When he mounted his horse on Saturday, May 2, 1863, Capt. John Franklin Godfrey (“Frank” to his friends, relatives, and fellow officers) rode out to meet history —
— and he became a historical footnote in doing so.
Since raising Co. C of the 1st Louisiana Cavalry in New Orleans in late summer 1862, Godfrey had spent long hours in the saddle while chasing elusive Confederates in the terrain bordering the mighty Mississippi River. The capture of New Orleans had closed the lower river to enemy shipping; Union forces then tried to tighten control by capturing upriver Baton Rouge and Port Hudson.
Meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant was attempting to capture Vicksburg, the bluff-top fortress city a few hundred miles upriver from the Big Easy. In late December, Confederate cavalry captured the Union supply depot at Holly Springs, Miss.; the burning supplies forced Grant to abandon his current march on Vicksburg.
But he planned another attack on the city, which along with Port Hudson was the last Confederate-held post on the Mississippi. To divert enemy attention elsewhere from his main effort, Grant sent 36-year-old Col. Benjamin Grierson and three cavalry regiments — the 6th and 7th Illinois and 2nd Iowa — on a raid deep into Mississippi.
Other expeditions went hither and yon to further confuse Confederate generals. Leaving La Grange, Tenn. on a splendid April 17, 1863, Grierson rode south with 1,700 troopers unsure as to where they were going.
“Grierson’s Raid,” as history would dub the expedition, was incredibly successful. Confused by the multiple Union incursions into Alabama and Mississippi, outnumbered Confederate troops rode or marched far and wide to find the Yankees.
The result? Grierson faced less opposition, especially the gray cavalrymen commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest, busy chasing and ultimately bagging another Union cavalry column in Alabama while Grierson and his men rode steadily south.
Howard Sinclair chronicled the raid in the 1956 novel “The Horse Soldiers,” which translated to the silver screen in the 1959 movie of the same name. Director John Ford cast John Wayne as Col. John Marlowe (a Grierson knock off), William Holden as the prickly Union surgeon Henry Kendall, and Constance Towers as Southern belle Hannah Hunter.
Arrested for spying on Marlowe and his senior officers at her plantation, the fictional Hunter accompanied the Union troopers as they destroyed the Confederate supplies and transportation infrastructure in their path, just as Grierson and his men had done. Ultimately Towers became a love interest for widower Wayne in the movie; Ben Grierson was a happily married husband and father.
Returning 175 sick or out-of-shape troopers to La Grange, Grierson pushed his men southward. Usually his riders appeared suddenly in undefended or under-defended Mississippi towns, gathered and destroyed munitions, tore up bridges and railroad tracks, and vanished before word spread to Confederate authorities.
Meanwhile, Frank Godfrey operated from a camp near Baton Rouge. His men fought low-level skirmishes; in early April, Godfrey’s second lieutenant (a man named Carlton) took six troopers to a nearby plantation, where someone served breakfast to the Union boys.
Confederates ambushed the seven troopers as they rode back to camp. “Boys, put spurs to your horses and follow me!” Carlton yelled.
“The men gave a yell, and followed him,” Godfrey wrote his parents on April 7. “The rebels were so amazed at seeing their prey … charge by them so gallantly, that they fired precipitately, and fortunately although some of them were but a few yards off, without hitting a man.”
The Union troopers fired “an off hand volley, and dropped one man” while riding through the ambush, but Corp. Thomas O’Rourke and Pvt. John Smith lingered behind, apparently afraid to face the gauntlet, according to Godfrey. Carlton yelled at them to ride fast. Smith escaped as enemy soldiers reloaded, but O’Rourke turned his horse’s head and rode in another direction.
“We have not heard from him since,” Godfrey admitted.
Usually won by Union riders, similar skirmishes took place as April passed into May. Sunrise on May 2 found Godfrey resting in his tent.
Suddenly “I was surprised by a young man appearing at my tent, and saying that he belonged to the 7th Illinois Cavalry, and that he had come all the way through the Confederacy from Legrange (sic), Tenn. and that about eight hundred of the 6th and 7th Illinois Cavalry were about seven miles off,” Godfrey recounted his moment of destiny to his parents (John and Elizabeth Godfrey of Bangor) on Monday, May 4.
“I immediately saddled up and went out to meet them,” Godfrey noted.
Grierson had halted his men 6 miles shy of Union-held Baton Rouge to let them rest. When a scout rode up with reports of Confederate cavalry approaching from the west, “Grierson knew better and personally rode out to meet the advancing force, shaking hands with an astonished Captain J. Franklin Godfrey from Baton Rouge,” historian Alethea Sayers wrote years later.
“I saw the commanding officer Col. Grearson (sic), and Col. Prince, the Col. of one of the Regts.,” Frank Godfrey informed his parents. “This little command have marched over five hundred miles through the heart of the enemy’s country, and have outwitted every thing that has been sent to capture them.
“It was one of the most brilliant exploits of history, and all honor should be accorded to the heroes who accomplished it,” Godfrey believed.
After his handshake with Godfrey, the “filthy, and bone-weary, Grierson and his troopers were escorted into the city of Baton Rouge at 3 p.m.” on May 2, Sayers commented. “Though thoroughly exhausted, Grierson agreed to parade his column around the town square, greeted by cheering civilians and soldiers.”
In his “Official Report of the Expedition from La Grange, Tenn., to Baton Rouge, La.,” Grierson noted that the general commanding Union troops at Baton Rouge “sent two companies of cavalry, under Capt. GODFREY, to meet us.
“We marched into the town about 3 o’clock P.M., and were most heartily welcomed by the United States forces at this point,” Grierson wrote on May 5, 1863.
During his two years of military service in the Deep South, Frank Godfrey emerged onto a history page at that moment outside Baton Rouge. His parents would have been impressed.
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Source: The Civil Letters of Capt. John Franklin Godfrey, Candace Sawyer and Laura Orcutt, Portland, 1993;”Grierson’s Great Raid,” Alethea Sayers, www.lagrangetn.com; and “Gen. Grierson’s Great Raid,” New York Times, Aug. 30, 1863.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.