Friday, November 22, 2019

Booknotes: Vicksburg

New Arrival:
Vicksburg: Grant's Campaign That Broke the Confederacy by Donald L. Miller (Simon & Schuster, 2019).

I've talked about this title a little bit already on the site as recently as five days ago, but the thing itself arrived on the doorstep this week so I can now look at it a bit more closely.

In Vicksburg: Grant's Campaign That Broke the Confederacy, author Donald L. Miller "tells the full story of this year-long campaign to win the city. He brings to life all the drama, characters, and significance of Vicksburg, a historic moment that rivals any war story in history. Grant’s efforts repeatedly failed until he found a way to lay siege and force the city to capitulate. In the course of the campaign, tens of thousands of slaves fled to the Union lines, where more than twenty thousand became soldiers, while others seized the plantations they had been forced to work on, destroying the economy of a large part of Mississippi and creating a social revolution."

The book draws an even more expansive portrait of the campaign than I'd previously imagined. In addition to concentrating heavily on military emancipation and the civilian experience, the beginning of the narrative goes all the way back to Grant's arrival at muddy, miserable Cairo in 1861. I don't know how necessary that is for many audience segments, but I suppose it allows newer readers a fuller appreciation of Grant's rise in the West. Though the book insists that it is "emphatically a military history," its treatment seems aimed more toward complementing existing campaign histories (all of which focus primarily on military details and events) rather than superseding them.

More from the description: "Ultimately, Vicksburg was the battle that solidified Grant’s reputation as the Union’s most capable general. Today no general would ever be permitted to fail as often as Grant did, but in the end he succeeded in what he himself called the most important battle of the war, the one that all but sealed the fate of the Confederacy." The idea that Vicksburg was unquestionably a mortal blow has been challenged on several grounds, perhaps most convincingly by those who argue that a significant altering of any number of subsequent events between Vicksburg's fall and the 1864 election might still have derailed the Union war effort. Nevertheless, Vicksburg was by any measure a military catastrophe.

His other military history publications are all WW2-related so Vicksburg is Miller's first Civil War study, but the book is by all appearances much more of a full dive rather than toe-dip into the new subject waters. The author's manuscript research was very extensive and the size of the bibliography overall is fairly massive in its compilation of sources of all types.


  1. As someone who sees manuscripts on all matters military each day, my antenna go up in these sorts of circumstance. I am always leery of people who write in other genres who then find a big publisher and move to another area of study because they see it as potentially lucrative.

    Let's see how well he uses those firsthand sources, and whether he actually read and applied them, or did he do as many do and copy them out of other bibliographies and then try to apply them. It takes many (many) years to properly research and write a study like this--especially if this is not your primary area of expertise. I hope someone tests the sources thoroughly.

    I am cautiously optimistic, but . . . color me skeptical.

  2. For what it's worth, John Steele Gordon in his October 28 review in The Wall Street Journal calls the book "a superb account of both military leadership and soldierly warfare."
    I'll still await further input.
    - Phil LeDuc


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