Saturday, December 28, 2013

Woodworth & Grear, eds.: "THE VICKSBURG CAMPAIGN, MARCH 29-MAY 18, 1863"

[The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863 edited by Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013). Hardcover, maps, notes, index. 272 pp. ISBN:978-0-8093-3269-4 $32.50]

In terms of military history, the mobile portion of the Vicksburg Campaign is easily its published literature's best covered segment. Given this, one might reasonably question how deeply editors Steven Woodworth and Charles Grear's new essay collection titled The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863 will challenge those already familiar with the works of Bearss, Grabau, Ballard, Winschel and a host of other long and short form studies detailing the period between the Army of the Tennessee's tortuous initial advance to Hard Times, Louisiana at the end of March and the May 19 and 22 assaults that failed to carry the Vicksburg defenses.  Most of the material in the 11 essays comprising The Vicksburg Campaign ranges toward the familiar but there are some intriguing elements.

With a definitive-scale Champion Hill battle history easily found in the form of Timothy Smith's 2006 book, the editors wisely chose to skip commissioning yet another short summary of the campaign's signature field engagement.   That said, a number of essays recount other important battles from the campaign that have been covered well elsewhere.  Among these are Jason Frawley's examination of Port Gibson, Steven Woodworth's take on the first battle of Jackson, and the aforementioned Timothy Smith's piece on the Battle of Big Black Bridge.  These are all rather straightforward treatments with no surprises, as are Gary Joiner's laudatory assessment of Union combined operations and J. Parker Hills's discussion of the operational level decision-making of both sides between the Port Gibson and Raymond battles.

Charles Grear's contribution is less remarkable for its summarization of Grierson's Raid than for its tracing of the operation's unlikely emergence in popular culture circles.  According to Grear, the raid's wartime acclaim was brief, rapidly overshadowed by larger events, with only a low level of attention paid to it during the ensuing decades. This all changed in the 1950s, with the publication of Dee Brown's popular history, a novelization by Harold Sinclair, and the major Hollywood movie The Horse Soldiers. Grear also notes that the raid story, as well as Grierson's post-Civil War military career, continues to inspire writers and enthusiasts today. Perhaps the phenomenon is ultimately unexplainable, but, after reading the piece, one remains left to wonder why such a relatively obscure military event excited the popular imagination in such a profound manner when vastly more important stories were readily available to draw from.

All historians would agree that the summer of 1863 was not Joe Johnston's finest hour, but readers of John Lundberg's piece might very well conclude that the level of incompetence and moral cowardice exhibited by Johnston during the Vicksburg Campaign ranks his performance the worst of any Civil War army and/or theater commander -- and there are more than a few to choose from. New information is not in the offing but Lundberg's harshly condemnatory, and at his point rather conventional, interpretation is framed in an unusually powerful manner.

Michael Ballard's analysis of the Grant-McClernand relationship is another essay covering subject matter detailed within existing biographies and histories, yet skillfully organized and presented.  While acknowledging the Illinois political general's many faults as both man and military commander, Ballard definitely counts himself among those historians holding a sympathetic view of the professional military establishment's ill treatment of McClernand and a mostly positive opinion of the general's martial abilities.  The best sub-section is Ballard's cogent analysis of the many possible explanations advanced by both contemporary observers and later historians for why Grant used his least liked subordinate to spearhead the most important and dangerous campaign of his career up to that point.  The truth will probably never be entirely known (even Grant himself may not have possessed honest enough self-knowledge -- when it came to McClernand -- to express a truthful answer).  The chapter also offers a good summary of McClernand's role in the campaign, emphasizing his successful exercise of responsibility at key moments. Like Timothy Smith in his Champion Hill study, Ballard does not offer a particularly compelling case for giving McClernand a pass for the general's less than aggressive role in the battle, but it might be fair to conclude that his smashing pursuit victory at Big Black River made up for any shortcomings that preceded it.

Most of the major Vicksburg works predominately address military matters, making Steven Dossman's essay detailing the campaign's impact on the local civilian population a welcome addition.  Experienced readers are familiar with the destruction visited upon Jackson, but Dossman also recounts the looting and property destruction that occurred all along the route, at Port Gibson, Raymond, and countless farms and plantations.  The massive Union effort directed toward impressing civilian owned horses and wheeled transportation of all kinds in order to create a makeshift supply and ammunition train is also highlighted.  Another understudied aspect of the campaign touched upon by Dossman was the attachment of swarms of newly escaped slaves to the advancing columns.  How Grant, with his own tenuous communications and supply lines, dealt with this situation and how it affected his movements (if at all) is worthy of another look [ex. were precedents set during the Vicksburg Campaign that might have established policy for handling the even larger numbers of ex-slaves accompanying later Union penetrations of the Deep South?]. The implications of guerrilla warfare are only superficially addressed. Given that scholarly appreciation of the irregular war is at its peak right now, hopefully a future essay [four more Vicksburg volumes are in the works for this series] will explore relevant Vicksburg Campaign contexts, if they exist.

The timely arrival of accurate and actionable intelligence at important moments in the campaign is a known background factor in Grant's victory, but Grant's Secret Service author William Feis's chapter does a brief but noteworthy job of bringing the Mississippi spy network out of the shadows.  As often happens in historical discourse, Feis ends up awarding perhaps too much of the credit to the top man (Grant), rather than Grenville Dodge, who took his superior's general wishes and created on his own the extensive and effective apparatus that provided so much vital intelligence.

Finally, Paul Schmelzer applies a Clausewitzian lens to Grant's conduct of the Vicksburg Campaign.  Not having read On War, the impact of the essay on this reader depends less on specific comparative analysis than a more general recognition that the way Grant fought the campaign was shaped significantly by his appreciation of the current political situation on the home front.

In the main, The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863 possesses a strong, if largely comfortable for veteran readers, set of essays. It's a good beginning to a planned five volume Vicksburg subset within SIUP's fine Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series.


More CWBA reviews of SIUP titles:
* Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege
* 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

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