Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book Review--Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege

Ballard, Michael B. Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege. Southern Illinois University Press. 196 pages, 172 pages text, Index, notes, bibliographic note, maps, b/w photos. ISBN 9780809332403, $32.95.

For those of us not overly familiar with the siege at Vicksburg there really doesn't seem to be some of the standards such as there are with its time partner the Battle of Gettysburg. For the later most will refer a reader to Coddington, or Sears, or Trudeau or maybe John Hoptak's new book. For Vicksburg however: where to begin. I would have to say that Michael Ballard's Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege is not a bad place to start. It isn't loaded down with detail so the reader doesn't get lost but it also is not watered down to where you feel you are reading a book for teens. There is more than enough here to whet the appetite to learn more!

Ballard starts with a brief outline of the two separate attacks on the city that happened in May, 1863. The Confederates might have had 33,000 men available but Grant countered with 35,000 plus the potential for reinforcements. The Confederates held the better fighting positions as is shown by the map outlining the Redoubts and Redans surrounding Vicksburg. What the Confederates did not have however was an escape plan and an executable plan to restock provisions. Grants effective use of David Dixon Porter and the Union navy helped assure the longer term success of the siege strategy.

Overall Ballard does an effective job of balancing biography and history. He paints an overall interesting portrait of Grant. Ballard spends considerable length dismantling the long held story told by Sylvanus Cadwallader about Grant's drunken time on the Yazoo River. He also takes authors to task for not having done proper research on this subject.

Grant's leadership is shown from two different sides. In race relations he is shown as generally strong requiring equal discipline for black and white soldiers. While yes Grant did separate black and white regiments and often used contraband labor for digging we have to remember the time he lived in. Freedom did not mean equality. While strong here, Grant is seen as somewhat a "nervous Nellie" when it came to Joseph Johnston. He is shown as having a constant concern about Johnston and where he might strike and the number of troops he had. In the end Johnston is a non-factor that appears to have not had any intention of becoming involved in the siege or in helping Pemberton and his men.

John McClernand plays an important role during the siege and the interplay between he and Grant is important. Ultimately, despite not being kept completely up to date, McClernand is held responsible by Grant for many of the losses before the siege and is replaced by a General who does not seem completely up to the task at hand; E. O. C. Ord. Ord is at times portrayed as almost a comical thorn in Grant's side.

The siege is ended through the digging of mine trenches to damage the main Confederate redan. Once breached a second time Confederate General John Pemberton had little choice to but propose an armistice and negotiate surrender terms. The terms were generous to the men from the south with officers being allowed to take their side gun, clothing, Field Staff and Cavalry officers were allowed to take a horse, enlisted men were only allowed their clothing. The men were paroled, meaning they were not to return to battle until officially exchanged for Union prisoners. While controversial this relieved Grant of having to feed, shelter, and transport large numbers of Confederates. This freed him and his troops to be sent elsewhere.

According to Ballard Grant leaves Vicksburg a changed man and he concludes his work discussing the ways in which Grant has grown and improved as a general from this campaign. These traits would lead to his becoming commanding general of all armies and then later the president.

This is a short book with less than 200 pages of text. It reads quickly and Ballard is a good writer. The book could have been improved by including a formal bibliography rather than just a bibliographic note. There are complete end notes however for those wishing to validate any of the author's statements. I found myself often having to flip back to the main map located at the start of the book so I would have liked to see a few more maps to help keep me oriented. While maybe not agreeing with all the scholarship that has come before, Ballard has written a book that should be read by anybody with an interest in what happened in the west in July, 1863.

Thank you to Southern Illinois University Press for sending a complimentary review copy.

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