Thursday, January 24, 2013

Smith: THE FIGHT FOR THE YAZOO, AUGUST 1862 - JULY 1864: Swamps, Forts and Fleets on Vicksburg's Northern Flank"

[The Fight for the Yazoo, August 1862-July 1864: Swamps, Forts and Fleets on Vicksburg's Northern Flank by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland ph. 800-253-2187, 2012). Softcover, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:383/452. ISBN:9780786462810 $55]

With five similarly themed studies to his name, Myron Smith has become arguably the foremost chronicler of naval combat and logistical operations on the western waterways. In addition to documenting an astounding array of ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore engagements, the vast trove of source material uncovered also allows readers access to a vast amount of information about the officers and men serving aboard these vessels (as well as their opponents ashore), many just now receiving the credit they deserve. The latest volume in this remarkable series is The Fight for the Yazoo, August 1862-July 1864: Swamps, Forts and Fleets on Vicksburg's Northern Flank.

Initial chapters introduce readers to the Yazoo River, its tributaries, and the geographical features lining its course. Seasonal effects on its navigability are discussed, as well as the military significance of the set of bluffs (Snyder's, Drumgould's, and Haynes's) towering above the east bank of the river. Fortified with heavy batteries, this network of Confederate hilltop defensive positions, combined with a system of cleverly arranged rafts and torpedoes, effectively impeded penetration up the Yazoo.

Smith covers the U.S. Navy's earliest forays into the river in late summer, as well as their reconnaissance and minesweeping operations in support of the December 1862 amphibious expedition that attempted to seize Vicksburg from the north. While the large army contingent commanded by William T. Sherman was suffering a mini-disaster at Chickasaw Bayou, the diversionary wing of the navy was battered by plunging fire as it neared the bluff batteries. Torpedoes also took their toll, but Smith properly credits Confederate artillery Colonel Edward Higgins for the skillfully prepared stretch of fortified batteries stretching from the aforementioned Yazoo bluffs all the way south to the Vicksburg waterfront.

Grant's daring crossing of the Mississippi below Vicksburg was a key event in the ultimate capture of the city, but it should be remembered that prior months were consumed in failed attempts to tackle the preferred approach, turning the Confederate flank north of the Hill City.   Edwin C. Bearss's Vicksburg trilogy covers these operations in some detail but Smith's book really takes it to the next level.  The scope and depth of the latter's pair of chapters covering the Yazoo Pass Expedition and the successful Confederate defense of Fort Pemberton is really a book length exercise. The Steele's Bayou section is just as good, an excellent recounting of the navy's bold attempt to beat a path through narrow, tortuously winding, and timber choked bayous, waterways rendered just passable to shipping by recent rains and burst levies.

Diversionary operations up the Yazoo continued after Grant's army set foot on Mississippi soil at Bruinsburg. When Union forces closed in on Vicksburg itself in May 1863, the Confederates were forced to abandon their bluff top positions. The navy quickly took advantage, clearing the water obstructions and pushing up the Yazoo River. A significant prize was the destruction of the Confederate navy yard at Yazoo City. The town itself changed hands several times 1863-64, and suffered accordingly. Although the fall of Vicksburg led to the Yazoo Delta's dwindling in military importance, another large scale operation was conducted in early 1864 when the navy once again steamed up the river to divert Confederate attention from Sherman's Meridian Expedition.

As with Smith's other books, there is a bit of content overlap in The Fight for the Yazoo (e.g. with the author's CSS Arkansas study), but, as each is designed as a standalone work, this is inevitable and not terribly distracting for readers of the complete works. Wide research in primary (published and unpublished) and secondary sources is another hallmark of Smith's scholarship, as well as prodigious explanatory endnotes. Original cartography is relatively scarce, but photographs, illustrations, and previously published maps are numerous. It should be mentioned that Smith's focus is primarily descriptive. In lieu of offering his own analysis, Smith is often content to leave readers with the views of contemporary writers and later historians. A helpful feature missing from the book is a naval order of battle for the period. Granted, it would not be practical to create one for every skirmish and operation covered in the text, but tables of organization for at least the major expeditions would have been quite useful as reference material.

The Fight for the Yazoo is yet another essential volume to add to the growing Brown Water Navy bookshelf. Students of the Vicksburg Campaign will be especially pleased to find in its pages some of the best modern accounts of naval operations and joint expeditions conducted north of the city and throughout the vast area surrounding the Yazoo Delta.


* - Other titles from this author, and previously reviewed on this site:
+ Le Roy Fitch: The Civil War Career of a Union River Gunboat Commander (2007)
+ The Timberclads in the Civil War: The Lexington, Conestoga, and Tyler on the Western Waters (2008)
+ Tinclads in the Civil War: Union Light-Draught Gunboat Operations on Western Waters, 1862-1865 (2009)
+ The USS Carondelet: A Civil War Ironclad on Western Waters (2010)
+ The CSS Arkansas: A Confederate Ironclad on the Western Waters (2011)

4 comments:

  1. John FoskettJanuary 25, 2013

    It sounds as though this may be worth a look. I use "worth" advisedly because it's unfortunate that Smith apparently can't line up a publisher which charges a reasonable price for its books, or one that at least invites a discount on Amazon. I suspect that in part this accounts for why Smith undeservedly remains a bit "under the radar".

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    1. Hi John,
      Lately, I've noticed more McF titles being discounted on Amazon. Whether this becomes a trend, I have no idea. I think one of the reasons the publisher is favored by authors like Smith is they (apparently) allow full control over content -- for good or ill. I can't imagine another outfit publishing these books without massive cuts.

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    2. John FoskettJanuary 27, 2013

      Drew: I think you're probably right. A glance at Smmith's endnotes in this book, for example, shows an extent and depth which would probably choke an editor at one of the academic presses. It's too bad because he seems to be one of the McFarland authors who deserves a wider audience. And it appears that none of his books are discounted at Amazon. Thanks for the review, since that at least enables a consumer to make an informed decision.

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    3. John,
      Yeah, the discounted one's I've seen have been the smaller paperbacks in the $35 list price range. I think the prices would be far better justified if they were at least in hardcover. It wasn't too long ago that all their titles were HC (at least as memory serves with the CW related catalog), now that's been turned on its head.

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