Thursday, November 19, 2020

Review - "Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863" by Earl Hess

[Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863 by Earl J. Hess (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). Hardcover, 16 maps, photos, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xx,295/400. ISBN:9781469660172. $40]

Its first edition released by Morningside in 1985, Ed Bearss's classic three-volume history of the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign was the first publication to examine in depth the May 19 and May 22, 1863 assaults on the Vicksburg fortifications. Over the following decades the topic has been addressed in book chapters, scholarly essays, and magazine articles, but it would be 2019 before the first appearance of a standalone book-length treatment, a slim essay anthology titled The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19-22, 1863. This was closely followed in early 2020 by Timothy Smith's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863. Remarkably, less than a year later we now have a third study in Earl Hess's Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863. Smith's and Hess's detailed histories of these events are quite similar in many ways, but they also possess complementary strengths that will interest many prospective readers.

As is the case with the research efforts put into all of Hess's earlier campaign and battle histories, Storming Vicksburg is based upon a large and richly diverse collection of primary and secondary sources. This mountain of material is skillfully incorporated into a comprehensive narrative account of the fighting, one that assesses the full breadth of command decisions and vividly records battlefield experiences of all ranks on both sides. Fully appropriate to studies of this type, regimental-scale tactical detail abounds, and for each battle sector the staging, formation, and movements of these units are closely recounted. Once again, Hess's skill at organizing masses of small-unit information in a manner that's easy for the attentive reader to comprehend and follow is on full display. Though somewhat spartan by current expectations (regular readers of Hess's recent work will recognize his now standard hand-drawn style of cartography), the book's collection of sixteen maps, which are intimately tied to the text, are very useful visual aids.

Timothy Smith's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg examines the Union approach march to Vicksburg from Big Black River at greater length, but both manuscripts (his and Hess's) exhibit similar levels of descriptive detail and military analysis when it comes to their treatments of the May 19 and May 22 attacks. The Union assault of May 19 was a hasty one involving essentially one division (Frank Blair's of William T. Sherman's Fifteenth Corps), with the balance of Sherman's troops plus James B. McPherson's Seventeenth Corps and John C. McClernand's Thirteenth Corps all mostly engaged with getting into position after hours of struggling through rough terrain. The May 22 attack was better coordinated from top to bottom and heavily involved all three army corps, although only McClernand's was fully committed to front line action. As it was a much larger event fought over most of the day, the bulk of the book is devoted to May 22.

Most of the reasons Hess gives for the failure of the twin attacks have been cited before. As is often the case, the other side had a great deal to do with it. Just as he did way back in late 1862 during the earliest stages of the long Vicksburg Campaign, the oft-maligned Confederate commander John C. Pemberton achieved another brief moment in the sun through his thwarting of Grant's designs on May 19 and 22. Rather than facing demoralized troops, Grant attacked confident, well-placed, and mostly fresh Confederate defenders who expertly exploited Vicksburg's strong earthwork defense network designed by engineer officer Samuel Lockett. Coordination among the attacking formations was also less than ideal. Another major factor in the Union defeat was the topography in front of the Confederate defense line. Characterized by a series of bald-topped hillocks separated by steep ravines choked with dense vegetation and man-made military obstructions, the approaches to Vicksburg both slowed and disorganized attacking columns and lines. Where roads entered Confederate lines, Union assault formations had to brave open, narrow fronts swept by rifle and artillery fire deployed within forbidding earthwork trenches, forts, redoubts, and redans. In their respective texts, both Smith and Hess vividly define this menacing battlefield terrain for their readers, though neither of their map sets really show it to any great effect. However, Hess compensates for this to a strong degree by including a series of well-composed battlefield photographs of the viewshed (often from each side's perspective in turn) at the location of every major attack. These photos offer readers a strong impression of just how intimidating so many of these battlescapes were for Grant's men, and its easy to imagine attackers seeing them as impossible to overcome by simple assault. As Parker Hills did in his contribution to the essay anthology referenced above, Hess believes that Union rank and file demoralization at the sight of the enemy defenses contributed mightily to the failed attack on May 22. Citing his extensive manuscript research, Hess claims that the vast majority of Union soldier diaries and letters expressed grave misgivings about attacking (though after the battles the very same writers tended to express undiminished confidence in their leaders and in eventual victory). Hess persuasively suggests that it was this psychological barrier against conducting frontal attacks collectively judged by veteran troops to be impossible that was the primary reason why so many Union formations went to ground before reaching the enemy line (a spontaneous expression of self-preservation and rank-and-file disobedience most commonly attributed to 1864 campaigns and beyond).

