Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Review - "The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863" by Timothy Smith

[The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2021). Hardcover, 19 maps, photos, illustrations, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxvii,537/751. ISBN:978-0-7006-3225-1. $45]

Of the three standard histories of the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign—Ed Bearss's The Vicksburg Campaign (3 Vols, 1985), Warren Grabau's Ninety-Eight Days: A Geographer's View of the Vicksburg Campaign (2000), and Michael Ballard's Vicksburg: The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi (2004)—Bearss's third volume by a wide margin covers the military aspects of its static phase in greatest detail. Though A.A. Hoehling's Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege (1969) was an early attempt at presenting the story of the siege in the words of its participants, modern book-length treatments of the siege itself are mostly just a recent phenomenon mainly spearheaded by Southern Illinois University Press, with Ballard's Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege (2013)1 being an episodic examination of the topic and Justin Solonick's excellent Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg (2015)2 focusing closely on the historical context and mechanics of siege warfare as practiced during the campaign. Most recently, the slender volume Vicksburg Besieged (2020)3 was published as part of SIUP's Civil War Campaigns in the West essay anthology series, and it is also useful. However, Timothy Smith's new book The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863 marks the publication of the first truly comprehensive narrative history of the six-week siege of the Hill City fortress.

In what has become a hallmark of Smith's work, research for this study is firmly grounded in primary sources with a strong emphasis on original archival research. Indeed, the bibliography lists hundreds of manuscript collections housed in repositories located all across the country. All of this material is used effectively to create a rich (and at nearly 550 pages quite lengthy) narrative full of diverse perspectives, from the ground-level eyewitness accounts of private soldiers, low-ranking officers, and affected civilians on up to those of the top-level military and political decision-makers of both sides.

Smith's The Siege of Vicksburg picks up where his previous book The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863 (2020)4 left off, with the end of active field operations and the beginning of siege operations. The tools, features, and strategies of siege warfare, for both besieger and besieged, are discussed, as is life in the trenches, day and night, for both sides. The physical and psychological effects of constant bombardment as well as many other forms of privation and danger imposed by the siege upon civilians trapped within Confederate lines are examined. Day to day conduct of the siege, with Union forces digging multiple approaches and ultimately mining the enemy forts while Confederate forces struggled with stopping them through countermining and other measures, is addressed at length. The many vital roles assumed by the US Navy in bombarding the city, patrolling the waterfront, keeping Grant's army abundantly supplied, ferrying reinforcements to the front, and even contributing to the land batteries, are all duly documented and fully appreciated for their collective impact.

Volume III of the Bearss trilogy examined each of the thirteen siege approaches in standalone sections totaling around one hundred pages. Even more extensive detailing and mapping of all of those approaches probably ranks high on the wish lists of many readers of this book, but Smith instead provides more representative coverage. However, he does selectively go into more depth on two of the major approaches (Logan's and Ewing's). The Union approaches as a whole are mapped from a bird's-eye perspective of the entire line surrounding Vicksburg, but those two, the former leading to the June 25 and July 1 mine explosions on Third Louisiana Redan and the latter culminating in Stockade Redan mining and countermining operations near the conclusion of the siege, are closely detailed in the text and supported with a pair of good maps. Smith would undoubtedly agree with historian Jonathan Steplyk5 and others that the near limitless amounts of ammunition supplied to Union sharpshooters and cannoneers during the siege, combined with Confederate strictures on unnecessary firing, had a collectively suppressive effect that had a major impact on southern inability to slow the pace of many of the Vicksburg siege approaches. The view advanced by some that Confederate units not countering Union saps with sustained fire of their own (even when that kind of ammunition expenditure was encouraged from above) represented a sign of collapsing morale among many defenders does not appear to be hold much stock with Smith, who does not directly address the matter.

The study confirms earlier work regarding inadequate numbers of engineering officers in Grant's army hampering progress of siege operations. That deficiency made some areas move forward faster than others and also resulted in a wide variance in quality of works along the front. Smith, like others, also notes that General McClernand's Thirteenth Corps siege front in particular lagged behind the other two corps, attributing that slower pace to the general's lack of professional military experience and knowledge of military engineering. Headquarters exasperation over Thirteenth Corps progress likely contributed in some way to bringing Grant's long-standing determination to relieve McClernand to a boil, though obviously the commanding general found McClernand's violation of army regulations prohibiting publication of official reports without permission to be a better excuse for getting rid of him. That well-known episode is also addressed in the book.

