The Horse Soldiers (1959)



Director:  John Ford.

Starring:     John Wayne (Col. John Marlowe),  William Holden (Maj. Henry 'Hank' Kendall, regimental surgeon),  Constance Towers (Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar),  Judson Pratt (Sgt. Maj. Kirby),  Hoot Gibson (Sgt. Brown),  Ken Curtis (Cpl. Wilkie),  Willis Bouchey (Col. Phil Secord),  Bing Russell (Dunker, Yankee Soldier Amputee),  O.Z. Whitehead (Otis 'Hoppy' Hopkins (medical assistant),  Hank Worden (Deacon Clump),  Chuck Hayward (Union captain),  Denver Pyle (Jackie Jo, rebel deserter),  Strother Martin (Virgil, rebel deserter),  Basil Ruysdael (The Reverend of Jefferson Military Academy),  Carleton Young (Col. Jonathan Miles, CSA).

Taking Vicksburg was a long and complicated affair, involving an extended siege with many Vicksburg residents living in caves for protection against the bombardments of their city.   John Wayne plays a Union Colonel leading a sabotage party against the Confederates. William Holden plays the part of a rather pacifist doctor.  



Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.

General Steve Hurlburt and Col. John Marlowe come in to speak with Grant whose office is on a ship. General Sherman is with Grant. Grant says heís been looking at Vicksburg for ten months and he doesnít like it. The war is not going that well for the Union. He needs to take Vicksburg in the summer.

Hurlburt and Marlowe have a plan centered around Newton Station.   Marlowe says if he could get back to La Grange, Tennessee right away they could leave by Thursday. He would have the First Illinois, the First Michigan under Secord and the Second Iowa under Blaney. They would cross at La Grange and head to Ripley and New Albany to Houston. There will be no fighting until they hit Newton Station, which will be 300 miles into the Confederacy. Then they will tear up as much railway track as possible. Targets to be destroyed, Grant adds, are railway ties, buildings, bridges and all the rolling stock he can get his hands on.

The Union Cavalry Depot at La Grange, Tennessee. A conference of the officers is taking place. Major Kendall, the doctor, arrives late. Marlowe is irritated that the doctor will be coming along but Gen. Hurlburt tells him that those are army regulations.

Kendall comes to speak with Marlowe. Marlowe wants him to examine all his men and throw out the ones who are not physically fit. The two men donít like each other and Kendall tells Marlowe to get off his back just before he leaves.

Marlowe tells the bugler to get him Sgt. Major Mitchell, but the bugler tells him that the man is in the hospital. This creates another confrontation between Kendall and Marlowe. Marlowe wants his Sgt. Major back, but the doc says he has malaria. Mitchell and Marlowe tell the man that he has had malaria a long time and has done just fine, but the doc wonít listen to them. Marlowe has another Sgt. Major pulled off a train to replace Mitchell. The man is drunk so Marlowe has the men take him down to the river and throw him in. Heís to come back sober in two hours.

The cavalry moves out. Many of them were told a rumor spread by Marlowe himself that they are going to Nashville to be in a parade. But with the sun rising in the east off their left shoulders they figure they must be heading south into rebel territory.

Marlowe sends out four scouts. The four scouts are ambushed and some of them wounded. The doctor is needed already. Marlowe is angry because now they have been spotted by the enemy. The word's out for sure now. Theyíll be back looking for us, says Marlowe. He wants to send a third of his force back to make the rebs  they all went back. Some of his fellow officers disagree with splitting his force, but Marlowe does what he wants.

The doctor goes up to a slave cabin to see whatís wrong. Marlowe comes over to the wounded men and finds out that Rainey has died from his wounds. He gets really angry when he hears where the doctor is. He has just delivered a little girl. Marlowe starts telling the doctor that he didnít have to help the slaves. The mother was doing all right with having babies long before he came along. Kendall says he was asked to help and he couldnítí turn them down. He says: "Come off it Colonel, even you were born." Marlowe doesnít like his tone so he puts him under official arrest for insubordination.

The cavalry moves out. They reach Greenbriar Landing. Marlowe rides up to the house. Lukey the slave tells her mistress that there are lots of soldiers coming. The mistress looks and says: "Themís Yankees!" She sends Lukey downstairs to greet them while she gets dressed. Lukey goes down and tells the Colonel that Miss Hannah Hunter lives here.

Hannah comes downstairs. She welcomes them to Greenbriar. The Colonel introduces her to Sgt. Kirby. Marlowe says the men will be bivouacking in her woods tonight. She is being most gracious until he says that he will have to commandeer most of the grain and the horses. He tells her that she will be paid in Union greenbacks.

