Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review--The Vicksburg Campaign March 29-May 18, 1863

Woodworth, Steven E. and Charles D. Grear, series editors. The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863 (Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 2013. Index, end notes, 9 maps, b/w photos. 239 total pages, 228 pages of text. ISBN 9780809332694, $32.50.

Here in the first of a planned five volume series of essays editors Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear have gathered a strong, interesting, and for the most part easily read series of pieces. For somebody, such as myself, who has read more on the eastern theater of the war this is a breath of fresh air. I am already eagerly awaiting the second volume and in the mean time will have to search for some of the standard works such as those by Edwin Bearss and Michael Ballard.

Eleven chapters are included in this volume: Gary Joiner writes about the relationship of Ulysses S. Grant and naval commander David Dixon Porter, Charles Grear covers Grierson's cavalry raid, Jason Frawley tells the story of Grant's march along the western side of the Mississippi River and the Battle of Port Gibson, J. Parker Hills covers the May 12 Battle of Raymond, lead editor Steven E. Woodworth tells the story of the battle and first Union occupation of the capital of Mississippi, Jackson, John Lundenberg gives a stinging critique of Joseph Johnston, noted Vicksburg scholar Michael Ballard discusses the relationship of Grant with John McClernand, William B. Feis delves into the subject of intelligence and what did Grant know and how did he obtain that knowledge, Timothy B. Smith (the western theater scholar not the Gettysburg scholar) tells of the Union rout of Confederate forces at Big Black River Bridge, Steven Nathaniel Dossmon tells the story of "hard war" and the interaction of Union troops with locals and the volume wraps up with Paul L. Schmelzer discussing Grant's action at Vicksburg with an eye toward Carl von Clausewitz.

For me the low-light of the book was the closing chapter by Schmelzer. For me it just didn't add anything and I really found myself not caring. As with any anthology like this there will be some writers who grab you more than others and that is certainly the case here. For me however learning as much as I did from this volume pretty well negated my concern about writing styles.

One of the chapters I found most interesting was John Lundenberg and his highly negative view of Joe Johnston. Having read this it seems hard to imagine his being in such a high command position. Any general that would so casually throw a subordinate general and his troops to the wolves as Johnston is said to have done to John Pemberton at Jackson and Champion Hill is not worth his stars.

I also enjoyed Steven Nathaniel Dossmon's story of Grant ordering what is called a "hard war", or having his troops live off the land. In this case it went further than that and it led to all out looting and destruction of much of central Mississippi. This area would no longer be able to supply food, clothing, and other needed items to Confederate troops. Dossman states: "...few other decisions would have a greater impact on the war-making methods employed and the eventual outcome of the conflict." I would add however that total war, making war on citizens and non military areas (the argument would certainly be valid that burning Jackson, a large producer of items for the Confederate war effort, could be called a necessity) leads to a lasting hatred and mistrust of the invader. When soldiers are given carte-blanche to do as they please there are lasting effects that rightly or wrongly do not go away easily. There can be little doubt that Grant's living off the land deflated morale of those in Mississippi and helped keep his troops fed and clothed.

One interesting item I did note while reviewing the Contributors list was that editor Woodworth is a professor at Texas Christian University. Of the eleven contributors six have ties to TCU. I imagine this is due to Dr. Woodworth being familiar with these scholars. They all seemed to have solid credentials and publishing histories so this isn't a knock more just an observation.

Most chapters are around twenty pages so they can easily be read in a single sitting. Many of the chapters include a map which is a must in a book like this. I would have liked to see the maps all be full page however. There are not so many included that this would have added much to the page count. In addition, not all maps list a scale so it is difficult to determine the size of area being displayed or that troops marched.

These are really minor complaints in what is an excellent guide to the start of the Vicksburg campaign. As I said I am looking forward to what Woodworth and Grear put together for future volumes in the series. For those without an in-depth knowledge of the Vicksburg campaign this is highly recommended. If you have read widely on the subject there may not be a lot new for you but I still think it is worth checking out. The individual topics may provide you with new insights.

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

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