Monday, December 4, 2023

Review - "Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863 " by Timothy Smith

[Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863 by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2023). Hardcover, 20 maps, photos, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxiii,394/549. ISBN:978-0-7006-3566-5. $49.95]

Celebrated western theater Civil War historian Timothy Smith's extraordinary Vicksburg Campaign series is conventional in terms of having a chronologically arranged narrative structure; however, its release sequence has been anything but conventional. Published by a different press and not officially part of this series are two excellent full-length studies from Smith that cover events intimately tied to the campaign. Both Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg (2004) and The Real Horse Soldiers: Benjamin Grierson’s Epic 1863 Civil War Raid Through Mississippi (2018) are still the best the field has to offer on those topics. Smith's ongoing University Press of Kansas series began where Champion Hill left off and after the Battle of Big Black River Bridge with 2020's The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863. That one was immediately followed, naturally enough, by The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863 (2021). Sticking to a furious pace of one series installment per year, Smith then backtracked to the very beginning of the campaign with Early Struggles for Vicksburg: The Mississippi Central Campaign and Chickasaw Bayou, October 25-December 31, 1862 (2022). Now, in 2023, we have Smith's Bayou Battles for Vicksburg: The Swamp and River Expeditions, January 1 - April 30, 1863. The fifth and final piece of the puzzle, The Inland Campaign for Vicksburg: Five Battles in Seventeen Days, May 1-17, 1863, is scheduled for release in early 2024.

Beginning after the semi-disastrous outcome (from the Union perspective) of the Chickasaw Bayou and Mississippi overland approaches to Vicksburg, Bayou Battles for Vicksburg's narrative encompasses a four-month interval that witnessed the federal army and navy triumph at Arkansas Post along with a series of more disappointing ventures, including the Vicksburg Canal, the Yazoo Pass Expedition, Steele's Bayou, and the Lake Providence bypass route. The months of stalemate finally ended with the navy's running of the Vicksburg batteries, the right-bank march of Grant's army to a point well south of Vicksburg, the inconclusive bombardment of Grand Gulf, and the long-awaited crossing of the mighty Mississippi in force. All of the above events were covered at some depth in the pages of legendary historian Edwin C. Bearss's classic Vicksburg Campaign trilogy, but Smith's new study, which benefits from a far more expansive primary source research base along with a richer secondary literature, is the first standalone study of an up and down period of the campaign that ultimately concluded in a major turning point.

The battle for Arkansas Post has never received a book-length treatment of its own, but it has been recounted reasonably well in the aforementioned Bearss trilogy and, most recently, was the subject of some insightful and creative analysis inside Eric Michael Burke's 2022 unit history Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863. Smith's text provides another solid recounting of how the combined Union army and naval forces under the overall direction of ambitious political general John C. McClernand defeated and captured an overmatched but scrappy group of fort defenders. Though the Confederates were able to stymie the initial round of infantry assaults made against their entrenched positions, the scales of victory decisively turned in favor of Union forces when white flags surprisingly appeared in the middle of the Confederate line and quickly spread. Like all previous investigators, Smith was not able to uncover the originator of the unauthorized surrender action that rendered continuation of the battle impossible. The victory, complete as it was and with a large prisoner haul, was nevertheless sharply criticized by Grant as being an unwanted diversion from the main theater effort against Vicksburg, though his anger quickly cooled upon being informed that Sherman was the primary idea man behind the operation. As a supplement to this part of the book, orders of battle for both sides are included in the appendix section.

Arkansas Post indeed served as a momentary morale boost that removed a threat to Grant's river-borne logistics and supply network, but it still left the army in an uncomfortable position camped amidst the swamps, bayous, and ox-bows populating the low ground across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. Instead of returning to Memphis and beginning anew, a Sherman-preferred redirection that Grant deemed politically and personally unacceptable (the public, press, and government would see any retrograde as a clear defeat), Grant and his advisors instead conceived a series of operations aimed at bypassing the Vicksburg guns in some manner and finding a safe place above or below the Hill City for a river crossing. All of these canal digging and army-navy riverine/bayou explorations ultimately failed. Critics, especially without the benefit of hindsight, might be forgiven for interpreting the period as three months of floundering, but Grant's more numerous admirers have come to deem them creative "experiments." Grant later justified the actions of those three months as primarily aimed toward keeping the troops active (regular and purposeful exercise being deemed physically and psychologically beneficial to the men's health) and giving them something to do until the seasonal high water receded enough for the region's roads to become usable again. As the research of Smith and others have revealed, however, Grant's attitude toward those experiments at the time was clearly more confident and hopeful as to their possible results. That said, Smith also does point to documented evidence from the early months in the year indicating that Grant at that time already favored the southern approach that he and his army would eventually take. Smith sees Grant's series of projects as low-risk ventures that consumed comparatively few resources and held reasonable potential (though he does concede that Steele's Bayou was a near disaster for the naval forces assigned to it). While Burke's aforementioned Fifteenth Corps study revealed very heavy non-combat losses suffered by Sherman's command over the extended period covered in Smith's study, far more than would have occurred had the corps been camped upon higher and drier ground, disease isn't a significant part of the book's cost versus benefit analysis of Grant's bayou operations. Smith's descriptions of the militarily relevant topography of the massive Yazoo Delta and the expanse of levee-enclosed low ground opposite Vicksburg are excellent, and his detailed recounting of canal digging and inland waterway operations in those areas is the best of any collective discussion of those events. Smith's explanations of the difficulties and range of possible results involved in those operations along with why each effort failed are similarly insightful.