Miss Hunter comes out to talk some more with Marlowe and he introduces her to Col. Secord, Major Gray and Major Kendall. She invites the officers to dinner at 9 p.m. Major Kendall says he canít come because right now heís under arrest. Irritated, Marlowe says: "Weíll all be glad to accept your invitation, madam."

At dinner Miss Hunter really turns on the southern charm. And all the men are charmed, except the Colonel and Kendall, who are more skeptical. The men want to confer about their plans. She moves them to another room. Major Kendall goes with Miss Hunter. She says she has to go upstairs to get her shawl. Kendall says he has to go with her for security reasons. Standing in the room alone, Kendall realizes that he can hear the men downstairs talking through the stove.

Colonel Marlowe tells the other officers that after Newton Station they will be going on to Baton Rouge to join up with Union forces there. Col. Secord says Baton Rouge is 300 miles from Newton Station. Marlowe says if they try to go out they way they came in the rebs will be waiting to chew them up. So they will go out the way the rebs least expect.

Kendall peeps into the other room and sees the two women listening at another stove to the menís conversation. After the three come downstairs again, Kendall grabs the two women and forces them into the room with the officers. Col. Marlowe is shocked by this interruption, but Kendall says the interruption is necessary. The women have been listening upstairs and know all about Newton Station and Baton Rouge. Marlowe is mad at Miss Hunter but not as mad as she is at all the Yankees. She says the Confederate army will cut them to pieces and refers to the Yankees as "you nameless, fatherless scum". She adds that she wishes she could be there to see it.

The Yankees take Miss Hunter and Lukey with them because they know their plans. On the trail Miss Hunter makes a break for it. Some of the men chase after her and her horse. They catch up with her when she and her horse fall while trying to cross a swampy area.

The scouts report that a full brigade is coming up and coming fast. Marlowe has his cavalry hide in some brush. Miss Hunter makes another break for it to warn the rebs. Kendall chases after her, but Marlow catches her. As she falls she gets knocked out. They wake her with a hatful of water in her face. She is still defiant. Marlowe demotes the two men told to watch her.

The scouts are fired upon from a barn. They get off their horses and return fire. When the whole cavalry arrives the men in the barn put out the white flag. They are deserters from the Confederacy and they have a prisoner with them. The prisoner is a retired deputy who is the deputy again since the war started and most of the men left.

Marlowe asks the deserters about the situation at Newton Station. The troops that were there have gone to Vicksburg. Once he has the information, Marlowe puts his gloves on and knocks out the two men with his right hand. The deputy is given a gun and the prisoners are turned over to him.

Newton Station. The railroad junction supplying the Confederate forces at Vicksburg. The towns people are very surprised to see the Union cavalry come riding down the street. A one armed southern colonel is brought to Marlowe. Kendall knows the colonel and tries to speak with him, but the man wonít talk to the Yankee.

A rebel train is coming into the station. Marlowe asks where was the southern colonel picked up? From the telegraph office. Marlowe tells his men to hide the horses and get into defensive positions around the town. They erect barricades in the streets. The rebs come pouring off the train and the fight is on. The rebs are slaughtered in the streets. literally mowed down.

A make-shift hospital is erected to treat the wounded of both sides. The men start destroying the railway line and burning the cotton warehouses. The Union has three dead and eighteen wounded. The locomotive is destroyed. They tear up eight miles of track.

Marlowe gets a bit drunk and kicks a cavalry man out of the bar, as well as Colonel Secord. Miss Hunter is upset and cries. Marlowe tries to give her a drink but she wonít take it. He tells her he still doesnít like Kendall and he doesnít like doctors because he lost his wife with two of them working on her.  Kendall treats the southern colonel. After the battle he talks with Kendall. He tells Kendall that they will never make it. Bedford Forrest is sniffing at their heels. They all are headed straight for that prison in Andersonville, Georgia.

The towns people watch the cavalry move out and figure that they are headed to Baton Rouge. A rider is sent out to tell General Forrest.

At camp the next night Marlowe apologizes to Secord for kicking him out of the bar. In the morning they move out again. Going by a black church two bushwhackers fire at them and the slave Lukey is hit. The doctor comes but canít save her. Lukey dies and Miss Hunter cries. The men are very solicitous of Miss Hunter and help her feel better. Marlowe also visits her. He says he is sorry about what happened.

Jefferson Military Academy. A reb comes to get the commandant of the academy to agree to let him use the boys (oldest 16) to attack the Union cavalry. This would delay them enough so the rebel cavalry can arrive.

