Thursday, September 3, 2020

Review - "Vicksburg Besieged" by Woodworth & Grear, eds.

[Vicksburg Besieged edited by Steven E. Woodworth & Charles D. Grear (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Hardcover, 6 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, index. Pages main/total:xi,182/200. ISBN:978-0-8093-3783-5. $29.50]

It is the plan of SIU Press to publish five Vicksburg volumes in total for their Civil War Campaigns in the West series. So far three have been released, the first two being 2013's The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29–May 18, 1863 and 2019's The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863. The newest addition, Vicksburg Besieged, addresses a diverse selection of topics related to the six-week siege of the Hill City. Along with series co-editors Steven Woodworth and Charles Grear, contributors to the book's eight essays are Andrew Bledsoe, co-writers Scott Stabler & Martin Hershock, Jonathan Steplyk, Justin Solonick, John Gaines, and Richard Holloway.

Bledsoe kicks off the anthology with a thoughtful reevaluation of U.S. Grant's oft-maligned staff and its effect on the Union army's conduct of the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign. Bledsoe accurately contextualizes the makeup of the Grant staff within the all too common Civil War practice of assembling command staffs in which personal relationships (friendships, business associations, political allies, etc.) and loyalty were valued higher than both military experience and demonstrated technical competence. There were notable exceptions (among them the able John A. Rawlins and James H. Wilson), but there was still a great deal of dead weight in the Grant staff by mid-1863. This burdened Grant himself with tasks and responsibilities that should have been borne by junior staff members. Though keen headquarters observer Charles A. Dana believed the army was not run nearly as efficiently as it could have been during the campaign with a more competent staff, it is the measured judgment of Bledsoe and others that Grant himself picked up the slack effectively (there being little evidence that staff deficiencies had an appreciably negative effect on army operations). One wonders to what degree these additional stresses (Grant later complained about how much the additional hands-on effort required during the Vicksburg Campaign taxed him) might have influenced Grant's later decision to adopt the two-headed command structure in the East in 1864-65, the relative strengths and weaknesses of which are still much debated today.

Stabler and Hershock's chapter addresses failed Confederate attempts during the siege phase of the Vicksburg campaign to capture Union outposts situated along the west bank of the Mississippi (specifically, the positions at Milliken's Bend, Young's Point, and Lake Providence). The recent literature (especially Linda Barnickel's Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory) has for the first time expansively addressed the major contributions of recently organized black Union troops to the successful defense of those places. Much has also been written about the positive effect the USCTs stationed there had in influencing more favorable opinions (both inside and outside of the Union Army) regarding their general usefulness as soldiers and fighting ability on the battlefield. All of these points are well summarized and reinforced in the essay. It could be argued, however, that the writers overstate how much Trans-Mississippi actions meant to Union victory in the campaign that late in the game (as opposed to much earlier when fighting there could have had a quite significant impact). By June, Grant's logistical network was no longer dependent on holding the Louisiana side opposite Vicksburg. Even if the Confederates captured the west bank outposts that month they had no means of holding them against the might of the Union Navy, which was also well positioned above the below the city to interdict any appreciable resupply and evacuation scenarios.

Jonathan Steplyk, drawing upon his own research in Fighting Means Killing: Civil War Soldiers and the Nature of Combat, evaluates here the siege craft role of sharpshooting and how it played an important part in Union success. His work comes to conclusions similar to those put forth in Justin Solonick's 2015 book Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg. With little to choose between the two sides when it came to shooting skills and weaponry, Union ascendance on the firing line was primarily achieved through sheer numbers and the practically limitless amount of ammunition Grant's excellent logistics apparatus provided. The daily stream of casualties combined with the psychological impact of constantly being under the gun wore down Confederate morale and readiness while also providing daytime cover for advancing Union saps. Mass suppressive fire along the line also freed up Union artillerymen to go about their duties without being constantly harassed by Confederate sharpshooters. The cumulative effect was decisive.

