Thursday, September 15, 2022

Review - "Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862" by Timothy Smith

[Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862 by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2022). Hardcover, 21 maps, photos, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxv,430/603. ISBN:978-0-7006-3324-1. $44.95]

Before now, the initial phases of the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign have received only rudimentary attention outside of rather detailed treatment in the pages of Edwin C. Bearss's timeless trilogy The Vicksburg Campaign. An argument could be made that the Mississippi Central and Chickasaw Bayou operations are both large enough and self-contained enough to be deserving of book-length treatments of their own, but Timothy Smith's Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862, the third of what will become a five-volume series published through University Press of Kansas, reminds readers early and often that the two subjects, in all of their parallel and tandem intertwinings, are best understood when addressed together.

There are two schools of thought regarding the larger conceptualization of this fascinating fall-winter campaign. On one side, the 1862 Vicksburg campaign that unfolded during this period is often presented as a single, two-pronged overland and downriver operation designed and overseen by General U.S. Grant as department commander. On the other end of the spectrum, others describe them as largely parallel operations. Grant had his own overland approach down the Mississippi Central, and Memphis would be the base for an amphibious attack directly against Vicksburg itself, the latter being a concoction of President Abraham Lincoln and high-ranking political general John C. McClernand, with a strong hand of support from General in Chief Henry Halleck if someone else but McClernand, preferably Sherman, could lead it. Smith seems to favor a 'two campaigns in parallel' line of understanding, with real coordination a late developing phenomenon. As the author reminds us, the dismal failure of Union forces in Mississippi in late 1862 provides students of military history with yet another textbook lesson in the hazards of beginning a major campaign without unity of command and purpose.

North Mississippi presented Grant's overland approach with a host of challenges, not least of which were numerous river lines that needed to be crossed and a single rail line (vulnerable to breakage at many points) for long-range logistical support. As Smith demonstrates, Grant met those challenges early on by employing a three-wing approach, the turning threats of which convinced his outnumbered Confederate foes to fall back from a series of defensible positions. In addition to that, a well-timed Union infantry and cavalry raid into the enemy rear greatly facilitated overall Confederate discomfort. Nevertheless, the Union advance proceeded slowly and in fits and starts. By the time both armies faced off across the Yalobusha River just north of Grenada, it was becoming increasingly clear to Grant (and already was to Halleck) that conventional logistics would likely be insufficient to sustain further advances. The developing ration situation was made even worse by Confederate general Earl Van Dorn's spectacular destruction of Grant's forward supply depot at Holly Springs and Nathan Bedford Forrest's effective raiding of West Tennessee's rail network. Both of those series of events are detailed in the text.

Smith presents Grant's Mississippi Central Campaign as a conventional, "by the book" application of what the general's professional military education taught him about how best to conduct operational warfare. Just how much the November-December 1862 stage of Grant's ongoing development as army commander should have better anticipated troubles stemming from a deep thrust supported only by a single rail line is an issue up for debate. A rail-supported land advance into the hostile Lower South's interior was a first for any Civil War commander. Up to that time, Grant's operations benefited from the close proximity of well-developed railroad networks and especially major rivers to sustain his army, the latter also adding essential direct naval support. Grant learned valuable lessons from his 1862 failure in North Mississippi, however. In addition to radically altering his line of approach toward the unconventional one that achieved total success by the middle of the following year, the abundance of food Grant's army seized from the North Mississippi countryside after the destruction of his Holly Springs depots raised his confidence that similar bounty could be had below and east of Vicksburg. On the less flattering side of things, Smith might have added the Van Dorn/Forrest upending of the Mississippi Central Campaign to the surprises sprung on him earlier at Belmont, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh as part of a running pattern of Grant overconfidence regarding what the enemy was capable (or not capable) of doing to upset his own plans.

In the book's discussion of the Mississippi Central Campaign's stalled momentum and the launching of what seemed at the time to be a promising downriver expedition, Grant's agency in the decision-making process is emphasized most. While that is quite natural given that all of the events described lay within Grant's military department, one might argue that General Halleck's key role in voicing dissatisfaction with the overland approach and promoting the riverine expedition is not presented forcefully enough in the narrative.

Much has been made in the literature of Lincoln's "promise" to General McClernand that he would, upon personally recruiting and organizing a mass of new Midwest regiments, lead a combined army-navy expedition from Memphis to capture Vicksburg. However, Smith reminds us that no actual orders to that effect were ever issued. Halleck effectively stonewalled McClernand's increasingly urgent requests to be ordered to the front, and supposed friend Lincoln and cagey Secretary of War Stanton did not actively intervene when requested to do so by McClernand. This allowed time for Halleck and Grant to gather at Memphis enough spare troops for a powerful waterborne strike force and place Sherman at the head of it. In a war filled with countless examples of interdepartmental friction, the degree to which General Samuel R. Curtis was willing to strip his own manpower to supply reinforcements for Sherman's expedition was exceptional, and Smith properly credits Curtis for that general's unusually selfless spirit of cooperation.

