southern Gentlemen were born and bred to the saddle, and most Southern Cavalrymen brought their own horses to the war. The Confederate Cavalry Generals – J.E.B. Stewart, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Earl Van Dorn, etc. – were legends in their own time. But the Union boys were good at playing “catch-up”! Colonel Benjamin Grierson, was not “born to the saddle” this former music teacher did not even like horses before the War, but apparently, he had overcome that shortcoming by April of 1863.
In April of 1863 Grant is moving his men down the West side of the Mississippi through the thick swamps of Northeast Louisiana. It is a slow process and it will take almost a month to move the army between Milliken’s Bend and Disharoon a distance of about 40 miles “as the crow flies” plenty of time for Pemberton to mass his army to oppose the planned crossing. Had Pemberton done so it would have been a bloody mess – think Omaha Beach, 81 years too soon! Grant has numbers but Pemberton has Geography, so Grant uses his numerical superiority to appear to be everywhere at once, by launching diversionary operations to keep Pemberton off balance and guessing as to his true intentions. The most audacious of these diversions was Grierson’s Raid.
On April 17th 1863, the day after the U.S. Navy ran the guns of Vicksburg, Grierson left LaGrange Tennessee at the head of a column of 1700 horse soldiers and several pieces of light artillery. For the next 16 days, they rode rough shod over lightly defended eastern Mississippi destroying railroads and tearing down telegraph wires and generally raising hell. The raid was largely successful because it faced no serious opposition, the bulk of Pemberton’s cavalry and his star horseman Nathan Bedford Forrest had been ordered to Tennessee by Pemberton’s superiors and infantry could not move quickly enough to counter a fast-moving horseman. Grierson rode into Union occupied Baton Rouge on May 2nd with only minimal casualties. --- but let’s get back to that marker in front of the Walgreen’s – On April 21st Grierson’s men rode into the little village and captured a wagon load of hats that they believed were destined for the Confederate Army. They promptly distributed the hats to the local slaves, and left town in a cloud of dust riding south. The next day the local newspaper castigated the men of Starkville for allowing this to happen. – I’m not really sure what the editor though they could have done to stop it. The Editorial concludes with the statement:
“All we can say is that we now have the best hatted slaves in the Confederacy!”