Steven Woodworth's evocative contribution captures the sights, sounds, and activities of nighttime during the six-week siege. Shell and mortar fire were round the clock occurrences, and it was during moonlit nights when Union forces were able to most quickly advance their siege works. Woodworth attributes the many examples of Confederate passivity in the face of Union working parties (even those that closely approached the city's ramparts) to increasingly fatalistic demoralization among the defending rank and file.

Taking some of its content from the author's aforementioned study Engineering Victory, Justin Solonick's chapter examines the Union mine explosions of June 25 and July 1 that collectively wrecked the Third Louisiana Redan but failed to facilitate a breakthrough. In addition to describing the mining operation from start to finish, Solonick also discusses the role of Seventeenth Corps chief engineer Andrew Hickenlooper in the design, planning, and oversight of the mine detonated on June 25 (a subordinate apparently handled the second, smaller mine explosion that was not accompanied by an infantry attack). Though the Confederates effectively sealed off the breach, Solonick suggests that the prospect of additional mine explosions in conjunction with an expected all-out attack (Grant did indeed have one planned for July 6) from the Union army's advanced siege approaches—several of which could produce jumping off points only yards away from the defenders—likely had some influence on Pemberton's decision to surrender.

Vicksburg civilians abandoning their homes for makeshift caves dug into the banks of nearby cliffs and gullies for protection against constant Union naval and land bombardment has easily become the most popular image of how noncombatants experienced the siege. John Gaines discusses this aspect of the siege as well as the shortages of food and supplies that ensured surrender sooner rather than later. Gaines makes a good point that Grant's strategy of attacking the Vicksburg rear first, a movement that cut off the rail line and all roads leading into the city, had the significant added effect of both pushing refugees from the countryside into the defenses and blocking city residents from evacuating. Though incidental to Grant's military goals, the vastly increased burden this action placed on Vicksburg's meager food stockpiles clearly benefited the besiegers.

One essay in the collection, viewed through the lens of Louisiana soldiers, addresses the topic of Confederate general Joe Johnston's Army of Relief. In it, author Richard Holloway recounts the experiences of Louisiana soldiers (in particular, the 19th Louisiana infantry and the Washington Artillery) who arrived in Jackson, Mississippi by early June as reinforcements for Johnston's command. There they joined Johnston's slow advance toward Vicksburg, retreated back to Jackson when news arrived of Vicksburg's surrender, and fought in the July 12 rear guard action that covered the second evacuation of the capital that conclusively ended the long campaign.

Finally, Charles Grear explores how Trans-Mississippi Confederates viewed the loss of Vicksburg. An extension of his earlier work in Why Texans Fought in the Civil War to Arkansas and Louisiana (but not Missouri) Confederate soldiers, Grear's chapter comes to the conclusion that Vicksburg was by far the most significant event affecting the fighting will of Trans-Mississippi soldiers on both sides of the river. According to Grear's research, Trans-Mississippi recruits in general, as residents of the most recently settled southern states, were motivated to fight far from their homes by the desire to protect the extensive family and friend networks they left behind. These Texas, Arkansas, and western Louisiana volunteers supported fighting on both sides of the Mississippi as a pragmatic means of keeping their own homes safe from imminent danger. While disasters at New Orleans, Arkansas Post, Helena, and other places seriously impaired the fighting morale of Trans-Mississippi troops, it was Vicksburg that proved to be the demoralizing event of the highest order. In its profound effect on convincing so many Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana soldiers that faraway service no longer protected their own homes and immediate family members, Vicksburg sparked an unprecedented wave of desertions. While many deserters returned to the service by joining local units west of the Mississippi, many others simply left the ranks for good. Historians and casual students alike love to argue about turning points, and Grear's findings strongly suggest that for a great number of Trans-Mississippi soldiers Vicksburg was not only a turning point but a breaking point.

Topically diverse in addressing matters on and off the battlefield (mostly the former), Vicksburg Besieged is another solid entry in the ongoing Civil War Campaigns in the West series and a notable contribution to our understanding of the still relatively understudied siege phase of the Vicksburg Campaign.

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