The Horse Soldiers

In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid.

Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana.  Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg.

The video at the beginning of the post shows an interview done of Harold Sinclair during the making of the film.  Go here to read a note by Sinclair at the beginning of his novel in which he describes the liberties taken in the novel from the historical events.

John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade.  William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne.  Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest.

Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period.  I especially appreciated two scenes.  John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives the following impassioned speech:

Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’. You think our boys are asleep down here. Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it.

 Both scenes ring home with authenticity.  Not a bad effort from the usual history manglers of Hollywood.(Although there are still errors enough, including Union soldiers worrying about being captured and sent to Andersonville prior to the POW camp being constructed by the Confederates in 1864.)

I am a fan of both the novel and the film, and I recommend both.  They do a first rate job of capturing the spirit of the times as Americans fought each other in our war without an enemy.

More to explorer


  1. Good flick!

    Most memorable scene (for me) was the military school cadets attacking the cavalry. The march up, the “Bonny Blue Flag”, the mother pulling her son out of the line, the charge, . . . The cav humanely withdrawing.

    Today, the cavalry (not tanks) squadrons (battalions), troops (companies) are serving in Afghan and Iraq. The platoon consists of four armed Hmvees: two with .50 cal.; one with auto grenade launcher; and one with a TOW missile. The troops are MOS “cavalry scout.” The officers infantry or armor. My son served with a cav platoon in Afghan.

    Greet them ever with grateful hearts.

    Our Lady of Victory, pray fro us.

  2. My little brother T.Shaw led a cav platoon in Germany in the early eighties. He always told me that you haven’t lived until you are charging down an ink black trail in a tank in the Black Forest at midnight while attempting to read a map and take a compass heading!

  3. Love this movie, Donald! Can’t say enough about it. My favorite part is when they’re hiding from the Confederates who are singing the “Bonnie Blue Flag.” I have no idea how many times I’ve seen it.

  4. I have never seen this film, but it sounds very interesting.

    OT, but I feel the need to apologize to Donald and any other AC Flatlanders. Illinois already has more than enough spineless, craven Dem politicians. You certainly don’t need our spineless, craven ones.

    Here’s my video contribution for the evening, inspired by the brave souls who courageously ran south rather than vote on the state budget:

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