The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Grierson’s Raid, which ran from April 17 to May 2, 1863,  was the dry run for Sherman’s March to the Sea.

In April of 1863, the United States Civil War was at a stalemate. Back in December, the Union Army had received a bloody repulse at the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the west, Ulysses Grant had mounted one campaign after another, but had still not captured Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the Mississippi River. In May of 1863, he would make one more try. He would run his transports past the murderous fire of the great Confederate fortress, march his troops down the west bank of the Mississippi, cross over, then march back up and lay siege to the town that Jefferson Davis had referred to as “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”

It was a risky strategy. If either John C. Pemberton, the commander of the garrison at Vicksburg or the dreaded Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest got wind of Grant’s plans and hit the Union army hard at the river crossing, they could wreck the Vicksburg Campaign altogether. Grant had to find some way of distracting Pemberton until he could fully deploy his troops on the Mississippi side of the river, after which his superior numbers would make him all but invincible.

Enter Benjamin Grierson.

Benjamin Henry Grierson, who was 37 years old in 1863, deserves to be better known. An ex-music-teacher with a fear of horses — a horse kicked him in the head when he was a little boy — he would go on to become the best Union cavalry commander of the war, the only man who ever fought Nathan Bedford Forrest to a draw. He was also the progressive anti-racist most of us, incorrectly, imagine William Tecumseh Sherman to have been. Sherman was a racist. Grierson would go onto command black troops, “Buffalo Soldiers,” in the 1870s and 1880s. He also objected to the genocidal war against the Plains Indians and did his best to minimize the damage wherever he could. Liberals who want to look up to someone from the past would do well to forget about John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt and check out Benjamin Grierson. He’s the genuine article, a progressive, anti-racist war hero.

Grant’s diversionary plan was a two pronged reconnaissance in force. To the north he sent Colonel Abel D. Streight to attack the Western and Atlantic railroad, which was supplying the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Streight’s Raid was poorly planed and executed, but it did manage to draw off Nathan Bedford Forrest. To the south, he sent Grierson, and three regiments of his best cavalry, the 6th and 7th Illinois and the 2nd Iowa. Grierson’s Raid was executed flawlessly. Starting out in La Grange, Tennessee, Benjamin Grierson and his 1700 troops road all the way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 800 miles through the heart of Confederate territory, and sustained only nineteen casualties, three killed, seven wounded, and nine missing. They tore up railroads, hit the supply depot at Newton Station, and kept an entire division of Pemberton’s soldiers tied up defending the Vicksburg-Jackson railroad. It’s widely considered to be the greatest cavalry raid of the war, if not one of the greatest in history. If that weren’t enough, Grierson kept his troops perfectly disciplined. There were no massacres of civilians. There was no looting. They were as polite to the local women as they would have been in New England. That May, Grant made the crossing at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, the largest amphibious operation of the United States military until the invasion of Normandy. Vicksburg fell two months later.

John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers, which is loosely based on Grierson’s Raid, continues the long, dishonorable Hollywood tradition of obscuring the history of the United States Civil War.

Ford gets just about everything wrong. In place of the 37-year-old ex-music-teacher, he gives us the combination of the 50 year old John Wayne as Colonel Marlowe, the raid’s commanding officer,  and the 41-year-old William Holden as Major Henry Kendall, a regimental surgeon. Holden might have been believable as the real Grierson, had his part been written better. John Wayne is just a drag. Colonel Marlowe, like Grierson, is a clever soldier who knows how to use misdirection and solid intelligence to achieve his objectives without sustaining heavy casualties or shooting up civilians, but Wayne is woefully miscast. It’s 1959, not 1938. He’s beefy and middle-aged, not spare and intense like the real Grierson. He makes no attempt to work up his character as 19th-Century radical Republican. Instead he plays Grierson as yet another dreary “Greatest Generation” veteran of the Second World War. His character is a stereotype out of 100 other World War II films.  To make matters worse, Ford gives him an absurd back story as an ex-railway engineer who lost his wife to an incompetent doctor. That, naturally, sets up a conflict with Kendall. Throw in a love triangle between Holden and Wayne and a fiery southern belle named Hannah Hunter, Constance Towers, and you’re left with a corny Hollywood romance that’s just flat out embarrassing. Marlowe seems to have no place in his outfit for a regimental surgeon. War’s too serious a business for doctors. But he has time for romance? The real Ulysses Grant would have put a man like this in handcuffs before sending him back to his civilian job as a railway engineer.