After Grant invested Vicksburg with a line of circumvallation, he immediately set out to construct an outward facing line of countervallation. This Siege of Alesia-type arrangement was effective in both tightly hemming Pemberton inside the Vicksburg defenses and strongly keeping General Joe Johnston's relief army a safe distance away. Grant's efforts at securing the Mechanicsburg Corridor northeast of Vicksburg (Johnston's only really viable avenue of approach to Grant's rear) as well as the Big Black River crossings directly east of Vicksburg are recounted in far more detail than Johnston's relief efforts, as meager as they were in energy and threat level. Johnston and his actions mostly hover at the periphery of the narrative before finally coming into play at the end. Like most historians of the campaign, Smith castigates Johnston's 'do-nothing' attitude along with his stubborn unwillingness to assume his responsibility as the senior officer in the theater when it came to planning and coordinating either a relief effort or a breakout attempt. The author's view that Johnston's belated early-July advance to the Big Black with his entire command was likely just a cynical show of force intended to forestall expected criticism of his inability to prevent Vicksburg's fall is an opinion difficult to refute based on the general's defeatist behavior and attitude up to that point. One might wish, though, that Smith had delved more into the realistic options available to Johnston earlier in the siege during the brief window of opportunity that existed between the topping off of Johnston's troop levels and the arrival of overwhelming Union reinforcements. In his own defense, Johnston was likely correct that Pemberton mostly doomed himself by heeding the president's order to hold Vicksburg over Johnston's order to evacuate before becoming invested, but, as the author maintains, doing nothing at all was entirely unacceptable whatever the slim chances of success. Confederate efforts aimed at relieving Vicksburg from the west side of the Mississippi are beyond the scope of Smith's study, though they were addressed at length in Bearss's study and also to a lesser extent Grabau's. This book ends with the July 4 surrender of Pemberton's army, the paroling of the defenders, and the immediate reaction far and wide to that decisive end to the campaign. It does not continue on with extensive looks at any of the major post-Vicksburg actions such as General Sherman's second "Siege" of Jackson, though interested readers can be referred to existing coverage of those events from authors Bearss/Grabau6 and Jim Woodrick7.

Smith agrees with Solonick that Vicksburg essentially fell to General Grant's digging before general starvation actually forced a surrender. No one can know with any degree of certainty if the big attack prepared for July 6, which would have been touched off by massive mine explosions and launched from parallels in many places almost touching Confederate outer ditches, would have been the complete success supposed by many. However, there seems little doubt that that prospect, combined with the overall deterioration in the fighting condition of the defenders through constant frontline duty, short rations, and disease, weighed heavily in the minds of Pemberton and his division commanders. According to Smith, by the time of the surrender Pemberton still had around five days of rations squirreled away in reserve for any possible breakout attempt. In his recent book Civil War Supply and Strategy (2020)8, Earl Hess came to the conclusion that Pemberton's inability to stockpile vastly more supplies in Vicksburg represented a particularly egregious failure of leadership, and it would have been interesting to get Smith's opinion on that matter, too.

The siege operation that captured Vicksburg is clearly an expansive enough topic to easily fill several large books, yet it is difficult to imagine another author matching the level of comprehensiveness displayed in Smith's single-volume treatment. The Siege of Vicksburg will unquestionably come to be regarded as the standard history of the concluding phase of the campaign. Already the author of major works covering the Battle of Champion Hill, the two Vicksburg assaults, and now the siege, Smith is currently in the midst of researching and writing an epic campaign series that will fill in the remaining gaps and provide readers with an exhaustive new military history of the entire operation from start to finish. Given the superlative quality of Smith's existing work, there is every expectation that this ambitious project, when finished, will rank among the Civil War literature's enduring classics.

Titles referenced above (with review links, if available):
1 - Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege by Michael B. Ballard (SIU Press, 2013).
2 - Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg by Justin S. Solonick (SIU Press, 2015).
3 - Vicksburg Besieged edited by Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear (SIU Press, 2020).
4 - The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (UP of Kansas, 2020).
5 - Both Steplyk's chapter in Vicksburg Besieged and Solonick's Engineering Victory credit the high-volume, suppressive effects of Union sharpshooting for progressive deterioration of defender morale and fighting readiness.
6 - The Battle of Jackson May 14, 1863, The Siege of Jackson July 10-17, 1863 and Three Other Post-Vicksburg Actions by Edwin C. Bearss and Warren Grabau (Gateway Press for Jackson Civil War Round Table, 1981).
7 - The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi by Jim Woodrick (The History Press, 2016).
8 - Civil War Supply and Strategy by Earl J. Hess (LSU Press, 2020).


  1. Tim does great work and is a nice guy.

    I would add, by the way, his recent and outstanding "The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi (Savas Beatie, 2020) which is an ancillary but important part of the Vicksburg Campaign.

    1. Ted: Tim's book on Champion Hill is right up there, as well. With the ongoing major preservation achievements of the ABT at that site, the book has renewed value.

  2. Drew: An excellent review of an excellent book.

  3. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the review. Tim is coming to our roundtable soon. He is certainly in the top tier of CW authors. Looking forward to asking him what is next for him.
    I agree with other comments from your readers. The Grierson's Raid book and Champion Hill books were fantastic reads.

    Don Hallstrom

    1. Don,
      He's working on the MS Central/Chickasaw Bayou part of the campaign now. From what UPK says, it sounds like it will be released next year.

    2. Currently Smith is writing a new analysis of Albert Sidney Johnston. It is part biography, but mostly an examination of his western theater command. MS Central/CB is finished.

  4. Drew: I echo the complimentary comments above and for the news of Tim's forthcoming works. I also, again, express my appreciation for your footnote references and links to other related books so I can infill my Vicksburg collection. I will be walking this ground next month on a tour led by Tim so your analysis is very timely. If you don't object, I will give a shout-out here to Ted Savas above for his Zoom presentation to the Baltimore CWRT this week. Ted, I haven't seen so many members attend a meeting in years; well done!

  5. Thank you, John. It was a lot of fun and Robert is a gracious host.

    Have a great weekend. Onward.

  6. John F: Thanks re: Champion Hill was Tim's first effort and he and I worked on it together soup to nuts. This was back in the day when I had enough time to draft 44 maps for a book. Yikes. But I wanted to make it clear where our books were going. Tim is a super guy, and I am very happy for him.


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