Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review of Clampitt - "OCCUPIED VICKSBURG"

[Occupied Vicksburg by Bradley R. Clampitt (Louisiana State University Press, 2016). Hardcover, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:214/304. ISBN:978-0-8071-6338-2. $48]

It is the long-held consensus view that the outcome of the Vicksburg Campaign was a critical step toward securing ultimate Union victory during the Civil War. However, this has not always meant that the epic struggle for possession of the Hill City has been especially well covered in the military literature. Exhaustive operational histories exist, but full-length standalone studies of the campaign's several battles remain few in number. Specialized books examining the siege itself are even more scarce, but perhaps the least appreciated aspect of the Vicksburg Civil War experience has been what happened in and around the town after the siege ended. After all, Mississippi remained an active front long after the fall of Vicksburg, and the Union Army held the city in force for two more years. It is this 1863-65 period that is the focus of Bradley Clampitt's Occupied Vicksburg, the first study of its kind and a very welcome addition to the Vicksburg literature.

The circumstances surrounding the Confederate surrender (including controversies over the chosen formal capitulation date, whether the Confederates should have been paroled or not, and how much actual starvation drove events) have been well documented by other historians. They are covered here thoroughly, as well, with Clampitt also carefully noting where the evidence gathered from his own research differs from Grant's own memoir account. The idea of paroling the surrendered Confederates rather than sending them north to POW camps originated with Grant's staff, and the commanding general was eventually convinced of the wisdom of this move. Essentially every modern historian has agreed with this decision, but no one (including Clampitt here) has independently studied how much prisoner transport really would have taxed Union logistics in consideration of what further operations were planned in the immediate aftermath of the campaign.

In an early chapter, the book documents a remarkable week-long period in Vicksburg wherein the officers and men of both sides freely mingled. Grant fed Rebel soldiers and civilians, and he attempted to deal humanely with the large numbers of slaves arriving inside his lines. Those days comprised a brief period of shared humanity in the midst of war, before the shock and trauma of the long campaign and siege dissipated and animosity returned. Like other historians, Clampitt appreciates Grant's generally compassionate treatment of all involved, black and white, but reminds readers that the Union commander's actions were first and foremost practical rather than ideological.

Once the immediate food and shelter needs of the population were met, Union leaders set their sights on securing the city for the long term and getting it working again. Clampitt offers an insightful comparative analysis of the generals who set local occupation policy in Vicksburg after Grant's departure. These commanding officers included William T. Sherman, James B. McPherson, Henry Slocum, and Napoleon J.T. Dana. All applied some mix of conciliatory and hard war measures, but the author makes a persuasive argument that Dana did the best job of the group when it came to general administration and the need to regulate trade, battle corruption, support freedmen, and control the local citizenry. The author also explores the attitudes and experiences of Vicksburg's bluecoat garrison. Like many rear area Union soldiers during the war, these men battled sickness and boredom while also developing widespread contempt for the locals regardless of professed and/or demonstrated loyalty.

What to do with the large numbers of freedpeople present at Vicksburg became a major concern for the army and the federal government. According to Clampitt, Vicksburg's black refugee population rose quickly after the end of the siege and became a flood upon the conclusion of the 1864 Meridian Campaign. At one point, it is estimated that Vicksburg contraband camps serviced upwards of 16,000 souls. The Union Army eagerly made use of his fresh manpower pool. Within days of the July 4 Confederate surrender, federal authorities were enlisting blacks into the army by both coercive and non-coercive means. Many more ex-slaves served their new army employers as camp labor, cooks, and servants. Other refugees set up their own communities in Vicksburg, often centered around churches, and schools were quickly established by northern missionaries. As with many other areas in the occupied South, the sheer number of people present in the Vicksburg camps quickly overtaxed available resources, with the resulting squalid living conditions all too often breeding disease and death. Though the book presents an adequate summary of the topic, it provides little in the way of specific details about the contraband camps established in and around Vicksburg, reminding us that refugee camps in general remain a relatively understudied facet of Civil War history.

As one might guess, the generally pro-Confederate citizens of Vicksburg did not care at all for the constant presence Union soldiers in their midst and were far from accepting of emancipation and black army enlistment. The book documents the negative reactions of white civilians when forced to comply with the orders of black Union soldiers and also recounts sporadic incidents of violence instigated by one side or the other. As other scholars have done in their own studies of occupied areas, Clampitt records the various survival strategies developed by Vicksburg's civilian population. Retaining Confederate loyalty while living under the constant threat of harsh punishment was always a delicate high-wire act.

Confederate resistance to federal rule was much more open in the surrounding countryside, and Clampitt mostly credits southern guerrillas (sometimes supported by Confederate cavalry) for the general failure of the U.S. Treasury Department's plan to lease abandoned plantations in the area between Vicksburg and the Big Black River. A similar state of affairs existed along the opposite bank of the Mississippi. According to the author, the guerrilla problem in the region was never adequately resolved. Given how much the irregular war has come into sharper scholarly focus in recent years, it's a bit unfortunate that rural guerrilla action around Vicksburg is not addressed at greater length in the book (though, to be fair, a case could be made that the subject lies mostly outside the scope of what is essentially a city study).

On a year to year basis, Civil War publishing outputs related to the military and home fronts have both managed to sustain considerable momentum, and the occupation study arguably provides us with one of the very best ways to explore the intersection of the two. The fruits of such an endeavor are clearly seen in Bradley Clampitt's impressively thorough investigation of the Union occupation of Vicksburg, a volume which satisfies on multiple levels. The book is significant for being the first and only book-length examination of Union dominion over one of the war's most iconic and strategically important cities, but it is also very much a qualitative success. Clampitt quite skillfully applies to Vicksburg a wide range of highly developed interpretive lenses similar to those found within the best examples of current Civil War military and social history scholarship. Because you never know if or when someone else will give it a try, it's always a pleasure when the very first attempt at addressing an open topic is a triumphant success. Occupied Vicksburg is certainly on that level.

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  1. Looks like an intriguing book. An overlooked aspect of Vicksburg. Timothy Smith also did a great job in incorporating occupation life into his book on Corinth. Is it my imagination or is the cost of university press books going up faster than books from commercial publishers?

    1. Yes, he did. On the price issue, LSU is one of the major presses that has at least one major sale each year (with steep discounts) and many include new books among the eligible titles. When they are announced I try to pass along the news on Twitter.


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