Of course, the most controversial command figure of May 22 remains John McClernand. In addition to inaugurating the six-week siege phase of the campaign, the May 22 attack largely ended the general's active career in the field (though he would go on to serve a minor role in Texas). Though McClernand overall performed at least as well as his fellow corps commanders did during the campaign, he remained the odd man out of the otherwise tight-knit high command of the Army of the Tennessee. He also made many errors and questionable judgment calls on the 22nd. After urging upon Grant the need to concentrate the army and punch through the enemy defenses on a more narrow front, McClernand then proceeded to disregard his own advice by spreading his own corps out on a broad attacking front in a manner similar to what Grant ended up doing with the entire army. Like other historians before him (including Timothy Smith and Steven Woodworth), Hess is critical of McClernand's corps dispositions, as the general's pairing of assault and support brigades from different divisions unnecessarily heightened already challenging issues of command and control. The author's critical views of McClernand's behavior and judgement are also aligned with others when it comes to the general's messages to Grant that heavily exaggerated (whether the result of erroneous judgment or willful deception) the strength of the Thirteenth Corps toehold on the enemy works. On another controversial matter, Hess lays blame for the ineffective use of Isaac Quinby's Seventeenth Corps division (which was ordered to McClernand's aid) primarily at the feet of McClernand. Unlike Parker Hills (who mostly blamed Grant and Quinby himself for the division arriving too late to do any real good), Hess more persuasively sides with those who have argued that McClernand was most at fault by parceling up Quinby's division as reinforcements for three different sectors of his corps front. It might be an interesting what-if to contemplate what might have happened had Quinby's entire division been hurled at a single point, but Hess is likely accurate in determining that as long as the morale of the defenders held no attack of that scale was likely to achieve a major breakthrough. Smith's examination of the May 22 attacks hypothesized that Col. William Hall's approach against South Fort on the extreme left of Grant's army might have had the best chance for success, but Hess largely, and more persuasively, dismisses the possibility of a single-brigade breakthrough. Hall himself never seriously tested the enemy defenses before responding to McClernand's call for support by marching away to join the Thirteenth Corps. In the end, Hess is fully supportive of Grant's decision to relieve McClernand of command, if for no better reason than to conclusively resolve the threat to high command unity that was both longstanding and exacerbated by the regrettable behavior of both men.

In several ways, Hess's examination of the late May attacks moves further beyond the battlefield than all previous treatments. Though Smith goes into more depth on the civilian experience, and both major studies address the plight of the wounded at some length, Hess does uniquely discuss the burial truce of May 25 along with the front line fraternization that provided psychological relief to both sides and priceless opportunity for not-so-surreptitious intelligence gathering. Hess also examines the efforts of both sides to honor the most deserving participants of the twin assaults. Along with initiatives and events surrounding preservation of the battlefield, remembrance of the assaults in the form of speeches, poetry, and art is also discussed. Of the last, the two Vicksburg cycloramas (both of which depicted scenes from the May 22 assault) are featured. According to Hess, only a few images of the second cyclorama remain for us to examine, and the rapid disappearance of both artworks after brief showings materially contributed to the obscurity of the attacks in public memory.

Though description and analysis of the May 19 and May 22 attacks contained in Timothy Smith's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg and Earl Hess's Storming Vicksburg are roughly similar in scope and depth, as indicated above there are more than enough complementary features to refrain from definitively recommending one study over the other. Really, when we have two of the field's best Civil War military historians exploring the same ground, there is no compelling reason for those with an exceptional interest in the topic to not add both books to the home library.


  1. Hello
    Thanks for the review. It sounds like a very good book. I realize Earl Hess just had another book published by LSU Press, Civil War Supply and Strategy: Feeding Men and Moving Armies.

    Earl Hess seems to publish quite a few titles. Has anyone heard what he may be working on next? I hope he can get back to the Atlanta Campaign.

    Don Hallstrom

    1. Hi Don,
      I don't know what is up next, but he mentions in this book that he has more Vicksburg Campaign on his future project list. I am still waiting for the supply and strategy book. It looks interesting.


  2. Drew: Thanks for this review. Based on your assessment I may take the plunge even though I already have Tim's book. I do wish that Hess would attack something that needs a good monograph - Resaca and Jonesboro come to mind as subjects that should be in his "wheelhouse." New Hope Church is another, since the book done some 10 years ago or so is pretty superficial.


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