Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Review - "The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863" by Timothy Smith

[The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2020). Hardcover, 15 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xviii,371/501. ISBN:978-0-7006-2936-7. $45]

With their Confederate foes reeling from consecutive routs at Champion Hill (May 16) and Big Black River Bridge (May 17), the victorious officers and men of U.S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee believed themselves on the brink of total victory when their pursuit reached the outer ramparts of Vicksburg itself. However, Confederate commander John C. Pemberton still had two fresh divisions at his disposal, and these troops would be instrumental in repulsing Union assaults on both May 19 and May 22, 1863. Though the events of those two days have already been documented at some length in the modern literature—in greatest detail within Ed Bearss's classic trilogy The Vicksburg Campaign and most recently in the slender essay anthology The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863—the attacks surely constitute a battle worthy of standalone study. Indeed there is already another book-length treatment of the twin assaults scheduled for release later this year! One of the foremost western theater military historians active today and the author of the Vicksburg Campaign's finest battle study (2004's Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg), Timothy Smith has now created in The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863 the new standard history of the failed attacks that abruptly concluded the mobile phase of the Vicksburg Campaign and ushered in the static siege phase that would last six trying weeks and result in the capitulation of the Hill City and its large garrison.

As expected, Smith's accounts of the May assaults exhibit all of the praiseworthy scholarship elements that have made his body of work essential reading for Civil War western theater military history students. Supported by hundreds of firsthand accounts obtained through meticulous scouring of archive collections, the battle narrative is highly detailed yet also easy to follow. That ground-level battlefield perspective is also duly situated within suitable operational and strategic-level contexts. Conveying in highly evocative fashion the nuances of battlefield topography is another hallmark of Smith's work, and that part of the discussion in this volume is especially critical in understanding why the Vicksburg assaults failed. Other factors contributing to Confederate success were the great strength of their earthwork defenses (their skillful placement and construction the work of engineer officer Capt. Samuel Lockett), the determination of the defenders, and Pemberton's adroit dispositions of both front line troops and reserves. It is impossible to imagine a major Civil War army more self-confident from top to bottom as Grant's must have been as it first approached Vicksburg. Yet even so, many Union brigades attacked only feebly or not at all. After reading Smith's accounts of the fighting, one might reasonably come to the conclusion that Vicksburg's particularly daunting combination of man-made defenses and terrain comprised the war's most extreme example of a fighting environment demoralizing attackers. With this in mind, one does wish the book's maps, which are numerous enough and depict trenches, roads, and unit positions in fine detail, could have conveyed a better sense of the underlying topography.

May 19 was a hasty attack largely confined to one division (Blair's) of General William T. Sherman's Fifteenth Corps while the May 22 assault was much larger in scale and better planned and coordinated among the army's three corps, yet both failed in spectacular fashion. The relative ease by which the Confederates repulsed the Union attacks on both days invites the question of whether any circumstances could have resulted in a successful breaching of the Vicksburg defenses by direct assault. In the text Smith carefully describes the planning and conduct of each assault from top to bottom, detailing how the Confederate defenses proved immune to every attacking formation employed by Union commanders. All assaults made in either line or column formation through steep ravines choked with vegetation and obstructions were complete failures, as were those conducted by the flank along roads. Small groups of attackers could reach the ditches outside the Confederate trenches, but could never penetrate the perimeter. The narrow tip of the Railroad Redoubt, which projected well beyond the main line of defense, was seized by troops from General McClernand's Thirteenth Corps but could not be held or exploited (more on that below). Though Smith does not fully formulate any alternate history scenario leading to Union success, he does acknowledge that any slim possibility likely existed only on McClernand's front. Smith hypothesizes that perhaps the best breakthrough opportunity materialized on the extreme southern front where Hall's large brigade moving north from Warrenton briefly confronted the most thinly-held stretch of earthworks before being inopportunely recalled by McClernand. It is indeed an intriguing 'might-have-been' episode, but the fact that it involved a single unsupported brigade summons some doubt as to what it might have achieved.

Grant has deservedly received high marks from military historians for his overall conduct of the Vicksburg Campaign, and most have been forgiving of his failures over the period covered by Smith's study, but the author finds no compelling evidence to support Grant's claim in his celebrated memoir that the men in his army needed to try an assault first before being convinced of the necessity of siege operations. According to Smith and others (see Hills's contribution to the essay anthology referenced above), the failed attacks better represent more confirmation (after Belmont, Donelson, and Shiloh) of Grant's persistent overconfidence in his own army's abilities and underestimation of Confederate competence and resolve. Grant's assigning principal blame for the high casualties on May 22 to McClernand also rings a bit false, as the resumption of attacks he ordered in mid-afternoon in response to McClernand's frantic messages about his corps being on the brink of victory were relatively feeble in comparison to those launched earlier in the day.

Thoughts regarding how much opprobrium McClernand deserves for the high casualties incurred by the army on May 22 vary, but all agree that the general committed significant mistakes on that day. As Steven Woodworth also did in a recently published essay, Smith persuasively finds fault in McClernand's odd corps dispositions that unnecessarily complicated command and control. Like Woodworth, Smith also characterizes the inaccurate nature of  the general's dispatches to Grant as unprofessional errors in judgment rather than deliberate attempts to deceive. Smith additionally finds it ironic that McClernand, who constantly urged upon Grant the necessity of employing deep attacks on a narrow front, himself spread his own corps out among multiple objectives. Though he was the only corps commander to bring all of his brigades into the fight on the 22nd (the combined efforts of generals Sherman and McPherson in marshaling their own corps for the attack were timid by comparison), McClernand's exaggeration of his level of success and his loud complaints about lack of support only further isolated himself from the Grant-Sherman-McPherson high command team that already considered him a dangerous interloper. Indeed, the closing of ranks at the top resulted in a post-battle blame game that overlooked the failures of Sherman and McPherson and exaggerated those of McClernand.

In addition to discussing the plight of the wounded left on the ground in the aftermath of the failed attacks, Smith also addresses the civilian experience of those days. With no mass evacuation of the population before the arrival of Grant's army, civilians were doomed to suffer alongside the soldiers, and the book briefly recounts how noncombatants both inside and outside Vicksburg were affected by the May fighting.

In providing definitive-level coverage of yet another important western theater event, The Assaults on Vicksburg only further cements Timothy Smith's status as an indispensable force in the field of Civil War military history. The volume is an essential contribution to a Vicksburg literature that is slowly but surely reaching the maturation level that it deserves as one of the war's most momentous campaigns. Highly recommended.


  1. Thanks for the review. Tim continues to produce very well done and very important titles. Look forward to what he will publish next.

    Don H.

    1. What he's working on next is a good question.

    2. He's started a series on the Atlanta Campaign.

    3. Josh,
      That's David Powell doing that project.

  2. Wish he would do Port Hudson.


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