Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review - "The Decision Was Always My Own: Ulysses S. Grant and the Vicksburg Campaign" by Timothy B. Smith

[The Decision Was Always My Own: Ulysses S. Grant and the Vicksburg Campaign by Timothy B. Smith (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018). Cloth, 7 maps, photos, notes, biblio essay, index. Pages main/total:225/266. ISBN:978-0-8093-3666-1. $34.50]

Though book-length coverage of many battles associated with the Union effort to capture Vicksburg between December 1862 and July 1863 remains spotty, the campaign as a whole has been well documented in Ed Bearss's classic trilogy and fine single-volume works from Warren Grabau and Michael Ballard. Other books have examined various aspects of land and naval operations during both the mobile and siege phases of the campaign. Timothy Smith's new study The Decision Was Always My Own: Ulysses S. Grant and the Vicksburg Campaign is most akin in scope and narrative style to Ballard's Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi (2004), but his own full campaign treatment is constructed entirely from the Union perspective and, as the title suggests, focuses most closely on the operational and tactical decision-making of Army of the Tennessee commander U.S. Grant. It is the third volume in SIU Press's new World of Ulysses S. Grant series, for which Smith also serves as co-editor with John F. Marszalek.

In the most basic sense, Smith's book is a conventional retelling of Vicksburg Campaign events from Grant's initial drive down the Mississippi Central Railroad at the end of 1862 through the Second Battle of Jackson in July 1863. While the book overall maintains a popular-style narrative flow, its eight chapters revolve around what the author sees as key command decisions. These begin with department commander Grant's late-1862 resolution to launch a serious advance on Vicksburg in the first place and his subsequent determination to lead this campaign in person. The following two chapters discuss Grant's struggle to come to grips with Vicksburg's stubborn, well-placed defenders. After a series of "experiments" conducted both across the river from and above Vicksburg failed to achieve the desired result, the decision was ultimately made to risk all and cross the entire Union army to the east side of the Mississippi below the fortress. The next phase of the campaign, examining how Grant resolved to strike inland, root out the Confederate army, and capture the Hill City itself, is then discussed. The resulting string of victories at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black Bridge would take the Union army all the way to the gates of Vicksburg. Decisions and controversies surrounding the two major attempts to take the city by storm on July 19 and 22, as well as Grant's ultimate determination that the fortifications could only be taken by siege approaches, are then assessed. The volume ends with the July surrender negotiations (including the Union commander's conflicted views on how best to handle the campaign's vast prisoner haul), and Grant's final removal of all other enemy threats in central Mississippi.

The above decision points are ones Vicksburg Campaign students will readily recognize, and experienced readers won't find any large surprises or contrarian viewpoints in the analysis. The book's format isn't conducive to the kind of expansive decision analysis that UT Press's new Command Decisions in America's Civil War series applies so well, but Smith's structuring of his evaluation of Grant's options and decision-making within the bounds of a free-flowing narrative framework is effectively done. The study is not one based on intensive archival research or the discovery of new sources. The notes indicate heavy reliance on the O.R., the Grant and Sherman memoirs, and a focused selection of other published works, so the value is in the execution of the synthesis. The narrative itself follows a comfortable and familiar path, but it is exceptionally well constructed and it's doubtful one can find elsewhere a better 200-page overview of the entire campaign from the Union perspective.

A common thread throughout most of the book is an examination of Grant's troubled relationship with his ranking subordinate, General John C. McClernand. With his own relentlessly negative portrayal of the politician-general's personal character and military performance, Smith seems to be channeling Grant's ghost throughout the study. While McClernand has always come across in the Civil War literature as an unlikable and insubordinate schemer who didn't always attend to his military duties with the requisite amount of attention, it's undeniable that bad faith handling of his command parameters by the administration and war department greatly contributed to his testy disposition. One could also make the argument that McClernand's war record was comparable to Sherman's own through the opening of the campaign, so the constant complaints from his critics within the army (primarily coming down from Grant and Sherman, and reaffirmed by the author) regarding his incompetence and danger to the safety of the operation seem largely overblown. McClernand was clearly his own worst enemy, but, even so, Smith's concessions to McClernand's positive contributions are only faintly distributed.

Smith integrates other themes into his military account. In addition to lauding Grant's administrative skills, the author also shows high appreciation for Grant's interpersonal skills and subtle political acumen in maintaining positive relationships (at least outside of his infamous order expelling Jews from the department and his early attempts to bar escaped slaves from entering his lines contrary to policy) with the U.S. Navy, military superiors, and the civilian leadership. The book also relates many anecdotes aimed at illustrating the general's more humane instincts. Grant dedication to wife and family is well known, and Smith also incorporates Julia Grant's visits into the book along with young son Jesse's many adventures with the army.

The Decision Was Always My Own is a finely constructed confirmatory reassessment of U.S. Grant's already widely-celebrated direction of the Vicksburg Campaign. Maintaining the initiative throughout the process, Grant's chain of decisions together comprise what some historians consider the finest operational performance of the war by any army commander on either side and informed evaluation of them is one of the book's major strengths. Recommended.

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