By Robert Beckhusen, War Is Boring
This piece was originally published last year.
On April 17, 1863, a former music teacher with a fear of horses — he was kicked in the head by one as a child — set off with 1,700 Union soldiers, the scouts in Confederate uniforms, on a raid deep into Mississippi.
The raid by Col. Benjamin Grierson would amount to “the most spectacular cavalry adventure of the war,” American Civil War historian James McPherson later wrote.
More than 138 years later in October 2001, future defense secretary James Mattis was a brigadier general in command of Task Force 58, which comprised the 15th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units along with the USS Bataan and Peleliu Amphibious Ready Groups.
Mattis was the first Marine commander of a U.S. Navy ARG — a shift in traditional American doctrine due to the particular nature of the mission.
Mattis was to invade southern Afghanistan, secure a forward operating base, seize the airfield at Kandahar and disrupt Taliban operations as U.S. special operations assisted the Northern Alliance’s push on Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and elsewhere.
That the Marines would enter Afghanistan by air from the Arabian Sea — traveling across and over Pakistan along the way — was a shift from the way Marines traditionally fight by amphibious assaults onto enemy-held beaches, which would normally entail a Navy officer leading the operation.
An airmobile-capable Marine force working closely with ground forces in Afghanistan, and facing no threats from a coast, placed the Navy in a supporting role, and hence Mattis — not a naval officer — as the commander.
Mattis, perhaps the most famous U.S. military officer in recent decades and one of its most erudite, looked back at Grierson’s Raid as one model for Task Force 58’s mission, according to The Mattis Way of War: An Examination of Operational Art in Task Force 58 and 1st Marine Division by Marine Maj. Michael Valenti, a 2014 paper [.pdf] studying the general’s command style.
Other lessons Mattis drew on included British Maj. Gen. Orde Wingate’s raids into Japanese-occupied Burma during World War II. A curious anecdote is that Mattis intentionally relied on a lean staff — a lesson he took from a captured Iraqi major in the 1991-1992 Persian Gulf War, according to Valenti. The Iraqi army tended to favor small staffs.
Above — Marines with the 15th MEU in Southern Afghanistan on Nov. 25, 2001.
The Iraqi army had greater problems in 1991-1992, but small staffs can be a benefit to a commander who wants to act quickly with minimal bureaucratic meddling.
Mattis also understood that a small staff only works if subordinates are highly skilled — no slackers — and professional enough to be “entrusted with a wide degree of latitude in their planning and execution, and they possess the manpower and resources to plan effectively,” Valenti wrote.
Perhaps most importantly, Task Force 58 had clear, limited objectives, with the primary goal being to disrupt the Taliban in the south and keep it divided. Essentially, Mattis wanted to do to the Taliban what Grierson did to the Confederacy in Mississippi.
In practice, this meant airlifting several hundred Marines, setting up the U.S-led coalition’s first base in Afghanistan, Camp Rhino, and then raiding into Kandahar and seizing the city and its airfield — interdicting Taliban fighters when they presented themselves. Mattis’ “raid” was successful.
Grierson’s Raid, at right, supporting Grant at Vicksburg. Illustration via Wikimedia
Grierson’s Raid was quite different, but not radically so. In April 1863, the Union cavalry commander and his 1,700 men and horses raced into Mississippi as thousands of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s men slogged their way south alongside the western side of the Mississippi River toward the fortified, strategic city of Vicksburg.
The defending Confederate commander, Gen. John Pemberton, sent his cavalry and an infantry division to chase Grierson’s raiders but to no avail. For two weeks, the Union cavalry burned rail cars, freed slaves, tore up railroads and inflicted 600 Confederate casualties for 12 of their own.
By the time it was over, Grierson had linked up with Union forces in control of Baton Rouge, and Grant’s army had — with Pemberton distracted and his forces divided — successfully crossed the Mississippi. Grant later won several battles with the the disrupted Confederates, captured the state capital of Jackson and then laid siege to Vicksburg, which fell in July.
“The strategic consequences of Grierson’s foray were greater, perhaps, than those of any other cavalry raid of the war, for it played a vital role in Grant’s capture of Vicksburg,” McPherson wrote in Battle Cry of Freedom. Likewise, according to Valenti, “Grierson’s Raid influenced Mattis’s intent by giving him a mental model of what raid forces were capable of when inserted deep in the enemy rear.”
Both raids relied on relatively small numbers of troops to force the enemy into a dilemma. Uncharacteristically, Mattis even left behind his artillery — he relied on air support instead. But his goal was to move fast, efficiently and with a clearly-defined mission, like Grierson.
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