Thursday, June 25, 2015

Solonick: "ENGINEERING VICTORY: The Union Siege of Vicksburg"

[Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg by Justin S. Solonick (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). Cloth, maps, photos, drawings, appendices, notes, biblio essay, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:233/301. ISBN:978-0-8093-3391-2 $37.50]

The siege phase of the Vicksburg Campaign, the roughly six week period between the conclusion of the failed May 22, 1863 assaults and the July 4 surrender, is arguably the most neglected aspect of the  military literature surrounding the topic. While the third volume of Edwin C. Bearss's classic trilogy The Vicksburg Campaign dutifully recounts the thirteen named siege approaches, its discussion of the elements of siege craft employed by the Union army is limited and related historical context beyond its scope. Warren Grabau's Ninety-Eight Days explores the campaign in great breadth and depth but siege coverage is superficial. Michael Ballard's Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi is a modern synthesis that excludes by design any kind of micro-level study of the siege itself and his more recent Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege largely skirts around the actual operation. With its in-depth examinations of the mechanics and historical context of the Vicksburg siege operation, Justin Solonick's Engineering Victory substantially furthers our knowledge and understanding of the great military undertaking that resulted in the capture of the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.

The fact that the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was the nation's preeminent engineering school during the antebellum period is known to every Civil War student and Solonick briefly traces the development of the military engineering department at the school. The author focuses on the critical contributions of Professor Dennis Hart Mahan and his series of publications (all heavily influenced by the famous French engineer Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban) that constituted the educational foundation of the American military engineers who excelled during the war with Mexico and the Civil War. Another instructor, James C. Duane, also deserves mention. His Manual for Engineer Troops greatly enhanced the specialized knowledge and skill base of the young officers.

Vicksburg's limited American siege warfare antecedents, from Yorktown in 1781 to Vera Cruz in 1847 and back to the Peninsula in 1862 (the last a pseudo-siege), are summarized. Yorktown brought elements of Vauban to the American experience and Vera Cruz demonstrated the professional skill and decisive impact of West Point trained engineers. Finally, McClellan's engineers on the lower Peninsula first put into practice methods of siege craft that would be honed and expanded during the Vicksburg operation. While many writers and historians link Vicksburg and Petersburg together as precursors of the trench systems of World War One, Ballard instead views Vicksburg as a unique event. With its completed (albeit not continuous) line of circumvallation, zig-zag approach trenches, parallels, covered ways, breaching batteries, and mines, it was the last great Vauban-inspired siege in western military history, with the new technologies and innovations employed really marking Vicksburg as a transitional point between classic and modern siege warfare.

Engineering Victory is unique in that it details the mechanics of Civil War siege warfare like no other study has done before and also closely scrutinizes how each element was applied to Vicksburg specifically. Entire chapters are devoted to siting the line of circumvallation, digging saps and parallels, and constructing trench cavaliers, forward battery positions, and mines. For the last, Solonick offers a fascinating and accessible mathematical analysis of how engineers determined the amount of powder needed to displace a given amount of earth, with additional consideration given to what kind of breaching crater one wished to form. Sniping and fire suppression are discussed at length in the book as are the design, construction, and use of practical tools of the trade like head logs, gabions, sap rollers and others. A fairly generous collection of maps, diagrams, and photographs enhances these sections.

A general theme of the book is the shortage of trained military engineers available to the Army of the Tennessee and how the creative innovations and common sense of Grant's westerners picked up the slack left behind by the overtaxed professionals. The engineer officers directly oversaw some approaches but were only able to offer general instruction for others. Of course, such a system led to wide variability in siege work design and effectiveness as well as in the rates of advance of the various approaches. Solonick also points out the importance of top down direction, with the progress of siege approaches conducted by the army corps led by West Pointers William T. Sherman and James McPherson outpacing those of political general John McClernand (at least until he was replaced by E.O.C. Ord) even though McClernand's XIII Corps had more academy graduate division commanders than either XV or XVII Corps. Non-regulation innovations were a part of nearly every aspect of the siege, two of the more interesting ones detailed in the book being the massive "land gunboat" sap roller used for Logan's Approach and the observation/sharpshooter tower constructed by 2nd. Lt. Henry "Coonskin" Foster of the 23rd Indiana.

Solonick also effectively describes how Vicksburg's topography and the physical qualities of the soil affected various aspects of the siege operation. For example, the loess soil made for easy digging and its clinging properties often aided the Union cause by making extensive and time consuming shoring unnecessary. Additionally, while the rolling hills and steep ravines surrounding Vicksburg are often cited as benefits for the defense, the peculiar shape of the landscape also allowed Grant's army to approach the Confederate trenches under defilade and construct the initial line of circumvallation far closer than the prescribed distance. This in turn allowed Union engineers to dispense with the multiple parallels dictated by the siege manual and significantly speed up the entire operation.

Complaints are few. There's a great deal of repetition in the narrative that could have been shaved off with a bit more ruthless editing. Also, for the sake of reference value if nothing else, the inclusion of a more formal graphical and text summary documenting all thirteen siege approaches (in the main text or as an appendix) would have been welcome.

The above quibbles aside, Engineering Victory is a truly original study that offers unprecedented insight into the mechanics of the Vicksburg siege from the Union perspective. It also serves as a powerful reminder that ultimate victory was not just a question of starvation but also one of skillful execution of the siege tactics of the period. Justin Solonick's impressive work is richly deserving of a place of high honor in the Vicksburg Campaign literature canon.

More CWBA reviews of SIUP titles:
* The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863
* 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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