Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Booknotes: Storming Vicksburg

New Arrival:
Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863 by Earl J. Hess (UNC Press, 2020).

With now three scholarly books, an essay anthology along with a pair of full-length battle studies, addressing the topic (all published within the last 16 months), the May Vicksburg assaults are no longer "most overlooked phase of the Union campaign." The first to arrive in 2019 was the Civil War Campaigns in the West series volume The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863. This was followed in January of this year by Timothy Smith's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, and now we have Earl Hess's Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863.

In Storming Vicksburg, Hess addresses "the time period from May 18 to May 25, 1863, when Ulysses S. Grant closed in on the city and attempted to storm its defenses. Federal forces mounted a limited attack on May 19 and failed to break through Confederate lines. After two days of preparation, Grant's forces mounted a much larger assault. Although the Army of the Tennessee had defeated Confederates under John C. Pemberton at Champion Hill on May 16 and Big Black River on May 17, the defenders yet again repelled Grant's May 22 attack. The Gibraltar of the Confederacy would not fall until a six-week siege ended with Confederate surrender on July 4."

The reasons why the assaults failed so badly have been discussed ever since those fateful days in May that ushered in the siege phase of the campaign. Hess's work on answering those questions "reveals how a combination of rugged terrain, poor coordination, and low battlefield morale among Union troops influenced the result of the largest attack mounted by Grant's Army of the Tennessee." That is interesting that the author sees poor Union morale as a factor in their defeat as it is most commonly believed that the combination of Confederate demoralization after a series of battlefield defeats and high Union morale bolstered by the results of that same string of battles was a prime reason why Grant was confident that one more big push would cause the Vicksburg defenders to crumble. As I mentioned in my review of The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863, one of Parker Hills's essays suggested that there was evidence that many of the rank and file soldiers in Grant's army expressed  reservations about continuing the assaults after May 19, but little documentary support was offered. Perhaps Hess found that support in his exhaustive letter and journal research.

More from the description: "Using definitive research in unpublished personal accounts and other underutilized archives, Hess makes clear that events of May 19–22 were crucial to the Vicksburg campaign's outcome and shed important light on Grant's generalship, Confederate defensive strategy, and the experience of common soldiers as an influence on battlefield outcomes."

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