Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review of McCluney - "THE YAZOO PASS EXPEDITION: A Union Thrust into the Delta"

[The Yazoo Pass Expedition: A Union Thrust into the Delta by Larry Allen McCluney, Jr. (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2017). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:100/121. ISBN:978-1-62585-839-9. $21.99]

When faced with the daunting task of capturing fortified Vicksburg, U.S. Grant basically had four options (or some combination of them) to choose from in order to get at the Hill City. The first approach, an overland advance, failed and was (prematurely?) discarded from further consideration, and a direct amphibious assault on the city's riverfront was never seriously countenanced. That left marching the army down the right bank of the Mississippi River and crossing either above or below Vicksburg and attacking its landward defenses from behind. The last choice, one of the riskiest, was eventually tried and succeeded beyond expectations, but it was preceded by a number of operations launched north of Vicksburg, all of which sought to take advantage of the many navigable waterways of the Yazoo delta. Larry Allen McCluney's The Yazoo Pass Expedition: A Union Thrust into the Delta examines one of the most promising attempts.

Beginning with the breach of the levee at Yazoo Pass in February 1863, an amphibious expedition jointly led by Brigadier General Leonard Ross (later superseded by BG Isaac Quinby) and navy Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith took advantage of a succession of rivers that fed into each other—first the Coldwater, then the Tallahatchie, and finally the Yazoo (which was formed by the confluence of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha rivers a short distance north of Greenwood, Mississippi)—to penetrate the delta. Progress was slowed by tough environmental conditions, enemy obstructions, and also arguably by over-caution. In the end, Union forces could not overcome Confederate Major General W.W. Loring's well-placed and well-manned defenses located in the Greenwood bend (most prominent of these being Fort Pemberton), and the movement was eventually abandoned in April.

The operational treatment in the book may not be as detailed as the one found in the first volume of Ed Bearss's classic Vicksburg trilogy, but McCluney's brisk narrative provides a fine overview of the Yazoo Pass Expedition. For many authors, employing lengthy uninterpreted block quotes from the source material is a bit of a lazy way to write history, but McCluney's keen selections add significant participant insights that are intimately tied to the narrative. Maps, photographs, and other illustrations thickly populate the pages and add both appealing flavor and useful information. Regardless of the ship's prior fame, the volume's inclusion of so much background history of the Star of the West (one of the vessels sunk in the river by the Confederates for use as a navigation obstruction) represents a questionable use of already limited space, but the key elements of the expedition history are left adequately covered.

Typically, Union combined army-navy operations conducted with this degree of disparity in manpower and firepower did not end well for the Confederates, but the book convincingly argues that strong Confederate leadership and planning from General Loring (who put in a peak performance at Ft. Pemberton) combined with an atypically sluggish naval component on the Union side (the ill Watson Smith should have been replaced much earlier) doomed the Union venture to failure. Loring and his engineers quickly took advantage of local knowledge of the ground and placed their fortifications where the earthworks would be above the river, command all approaches, and be largely invulnerable to infantry attack. If you're looking for a popular-style, standalone narrative of the Yazoo Pass Expedition, this is the first and only one available in book-length format, but it's also a pretty good one.


  1. Drew:

    Thanks for this review. This publisher performs great service in getting to readers books on stand alone topics which would never garner the interest of less specialized outfits. Arcadia/HP and Savas deserve all of the accolades which they receive for their contributions.

    1. Like all vast series, there are some bland clunkers in there, but they really have published a good number of unique gems over the years. As a reviewer always trying to keep to a regular posting schedule, I also appreciate something I can finish reading in only a day or two!

    2. Agree that there are clunkers but I've made a practice of acquiring the ones that involve the "arcane" topics - battles and other events or subjects which will never get a larger publisher's attention. There also is the occasional gem which should have gotten somebody else's attention - Crenshaw's recent Glendale book is a fine exemplar. You deal with the inevitable sporadic presence of source notes, bibliography, etc. but it's surprising how much quality there actually is.


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