Monday, May 9, 2016

Woodrick: "THE CIVIL WAR SIEGE OF JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI"

[The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi by Jim Woodrick (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2016). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:116/155. ISBN:978-1-62619-729-9. $21.99]

For a very long time, the only substantial account of the July 10-17 Siege of Jackson was a section a bit over fifty pages in length inside Edwin C. Bearss and Warren Grabau's The Battle of Jackson May 14, 1863, The Siege of Jackson July 10-17, 1863, Three Other Post-Vicksburg Actions (1981). Some time ago, Grabau approached Jim Woodrick about updating the title for a new edition. Unfortunately, Grabau passed soon after and the original project stalled, but the germ was planted in Woodrick's mind for a new account focusing just on the mid-July face off between William T. Sherman's expeditionary force cobbled together from major elements of U.S. Grant's massively expanded Army of the Tennessee and Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Relief. The result is The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi, and in it Woodrick updates the scholarship while also widening the focus beyond Bearss's purely military account.

Tasked with the relief of John C. Pemberton's Confederate army, then languishing inside the Vicksburg defenses under a tight siege that began in late-May 1863, Joe Johnston reoccupied Jackson and waited for a suitable opportunity. Even though Johnston's Army of Relief was heavily reinforced from all parts of the Confederacy, it did nothing more than hover at a safe distance beyond the Union siege lines. No serious attempt to weaken Grant's hold on Vicksburg was ever made. When Vicksburg eventually fell on July 4, Johnston suddenly found his own army the next target. The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi recounts this brief campaign in full while also discussing the history and military importance of Jackson itself, the city being both the Mississippi state capital and a critical theater railroad nexus.

By most estimates, Confederate cavalry performed poorly as a whole during the Vicksburg Campaign, but Woodrick praises their skillful delaying of Sherman's advancing legions in July, the action providing Johnston's infantry with precious extra hours to improve the Jackson earthwork defenses. On the other side, the Union cavalry (the service branch least likely to receive praise from Sherman during the war) was rather timid in the performance its duties, which encompassed both patrolling the Union flanks during the siege and destroying railroad lines north and south of Jackson. Sherman was particularly perturbed with Cyrus Bussey's hesitancy, and it took stiffening from the infantry before Canton would be captured and its industry and rail facilities destroyed.

No great battles were fought during the week-long siege, but intense skirmishing and sharpshooter exchanges occurred on a daily basis. The defense works were also directly tested. The book describes in detail the most bloody operation, the ill-advised July 12 advance of Pugh's Brigade on the Union right and their repulse by the defenders of Breckinridge's Division. It led to more than half of Pugh's men becoming casualties and marked the end of division commander Jacob Lauman's military career. According to the author, bad blood between Lauman and corps commander E.O.C. Ord had been brewing for some time (stemming originally from an order misunderstanding that added significantly to the heavy Union casualty toll incurred during Ord's cross river assault on October 5, 1862 at the Battle of Davis Bridge) and was a major factor in Lauman's ouster. Another fine account is that of the reconnaissance in force conducted by John Parke's Ninth Corps against the northern defenses of the city on the morning of the 16th. During the night of the 16th and early morning hours of the 17th, Johnston's army slipped across the Pearl River and escaped into the Mississippi interior. The book also describes the belated pursuit, which resulted in no major fighting but visited great destruction upon the town of Brandon.

The major drawback to these descriptions is the lack of maps. With only one general map of the siege (and a tiny reproduction of an archival drawing) provided in the book, one laments the absence of smaller scale tactical maps, especially for Pugh's doomed attack.

Commonly thought to be the result of Johnston's innate caution and primary desire to save his own army from a fate similar to that of Pemberton's, the Army of Relief's departure from Jackson, according to Woodrick, was also expedited by the Confederate cavalry's failure to capture a massive enemy ammunition train en route to Sherman from Vicksburg with a much needed resupply of artillery rounds. The book discusses the mysterious role of a Union spy (or escaped POW) in relaying Confederate interception plans to Union authorities, the information allowing the supply train escorts to successfully thwart the attack.

The city of Jackson itself is also a major focus of the study, with the book tracing its origins as well as its political, commercial, and logistical importance. The destruction that the Vicksburg Campaign inflicted upon the city, from retreating Confederates and occupying Federals, is well documented. The author persuasively challenges the evidence interpretation of historians who have deemed the level of wartime damage to be exaggerated.

Jim Woodrick's The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi fulfills the need for an updated modern history of the great concluding event of the Vicksburg Campaign. With an array of book, article, letter, diary, memoir, and newspaper sources involved, the research into the campaign is solid and the narrative's comprehensiveness should satisfy most readers. Even though Vicksburg over time has maintained its lofty reputation as one of the most important Civil War campaigns, interesting and worthwhile contributions to the Vicksburg historiography remain inexplicably rare, and Jim Woodrick's study deserves a place in this small group.

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