A relatively recent book-length study of the so-called Battle of Coffeeville authored by Don Sides credits the Confederate victory there with having a decisive effect on Grant's decision to halt his North Mississippi advance. Smith's more persuasive take on the successful Confederate ambush and counterattack assesses it primarily as a morale and confidence booster, attributing Grant's pause more to weather and overextended logistics than the bloody nose received at Coffeeville. Bearss also saw the event as more incidental than critical in its impact on Grant's subsequent actions.

In his meticulous account of the multi-day Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, Smith does an excellent job of clearly describing the battlefield terrain there along with the many constraints that challenging military environment placed on Sherman's attacking options. Mere glance at a map might falsely give the impression that the Yazoo River offered a lengthy stretch of fine approaches to the gates of Vicksburg, but Smith painstakingly explains to the reader that the usable battle space between Vicksburg and the fortified bluffs to the north was in actuality quite small. Indeed, it was restricted to four tightly compressed sectors separated by long and frequently deep bayous. Additionally, well-sited Confederate earthworks faced down all four approaches.

Smith's narrative clearly details in blow by blow fashion Sherman's ultimately vain attempts at scoring a breakthrough at Chickasaw Bayou. Of course, controversy follows every surprising military failure, especially when defeat of that nature is accompanied by a wide disparity in casualties. Smith argues that only a tiny window for Union success existed—right after the initial landings and before Confederate reinforcements arrived—and Sherman's measured bridgehead buildup missed it. How much Sherman could have achieved had me moved forward faster is a debatable point, but it does seem clear through Smith's recounting of events that subordinate brigade and division commanders are not deserving of any particular censure. Sherman has been criticized for the hasty nature of his operation, but the rush to preempt McClernand is understandable on some level and extensive reconnaissance of the ground might have prematurely tipped his hand. The tactical employment of pontoon bridging, a lesser appreciated aspect of the operation, was badly bungled, leaving one to wonder (assuming bayou banks in the area were not a tangled mess of natural obstacles) what opportunities were available for using them as assault boats across the bayous à la the Rappahannock River crossing conducted successfully a few weeks earlier at Fredericksburg.

Smith's text is supported by 21 maps, and they are mostly satisfactory. Many of these, especially the sizable set tracing the progress of the Mississippi Central Campaign, are large-scale representations of corps and division-level movements. As expected, more small-unit detail is found in the tactical battlefield maps assigned to the Chickasaw Bayou, Holly Springs, and Parker's Crossroads sections of the book, where there is much more regimental-level depiction of the fighting. Roads, buildings, and terrain obstacles are duly represented in the tactical maps, but there is still a lot of white space remaining that could have been filled with more natural terrain and topographical features. Orders of battle are provided for Chickasaw Bayou, Holly Springs, Parker's Crossroads, and the Mississippi Central Campaign. For the last, "(d)ue to the amazing amount of shuffling of regiments, brigades, and divisions" Smith did not attempt to reconstruct regimental-level orders of battle.

This review focuses on the Union side, but it needs to be said that the book also offers full Confederate analysis and perspective. General Stephen D. Lee is properly credited for his sharp repulse of Sherman's expedition at little cost in Confederate casualties. At the top level of command, General John C. Pemberton's largely CEO approach, while it proved successful, is more difficult to assess. Smith is probably correct in opining that Pemberton's decisive success in stopping both major enemy thrusts in his department was in large part a function of the time afforded him by the rather slow tempo of unfolding events. As the author persuasively reasons, it would only be after Grant later crossed his army below Vicksburg and presented Pemberton with a series of rapidly developing crises of decision that the limitations in Pemberton's ability to manage a field army would be revealed in full, that leadership deficiency having disastrous consequences for both Vicksburg and the Confederate war effort on the whole.

As mentioned above, the late Ed Bearss's operational and tactical accounts of both the Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou still hold up today. However, the truly massive breadth and depth of Smith's current-day research dwarfs Bearss's limited approach from many decades ago. The result is a far more detailed rendering of these events, with both sharpened interpretation and vastly greater emphasis on the soldier and civilian experience. Of course, some issues remain unresolved and matters of opinion will vary (that's the case with every Civil War campaign), but Timothy Smith's Early Struggles for Vicksburg unquestionably provides us with the best researched and most closely detailed account yet published of a complex series of events that proved to be one of the bleaker moments of Grant's early-war career and for the Confederates a momentary ray of hope in maintaining their foothold on a strategic stretch of the Mississippi River.

1 comment:

  1. Drew: As always, if a reader wants a thorough, insightful book review this site is the "go-to" location. I've only skimmed the book so far (with the exception of one chapter) but it's clear that this is yet another essential purchase for anyone interested in this complex, extended campaign. Tim persistently disclaims the honor, but by now I think it beyond dispute that he truly is the worthy successor to the legendary Ed Bearss on this subject. Those of us in the hockey planet are familiar with the Montreal Canadiens' catch phrase for carrying on the tradition, and it might apply by analogy here: "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high".

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