In the morning the cannon are ready for the arrival of the Union forces. The boys are marched out to the area. A mother asks the commandant for the release of her son, the only one she has left. The commandant releases the boy from duty and mom forces him to go home with her. But as soon as she relaxes at home the boy escapes through a window and runs after his unit.

With all this brewing, Marlowe and Kendall go out to a field and start fighting. All of a sudden the cannon open fire. The cannon shots hit short. The cadets march across an open field. They open fire on the cavalry. Marlow decides to retreat from the field rather than kill the youngsters. They take off at a gallop.

The scouts tells Marlowe that the rebs have blocked the road ahead and have two artillery pieces. One of the scouts knows the way through a swamp and so into the swamp they go. Itís still 40 miles to Baton Rouge. The men have been moving for 20 hours straight.

Marlowe tells Miss Hunter that her people are about an hour behind them. He will leave her here and they can take care of her. He says he is sorry for the humiliation and hardship that he has caused her. Just then the cavalry comes under fire from the other side of the bridge.  Marlow is wounded slightly in the lower leg. Miss Hunter starts taking care of his wound.

Secord comes in and says they should surrender. Marlowe tells him to get out of here. Kendall gets the bullet out. Marlowe thanks him and then gets up and goes back to work.

Marlowe tells the men to mount up. He charges right over the bridge into the Confederate lines. The cavalry gets over and starts killing the artillery men. The skirmish finished, recall is sounded. Kendall decides to stay with the wounded. Marlowe shakes his hand. He then tells Miss Hunter that he is in love with her. Miss Hunter just remains quiet, perhaps waiting to be kissed. But Marlowe just leaves.

The rebel cavalry is right on their tail now. Marlowe ignites the fuse to blow up the bridge. The reb cavalry arrive and an officer asks Kendall if their regimental surgeon could be of any use to him. Yes.


Good movie.  John Wayne does a good job.  He always seems to be playing the same part: a rough, tough guy with a good heart who always slugs someone.  And here he is again playing the part in a film about the Battle of Vicksburg during the American Civil War.  There was quite a bit of cavalry action in the battle because the Union could not take Vicksburg by an assault from the Mississippi River.  They finally had to go south of Vicksburg, cross the Mississippi River, head east, then north and back west to attack Vicksburg from this point.  That's a lot of maneuvering  In the film the love story is kind of a flop, but even love starts to soften the heart of the Yankee hating Miss Hunter.  (And only a softer-hearted Miss Hunter would ever be acceptable to me personally as a heroine.)

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:

Vicksburg Campaign (1862-63)

The Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi lay on the east bank of the Mississippi River, halfway between Memphis (north) and New Orleans (south). The capture of Vicksburg would take the Mississippi River from the Confederacy and divide one part of the South off from the other. It would not be easy because was situated on high bluffs along the river and was protected on the north by a maze of swampy bayous. The Confederates' batteries on the bluffs could outgun any Union ships on the river.


spring  -- Confederates lose Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Memphis in Tennessee and New Orleans in Louisiana; Vicksburg is now the key remaining Confederate strongpoint on the Mississippi River.

May-June  -- a Union naval expedition uses ironclads to subdue the Confederate batteries fails.

December  --  an attempt to take the city by land from the north by General William Tecumseh Sherman also fails.


February-March  --  an attempt by Grant to cut a canal around Vicksburg that would divert the river also fails.

Finally, Grant decides to take a different approach and come at the Vicksburg defenses from the east, well behind Confederate lines. He moves 40,000 troops to the west bank of the Mississippi, marches south along it and recrosses the river at Bruinsburg (30 miles south of Vicksburg). The army recrosses to the east bank with the help of a Union fleet under the command of Admiral David D. Porter. Grant moves northeast  -- a dangerous moved because it meant his army would have to feed itself off the surrounding enemy countryside.

May 2  --  take Port Gibson.

May 3  --  reaches Grand Gulf.  Later prevents a small Confederate army under General Joseph E. Johnston near Jackson from linking up with the Vicksburg forces.

Vicksburg's commander, General John C. Pemberton, leads his forces out in an effort to link up with Johnston but runs into Grant moving west; Pemberton has to return to the city.

May 18 --  Grant arrives in the rear of Vicksburg, which had 30,000 troops.

mid-May  -- two assaults fail; so have to use siege tactics.

early June --  Vicksburg desperately short of ammunition and on the brink of starvation.

July 3  -- Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.

July 4  --  Pemberton surrenders the city.


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