Horse_Soldiers_1959Have you ever had your research into Civil War ancestors prompted by a movie? I have.

John Ford’s Horse Soldiers (1959), starring John Wayne, depicts events that occurred in my ancestors’ homeland in this month 150 years ago. The movie, although heavily fictionalized, got me to look more closely at the real events.



Here are the facts. On the spring morning of April 17, 1863, Union horse soldiers set out on a daring raid down the length of Mississippi toward Newton County, where my Poore family ancestors lived. Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a music teacher turned soldier, led the long, mounted column of 1,700 officers and men southward out of La Grange, Tennessee.

The primary objective this stirring raid was to rip up the tracks of the Southern Railroad in and around Newton Station, about 7 miles northwest from the Poore farm.

Grierson’s main column reached Newton County on April 23. At about 6 a.m. the next day, the federals rode into Newton Station. The movie depicted Newton as quite a settled little town. In fact, it consisted of only a handful of structures newly built to take advantage of the railroad opened across Newton County in late 1860.

A railroad station in Mississippi is destroyed by Grierson's raiders. (Frank and Marie Wood print collection), National Park Service.

A railroad station in Mississippi is destroyed by Grierson’s raiders. (Frank and Marie Wood print collection), National Park Service.

The bluecoats burned two trains of freight cars loaded with food stores and ammunition, including artillery shells bound for Vicksburg. The federals touched off explosives to destroy the locomotives. The soldiers then burned the depot and a building in the town containing 500 muskets.

Grierson sent two detachments east and west along the railroad to destroy bridges, trestles and telegraph wires, cutting off contact with Vicksburg. The Yankees ripped up several miles of track, heated them over burning ties and twisted them around trees. The explosions and smoke from these destructive efforts no doubt could be heard and seen from the Poore farm.

Grierson spread word among the townspeople that he intended to head east toward the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. Instead, he set out southeast for Garlandsville, taking his column nearer to the Poore farm.

As the cavalry column moved, foraging parties visited local farms and seized food, fresh horses and other supplies.

“They took the farmers of the county greatly by surprise, and whatever property was exposed, they appropriated as far as they needed it,” wrote Newton County historian A. J. Brown. “They mostly took horses and mules and whatever they needed as supplies, feeding themselves and their horses very bountifully. They would take the best horses on a plantation and usually leave nearly as many as they took off, of stock that was completely broken down and unfit for their use.”

At Garlandsville, a few Mississippians, perhaps including Francis T. Poore or his son John, put up a short fight against the Union soldiers. Grierson had them rounded up, disarmed and gave them a stern lecture before ordering their release. The federal column then turned sharply westward eventually moving on to Union-held Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Writing later, Grierson recalled differently than historian Brown his army’s ability to live off the land. “Much of the country through which we passed was almost entirely destitute of forage and provisions,” he wrote. “It was but seldom that we obtained over one meal per day. Many of the inhabitants must undoubtedly suffer for want of the necessities of life, which have reached most fabulous prices.”

If we accept Grierson’s view as the correct one, then his raid through Newton County added to the misery of the Poore family and their neighbors by taking off their farm products and destroying an important rail link.

Interestingly enough, Horse Soldiers was not the only Hollywood movie about my Civil War ancestors’ rural Mississippi homeland. I’ll write about the other quite different movie in my next post.

Are there any movies that inspired you to do more research into your Civil War ancestors’ lives?


Grierson’s cavalrymen near the end of their 600-mile raid behind the Confederate lines. This photo was taken by a Confederate spy.