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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Skunk War
Battle-Savvy Cavalry Officer
Meets His Waterloo

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Col. Benjamin H. Grierson led one of the Civil War's most impressive cavalry campaigns and would see more combat as a cavalry officer in West Texas, but sometimes even an experienced officer gets outmaneuvered.

A musician by training, Grierson volunteered to fight for the North at the beginning of the Civil War. He signed up as aide-de-camp for another soldier whose first name was Benjamin, Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss. By the fall of 1861, Grierson had become a major in the 6th Illinois Cavalry and by late 1862, he had risen to brigadier general.

His time of glory came in the spring of 1863, when Gen. U.S. Grant ordered Grierson to stage a raid from Tennessee deep into Confederate territory. Grant called for the raid as a diversionary tactic while he concentrated on the Mississippi river town of Vicksburg, the place the South considered its Gibraltar.

Grierson left La Grange, TN in mid-April with three cavalry regiments totaling 1,700 men. In only 17 days, Grierson and his force executed a figurative sword thrust into the South, penetrating all the way to Baton Rouge, LA. In doing that, he and his men covered 800 hard and bloody miles. They tore up railroad tracks, destroyed property and killed, wounded or captured Confederate troops.

As John D. Winters wrote in his 1963 study of the Civil War in Louisiana, what came to be called Grierson's Raid "struck fear in the hearts of the citizens and somewhat demoralized the Confederate forces who failed to stop the move."

By war's end, having fought effectively in every campaign he became involved in, Grierson had been promoted to the brevet rank of major general.

When the South surrendered, Grierson decided to remain in the Army, reduced in rank to colonel. First stationed in Kansas and later in Indian Territory, he came to Texas in 1875 as commander of Fort Concho at San Angelo. There, in the late summer of 1876, he found himself facing a foe he failed to defeat.

Writing his wife Alice on September 5, he admitted he had met his figurative Waterloo, the pivotal battle that stopped Napoleon's European conquest.

The matter began with chickens. Someone named Anderson (the colonel did not say if he was an enlisted man or hired help) was trying to raise chickens behind the commanding officer's quarters. This presumably was meant to make eggs and fried chicken available to the colonel and his family.

Unfortunately for this effort to enhance the colonel's menu choices, skunks also like fresh chicken, especially chicks.

One night while he wife was away, Grierson heard a commotion outside and looked out to see Anderson skirmishing with a war party of seven skunks that had gotten inside the fence around the colonel's quarters. Anderson finally succeeded in chasing the raiders from the yard and fixed the gate so that they could not get in again. Or so he thought.

"Night before last," Grierson wrote, "...a big skunk came perambulating across our front porch-probably seeking a front entrance." Finding the door shut, the skunk headed toward the next house on officer's row.

Before the animal got there, however, a passing soldier saw the critter and hurled a stone or stick to scare it off. Unfortunately for Grierson, that tactic motivated the skunk to undertake another charge on the CO's residence.

Cornered by Anderson and the passerby, the skunk "fortified its position...by enclosing itself in a circle of sweet incense." In other words, it resorted to chemical warfare before the term had even been coined.

Not succeeding in driving their odoriferous foe away, the two men yelled for reinforcements. No stranger to tight situations, Grierson quickly lit a lamp and opened the door. The light, he thought, would scare off the raider.

But the attacker held his position.

"One good sight at the monster was sufficient to induce me to believe the truth of the old saying that discretion is the better part of valor," Grierson continued. "...I retreated...inside my fortification."

Then the colonel called for a council of war.

"It was unanimously and promptly decided that as the skunk was master of the situation...it was best to not stir him up to great exertion and violence and he was permitted to hold indisputed possession of the porch…."

After more than an hour, the invader "quietly withdrew but in a victorious manner no doubt to parts unknown possibly to make an attack on some other position."

Since then, Grierson concluded, "we have seen nothing more, heard nothing more, and smelled nothing more of his high-tailed majesty except that which he generously left upon the porch before [taking] his departure."

Four years later, Grierson had better luck in coordinating what proved to be the last military campaign against hostile Indians in Texas by running Apache chief Victoria out of the mountains of West Texas and into Mexico. If the colonel encountered any skunks while in the field, he did not report it.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 6 , 2018 column

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