Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review - "The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863" by Woodworth and Grear, eds.

[The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863 edited by Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear (Southern Illinois University Press, 2019). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, notes, index. Pages:xi,133. ISBN:978-0-8093-3719-4. $29.50]

After finally getting his frustrated army across the Mississippi River after a series of failed "experiments" aimed at capturing fortress Vicksburg, U.S. Grant conducted a campaign of unbroken success against his Confederate opponents. By the third week in May, his victorious army found itself opposite the ramparts of the Hill City itself. However, the events of May 19, 1863 brought with them a rude awakening, and the bloody repulse of an even larger attack three days later consigned the final phase of the struggle for Vicksburg to a six-week siege. How those May assaults were conducted, why they failed, and how the Midwestern public viewed the setbacks are topics addressed at length by the five essays in The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863. The book is the sixth release from SIUP's Civil War Campaigns in the West series (formerly the Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series), and it is the second of five planned Vicksburg Campaign volumes*.

The first two essays, both from Parker Hills, discuss the May 19 and May 22 attacks. While some readers will be left wanting more small-unit detail in the assault descriptions, both chapters offer solid overviews of the two events accompanied by incisive criticisms and observations. According to Hills, the key takeaway from May 19 was the danger of conducting a hasty attack without any prior reconnaissance against a prepared position using only a small part of the available force. Grant felt that the attack's risks were justified by the reasonable assumption that the Confederates, who were driven from the field in some disorder at Champion Hill and quickly collapsed at Big Black River when the Union army pressed the fortified bridgehead there, would be demoralized from those thorough defeats and would not vigorously defend their lines. Arguments could be made for and against Hills's contention that on May 19 Grant "struck when he should have probed" (Pg. 21).

Better prepared, the results of the follow-on May 22 attack were nevertheless similarly disastrous, the entire effort a victim of poor coordination, horrendous terrain obstacles, strong earthworks, and determined defenders. While Thirteenth Corps commander John A. McClernand became the convenient scapegoat of that day, Hills's essay argues that his command deserves credit for being the only corps to attack at full strength (25 of 30 regiments went into action) and come anywhere close to fulfilling Grant's orders. The contributions of fellow corps commanders William T. Sherman and James B. McPherson were pitiful by comparison. While suggesting in his memoirs that he regretted the May 22 attack almost as much as Cold Harbor, Grant nevertheless skirted full responsibility and went great lengths to justify his actions using the same laundry list of reasons first raised in his July 1863 report: worries about Joe Johnston's growing relief army, concern over how the summer weather would affect his troops during a siege, the wish to avoid diverting the additional troops necessary for siege operations from the larger war effort, and his claimed knowledge that the troops under his command wanted to try another attack. All were valid considerations on some level, but Hills objects most to the last for its apparent speciousness. Though the chapter provides some evidence that individual soldiers expressed serious reservations about participating in further frontal attacks against Vicksburg's earthworks, one would really have to delve at much greater depth into letter and journal material written between May 19 and 22 to come to any useful conclusion on the matter.

Steven Woodworth's following chapter closely examines the May 22 fighting on McClernand's front, focusing chiefly on the fighting at Railroad Redoubt. It is an excellent account, easily the most detailed micro-level treatment of the various military actions addressed in the book. Concerning McClernand's role directing the attack, Woodworth is much more critical than Hills. Although correctly seeing Railroad Redoubt as the key enemy position on his front, McClernand nevertheless spread his available strength (seven brigades) evenly over all three objectives, assigning two brigades each to Railroad Redoubt, Square Fort, and 2nd Texas Lunette along with one brigade in overall reserve. Woodworth also astutely observes that McClernand further erred by assigning the brigade pairings to different divisions, an order that made command and control unnecessarily more difficult. Differing from the previous essay, Woodworth is much less censorious than Hills regarding both Grant's alleged lateness in dispatching reinforcements (Quinby's Division of McPherson's Corps) and the conduct of Quinby himself. Due to considerations of terrain and distance, it is doubtful that any reinforcements could have arrived at the critical moment. Rather than blaming Grant and Quinby for an alleged lack of timely and effective support, Woodworth emphasizes McClernand's misuse of Quinby's division, which arrived at 4 pm and was promptly broken up. Instead of concentrating the entire division against Railroad Redoubt to exploit the minor lodgement achieved there, one brigade was directed to  reinforce the stalled attacks against all three corps objectives. In line with the consensus of the Grant circle and most historians today, Woodworth maintains that McClernand's exaggeration of his gains as expressed in his urgent dispatches to Grant resulted in a large and unnecessary increase in casualties. In the writer's view, McClernand's failure to confirm the erroneous claims of his subordinate at the redoubt, who had only a limited perspective, before passing the information on to Grant was a serious error in judgment but not a willful attempt to deceive. In the end, Woodworth is persuasive in arguing that the scale of reinforcements necessary to have any chance of achieving a clear breakthrough (something on the order of two full divisions) could not have been marshaled before the Confederates were offered, in turn, ample time to meet them with their own reserves.

