Monday, October 3, 2022

Review - "The Battle of Jackson, Mississippi, May 14, 1863" by Chris Mackowski

[The Battle of Jackson, Mississippi, May 14, 1863 by Chris Mackowski (Savas Beatie, 2022). Hardcover, 6 maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, tour guide, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xviii,133/189. ISBN:978-1-61121-655-4. $29.95]

In regard to troops involved and casualties incurred, the May 14, 1863 Battle of Jackson was not a major clash of armies by Civil War standards. However, in ways that transcended simple matters of scale, it did serve as a critical inflection point in the long campaign for Vicksburg. By successfully seizing control of the Mississippi state capital on that day, Union forces critically isolated Vicksburg, severing the river city's lines of supply and communication with the Confederate interior while at the same time driving a great wedge between General John C. Pemberton's army of Vicksburg defenders and General Joseph E. Johnston's growing relief army. By sparking Johnston's hastily improvised order directing Pemberton to immediately sally forth from Vicksburg in search of a decisive battle, the disruptive contest for Jackson also contributed mightily to the crushing Confederate defeat at Champion Hill only two days later.

Following up on his army's small but clear victories at Port Gibson and Raymond, General U.S. Grant launched a two-pronged assault on the city of Jackson, with General James B. McPherson's Seventeenth Corps striking the capital defenders from the northwest and General William T. Sherman's Fifteenth Corps driving in from the southwest. Johnston, believing his eroding position hopeless, fought a delaying action intended to save essential supplies and materiel. Pushing out from Jackson's rudimentary earthwork defenses, a division-sized Confederate force confronted McPherson while a much smaller demi-brigade attempted to slow Sherman's progress at Lynch Creek. Safely evacuating most of the capital's valuable military stores, Johnston's still-intact army retreated northeast to Canton. Providing fine new accounts of the battle itself and subsequent acts of destruction within the city is Chris Mackowski's The Battle of Jackson, Mississippi, May 14, 1863, the second volume in publisher Savas Beatie's Battles and Leaders series.

With action unfolding at regiment and brigade-level unit scales, Mackowski's battle narrative is similar in tactical detail and overall scope to the one found in the pages of its nearest rival, Edwin C. Bearss and Warren Grabau's long out of print and relatively scarce The Battle of Jackson May 14, 1863 - The Siege of Jackson, July 10-17, 1863 - and Three Other Post-Vicksburg Actions (1981). A balanced synthesis, the much broader source base underpinning Mackowski's text (which obviously benefits from the passage of forty years of source discovery and campaign literature development) along with its widespread incorporation of eyewitness/participant accounts defines this volume as a significantly more modern update.

Environmental factors figured heavily into how the battle was fought. Mackowski's narrative of events clearly explains how the combined effects of weather (the fighting occurred in heavy spring rains and mud) and terrain, particularly along Sherman's approach, shaped the pace and course of the battle. Such conditions might also have been expected to hinder the evacuation, but that appears not to have been the case.

In his assessment of the leadership displayed by both sides before, during, and after the battle, Mackowski finds no compelling reasons to significantly depart from convention. There's broad consensus in the literature regarding theater commander Joe Johnston's poor display of military judgment throughout the Vicksburg Campaign. Aspects of the general's personal character flaws also come into play. In particular, Mackowski joins the chorus of critics who condemn Johnston for leaving Pemberton in the lurch after ordering his subordinate to attack Grant (with the understanding that Johnston's and Pemberton's forces would be fighting a mutually supporting action intended to catch Grant's army in a vise) only to immediately retreat in haste far away from any potential confrontation. Johnston has also been criticized by some for his hasty evacuation of Jackson, though it is far from certain that he could have successfully held up Grant's army that day and the next, a period during which significant additional reinforcements would have arrived to narrow the odds. It will be interesting to read what Richard McMurry, the author of an upcoming two-volume military biography of Johnston, might contribute to this discussion.

The volume's six maps (which include brigade-scale troop position maps overlying both historical and modern Jackson landscapes) are adequate. A plethora of photos and illustrations are present, as are orders of battle for both sides. Aside from leaving behind some earthwork remnants, modern Jackson's expansive development has nearly erased all signs of battle and siege. Nevertheless, the book does manage to assemble seventeen historical "points of interest," complete with text description, photo, and street location, to tempt visitors who might otherwise believe there is little left to see.

Not intended to be a tactical micro-history on the level of recent Vicksburg Campaign studies produced by military historians Timothy Smith and Earl Hess, Mackowski's book nonetheless provides a solid overview of the battle that properly contextualizes the event as a major crossroads moment in the campaign. With few copies of the Bearss-Grabau classic floating around in the secondary market, in Jim Woodrick's The Civil War Siege of Jackson, Mississippi (2016) and now Chris Mackowski's The Battle of Jackson, Mississippi, May 14, 1863 readers finally have ready access to quality standalone works exploring both major phases of the city's defining role in the Vicksburg Campaign.

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