The only real question is why Ford does it. Why does he shit all over the history of the Grierson raid? Ford, who’s one of the greatest filmmakers in history, could not make a bad movie if he tried. But he tries very hard with The Horse Soldiers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an entertaining two hours, but as light comedy, not history. Surely Ford would have recognized the potential of the real Benjamin Grierson. A man who grew up with a fear of horses becoming the Union Army’s best cavalry commander? How can you possibly pass up a story like that? What’s more, Ford’s no southerner or neo-confederate. He’s a Yankee, born and bred in Cape Elizabeth Maine, an old school progressive Republican and a great admirer of Lincoln. How could he have hacked up such a great story so badly?

David Blight, who’s the Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, tells us why. In his seminal book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Blight discusses how, in the late 19th Century, a consensus developed that the United States Civil War was not about the end of the slave power but about the valour and courage of the soldiers of both sides.  It was not about a great victory of democracy over the dark forces of reaction. It was about “supporting the troops.”

John Ford, who has a reputation as a “conservative,” was, of course, anything but. A liberal nationalist who made the definitive cinematic version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ford’s vision of the United States Civil War comes out of the New Deal, a center-left government, but one run by the Democrats, the party of  the Confederacy.  Franklin Roosevelt, as the leader of a Democratic Party with a progressive, northern wing, and a white supremacist southern wing, could not govern as a flat out Yankee progressive. He had to keep the south. That meant putting Civil Rights on the back burner, and relegating the struggle against Jim Crow to his wife Eleanor. The Second World War made it even more important to avoiding alienating Dixie. The Northeast and Midwest had large German American, Irish American and isolationist factions who would not necessarily side with the United Kingdom against Germany.  Ford did what every other progressive Democrat did. He made compromises.

So he soft-pedalled the immediate political context of the Grierson Raid for the sexual and domestic conflicts among his individual Yankees and Confederates, not all of whom, to his credit, were white. The ridiculous love triangle between Constance Towers, John Wayne, and William Holden becomes a lot more interesting when you realize that it’s actually a ridiculous love quadrangle. Althea Gibson, the African American tennis player, is Hannah Hunter’s loyal “slave” Lukey. Put “slave” in quotes because Hannah Hunter is not only a strongly feminist character. There’s more than a hint of a lesbian relationship between her and Lukey. When Hannah puts on an exaggerated Southern Belle act to fool Marlowe and Kendall, Lukey harshly dresses her down for “talking like a field hand.” The image of the southern woman as a flirt, Ford assures us, is just an act. Southern women, black and white, are strong, highly capable and independent, and just as patriotic and determined to fight the Yankees as southern men.The Civil War doesn’t stop when the soldiers stop shooting and it won’t end at Appomattox.

The South, John Ford is telling us, is feminine, and the North masculine. That’ s not a common way to look at the United States Civil War, but it does make sense, especially when you’ve got John Wayne as the prototypical Yankee. The South was agricultural and romantic, the north industrial and secular. Reconciliation, therefore, becomes as natural as heterosexuality. Conflict is as inevitable as it is in marriage. Whether Constance Towers ends up with John Wayne or William Holden is less important than that she ends up with one of them, and not Althea Gibson.

Not incidentally, the film’s most powerful scene is Lukey’s death at the climatic Battle of Newton Station.

So perhaps John Ford can be forgiven for not making a film that stayed closer to history. The real Grierson Raid would have been entirely too masculine, too much of a northern story, to have turned into a Hollywood film. It was 1959. John Ford had grown old. John Wayne had gotten fat and middle-aged, and the United States had recovered from the Depression. Ford wanted pleasant nostalgia, not history, romance, not war. My guess would be that  he choose the Grierson Raid for his most overt film about the Civil War because of the relatively low death toll. To make a film about the holocaust of the Battle of Gettysburg or Shiloh, to have that many Americans killing that many other Americans, would have been unthinkable only 14 years after the end of World War II. Ford wasn’t asking “why can’t we all get along?” He was pleasantly reveling in how we all did get along.

He was an old man who never saw the 60s coming.

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