As April came and flood waters receded enough for resumption of large-scale ground movements, Grant finally settled upon the essentially irreversible decision to march down the Louisiana bank of the Mississippi and ferry his army across the river. It was clear to all involved that once Admiral Porter ran his vessels past the Vicksburg defenses they could no longer return upriver to their former posts. It has often been curious to some, historians and enthusiasts alike, why Grant chose McClernand, his least trusted corps commander, to lead this intricate and critically important forward movement. The simplest explanation is that his divisions were best positioned for the task and he was enthusiastic about the plan while both McPherson's and Sherman's units were more scattered across the landscape. The author doesn't take much stock in the suggestion that Sherman's placement last in the marching line might have been related to his being the new campaign plan's principal doubter, favoring instead the idea that Grant needed someone he could entirely trust to lead the independent diversion up the Yazoo that was a major part of the overall operation. Plus, like McClernand's units, Sherman's men were best positioned for the task set before them. Just as important, Grant would also be present to personally oversee McClernand's leading movement, lessening any potential danger. Regardless of the whys, Grant quickly found reason to become irked with McClernand, who failed to properly dispose of his sick during the march, botched ration distribution, and was held chiefly responsible for the confusion and delays that attended the river crossing. Given the novelty and unprecedented scale of the cross-river passage, McClernand might reasonably be forgiven the last, but the other complaints reinforced common criticisms among professional officers that the general did not devote proper attention to the care of his men. Regardless, the landings were completely successful and McClernand's command pressed inland and seized the vital high ground before the Confederates could react. It was a significant triumph that inaugurated a new stage in the campaign. Twenty in number, map coverage of the movements and battles referenced earlier is comprehensive and in terms of detail level offered spare yet serviceable.

Though the Union perspective mostly dominates the narrative, the book does address well the Confederate high command's internal and external challenges along with its decision-making failures. In the previous volume, Smith raised the issue of a consequential weakness in Confederate commander John C. Pemberton's generalship, mostly hidden in the twin successes of the Chickasaw Bayou and Mississippi Central operations. However, at this stage of the campaign that nascent flaw in military cognition and decision processing achieved full flight. When given time, Pemberton directed military movements and concentrations very effectively, but when the tempo of enemy operations increased the decisiveness and competency of his decisions correspondingly fell. That's certainly not a limitation found only in Pemberton, but it would prove fatal to Confederate hopes of holding Vicksburg from April 1863 onward. The known southward march of a large number of Union troops down the Louisiana side of the river beginning in mid-April, the April 16-17 passage past Vicksburg of a large proportion of Porter's fleet, and the bombardment of Grand Gulf on April 29 were events that Pemberton, still headquartered in Jackson, was aware of, but he allowed his attention to be utterly consumed by the diversionary cavalry raid led by Col. Benjamin Grierson through the heart of Mississippi. Through his examination of sources related to Pemberton's daily activities, Smith identifies a critical period (between April 24 and April 28) during which Pemberton micro-managed the response to Grierson's incursion and devoted far less than needed attention to Grant's activities across the river and below Vicksburg. In the process, Pemberton stripped the river defenses of their already inadequate cavalry screen in the effort to waylay Grierson and, in terms of coordinating a response on the Mississippi River front, generally took his eye off of what Grant's main body was doing before and during the April 30 crossing, which was completely unopposed. Confederate reinforcements directed toward Grant's spearhead were too late in arriving and too few to make a difference.

Smith also heavily criticizes Pemberton's immediate superior, General Joseph E. Johnston. Ever the pessimist, Johnston did not feel that his western theater command could adequately defend the Mississippi Valley and Tennessee fronts at the same time, and sought advice from Richmond as to which was deemed most important by the government. Though President Davis refused to come down decisively on the matter of which front, if it truly came down to it, might be sacrificed for the other, Johnston prioritized his attention toward Tennessee. In the process, he stripped Pemberton's command of most of its mounted forces, leaving the Mississippi commander without adequate eyes and ears along the state's northern border as well as its long Mississippi River shore line. Pemberton's numerous complaints about being left blind and immobile largely fell upon deaf ears, and the lack of cavalry was dearly felt during the confused responses to Grierson's Raid and Grant's April movements.

Bayou Battles for Vicksburg ends with the impending clash at Port Gibson, and for that we must await publication of the next volume in the series. Smith is persuasive in observing that this four-month period is well worth standalone study as strong evidence of Grant's increasing willingness to take calculated risks using decidedly unconventional approaches that could leave his army without secure lines of communication in the traditional sense. It's a matter of opinion, but the failed canal projects and bayou expeditions of January through March might also be viewed as options that had to be explored before the far riskier kinds of decisions made in April, when a truly momentous campaign inflection point occurred, could be countenanced.

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