Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ballard: "GRANT AT VICKSBURG: The General and the Siege"

[Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege by Michael B. Ballard (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013). Hardcover, photos, maps, notes, index. Pages main/total:185/209. ISBN:978-0-8093-3240-3 $32.95]

Following a good general overview of the Vicksburg campaign through the two failed May assaults on the Confederate fortifications and the decision to resort to siege operations, the middle three chapters of Michael Ballard's Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege read like a series of essays. The first reassesses the historiography of Grant's famous Yazoo bender, while the other two address in turn Grant's controversial relationship with Third Corps commander John McClernand and his response to intra-army racial violence among Trans-Mississippi military posts and contract plantations. The final section reverts back to narrative form, summarizing the conduct of the siege, the dispositions made to ward off Joseph E. Johnston's hovering relief army, and Vicksburg's ultimate surrender. The study is annotated, but lacks a full bibliography.

Given the brevity of Grant at Vicksburg, it is no surprise that the vast range of military events associated with the siege of Vicksburg on both sides of the Mississippi River receive only summary treatment. Though the material is ably presented, readers familiar with the article literature and similarly themed sections of Ed Bearss's Unvexed to the Sea* will not find their knowledge and interpretation of the military aspects of the campaign appreciably enhanced. A differing interpretation of Ballard's is his characterization of Grant as being excessively nervous, bordering on panicky at times, about the threat of Johnston's army.  At the time of the Vicksburg Campaign, Johnston's pattern of non-aggression was still in its infancy, and many in the Union high command, including Grant, shared a high opinion of the Virginian's military ability.

The "essay" parts are really the strength of the book. In the first piece, Ballard effectively questions the veracity of Sylvanus Cadwallader's influential account of Grant's drunken bender while on an inspection trip up the Yazoo River, coming to the conclusion that it was a fabrication and chastising a long list of writers, biographers, and historians who have accepted the story uncritically in their own writings.

Relations between white and black soldiers serving in close proximity in Louisiana during the campaign is the subject of another in depth investigation. A particularly incendiary incident [also detailed in another recent publication, Linda Barnickel's Milliken's Bend (LSU Press, 2013)] involved the whipping by black soldiers of white 10th Illinois Cavalry Private John O'Brien, who was guilty of brutally assaulting black civilians. Given the attitudes of the time, the punishment raised more attention than the original crime. Ballard credits Grant with ordering that white and black soldiers be accorded equal treatment and non-combatants be better protected, with follow up sometimes lacking due to the prioritization of the siege and an indifferent army bureaucracy.

Ballard's picture of McClernand's generalship is a fundamentally positive one. His case overall is strong, although he glosses over the Illinois politician's controversial Champion Hill performance. The author notes that Grant and McClernand seem to always have brought out the worst in each other. McClernand's scheming and abrasive, self-aggrandizing personality annoyed Grant and the other corps commanders, but the fact that Grant placed him in important positions at various points during the campaign cannot be entirely explained away by convenience of map position. Ballard points out several instances when Grant was overly critical of minor transgressions and command prerogatives exercised on the part of McClernand, incidents that would certainly have been allowed to pass without comment if committed by Sherman or McPherson. The point raised of whether the offending address was an "official" document of the kind specifically forbidden to be published is another interesting subject for debate. Undoubtedly, McClernand was his own worst enemy, but Grant's own actions toward him were often those consistent with a petty personal vendetta.

Not devised as a definitive scale treatment of the Vicksburg siege, Michael Ballard's Grant at Vicksburg provides a thoughtful overview of Grant's military mindset during the operation, as well as a series of astutely analyzed micro-examinations of incidents, policies, and command relationships associated with the general and the siege. There's certainly more than enough material challenging conventional wisdom to make the study worthy of recommendation.


* - I would respectfully disagree with Ballard's contention that no book length Vicksburg siege studies existed prior to his own. Unvexed to the Sea fits the bill no less than Grant at Vicksburg, and remains by far the most detailed military treatment of the operation from the initial failed assaults through surrender and Second Jackson.


More CWBA reviews of SIUP titles:
* The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865
* The Chattanooga Campaign
* Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artificial Limbs
* An Illustrated Guide to Virginia's Confederate Monuments
* The Notorious "Bull" Nelson: Murdered Civil War General
* The Chickamauga Campaign
* Chicago's Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War
* The Shiloh Campaign

1 comment:

  1. Chris EvansJune 14, 2013

    Excellent review.

    I've always enjoyed Catton's depiction of these events in 'Grant Moves South'. I'm glad he never took the Cadwallader story seriously.

    Woodworth in his very good 'Nothing But Victory' looks at the events of the Vicksburg Campaign in a fascinating and well written way (but with no maps!) His view of McClernand is basically negative and very pro Grant.

    I still never know what to make of the McClernand and Grant relationship. I totally agree with you that they brought out the worst of each other. Kiper's book on McClernand helped bring out for me some of the positive of McClernand's battlefield performances.

    I still just find it utterly fascinating that Grant had to operate under all of these difficulties and still won. The South in the campaign had the same petty arguments and couldn't overcome them.

    Chris

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