Indeed, Confederate reserves were well placed by army commander John C. Pemberton, and Brandon Franke's essay examines the key role Waul's Texas Legion played in ejecting Union troops from their tenuous foothold in and around Railroad Redoubt. The Legion's actions, in conjunction with those of surrounding units, essentially ensured that no breakthrough would be possible on May 22. In addition to providing details about the fighting on that day not present in the Hills and Woodworth essays, the chapter also serves as a fine summary of the Legion's participation in the campaign as a whole.

The final essay from Charles Grear transports the reader from the fighting front to the home front, examining along the way the popular reaction of the citizens of the Old Northwest to the failed assaults at Vicksburg. With those states supplying the vast majority of troops in Grant's army, it should come as no surprise that press attention in the region was focused overwhelmingly on events in Mississippi rather than the next round of bloody campaigning in the East. Predictably, after some initial misgivings the pro-war newspapers emphasized the overall success of the campaign, with the failed assaults simply a temporary setback in the reopening of the Mississippi River to western commerce. On the other hand, the most fervently anti-war Democratic organs decried Grant's indifference (in their view) to the lives of his men in pursuit of the administration's abolitionist war aims. Even so, as the siege progressed, criticism of Grant's conduct of the lengthening campaign would emerge periodically on both sides of the ideological divide. The political reaction to bloody battles with no discernible gain was always going to be variable, but according to Grear the most common public reaction to the failed May attacks was one of support for the soldiers. This was expressed through mass donations of food, supplies, and medical aid to the men serving at the front as well as those languishing in army hospitals.

By nature, subject coverage in essay anthologies is more topically arranged than comprehensive, but the book can still perhaps be criticized for how much the Thirteenth Corps attack on May 22 dominates the overall discussion. McClernand's assault, and even more particularly the fighting at Railroad Redoubt, gets the lion's share of the attention in Hill's second chapter and practically all of it in the Woodworth and Franke essays. This is understandable. However, while the Railroad Redoubt was where Union forces made their deepest penetration on either day and spawned by far the most enduring and interesting questions, one could still argue that the fighting there is overrepresented in the collection. But that's a relatively minor issue. The most significant problem with the book is the inadequate map coverage, even for the mid-level detail presented in most places in the text. In the drawings that accompany the first two essays, no unit below corps level on the Union side and division level for the Confederates is labeled, nor are some of the targeted geographical features prominently mentioned in the text. It gets somewhat better in the following essay but even then there are clear areas of disagreement between map and text. For example, Woodworth talks about the two wings of the 22nd Iowa being widely divided by the attack on Railroad Redoubt yet the accompanying map shows the 21st Iowa as the divided regiment. Also, while the text clearly states that the 77th Illinois formed on the left of the 22nd Iowa the map places them well to the Iowan right.

Those reservations aside, the essay collection offers more than enough useful contributions to the Vicksburg Campaign historiography to make the book well worthy of recommendation. In recent years, SIU Press has become the preeminent publisher of Vicksburg-related military studies, and one looks forward to future volumes from them addressing that still very much open area of study.

* - See also The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29–May 18, 1863 (2013) [CWBA review]. As the title indicates, the earlier anthology addresses the entire campaign leading up to the May 19 and 22 assaults. You can read the full list of planned series titles here. Future Vicksburg volumes will continue with the siege and also backtrack to fill in earlier phases of the campaign.


  1. Drew: Thanks for this review. The detail, especially for these essay collections, is really helpful. I believe that Tim Smith's book on the assaults is on schedule from Kansas for early next year. With Tim's track record, I expect a detailed and insightful look at the May 19 and May 22 events.

    1. I looked for it in the winter catalog. Hopefully, we'll see it in the next one.


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