The Siege Of Vicksburg: The Seven-Month Battle That Sealed The Confederacy’s Fate, by Richard Wheeler
What makes this book remarkable is just how unobtrusive the historian is in the account of the Vicksburg campaign. A large majority of the time, when one reads a historical account, one is getting an account that may be based to some extent on primary documentation but is largely filtered through the thinking processes of the author himself. In this case, though, the vast majority of the actual writing in this book comes from a wide variety of primary sources on both sides. The historian’s role is present here, selecting from among sources, framing them, and the like, but the role is more subtle than is generally the case in such accounts. If one is reading the thinking of the historian about this vitally important campaign, and one is, one is reading that thinking in a nuanced form through the writing of people who were around at the time, and the author’s thinking is directly expressed only in the introduction that we receive to these sources, which is in general done with a light touch. And as a reader who has seen a lot of heavy-handed historical writing, I definitely appreciate that light touch.
This book is almost 250 pages long. It begins with a preface and prologue where the author frames the subject of the Vicksburg campaign and ends with an epilogue that discusses the long refusal of Vicksburg to celebrate the 4th of July after the horrors of their siege as well as the postwar lives of the various writers included in the volume. In between there are ten chapters that discuss various aspects of the campaign. We begin with a look at Grant’s army just before it sought to begin the dramatic end of the campaign from the point of view of a Union matron (1). The author discusses the naval efforts against Vicksburg that began shortly after the seizure of New Orleans (2) and that were ended for a time thanks to the efforts of the CSS Arkansas (3). This leads to a discussion of Chickasaw Bayou and why that effort against the city failed when Grant had to retreat when his supply line was attacked (4). This leads to a look at Grant gathering the naval forces he would need along the river to cross to the other side (5) and the attacks of Grant’s forces towards Jackson (6). After this there is a look at Grant’s successful attacks on Pemberton that forced the Pennsylvania-born rebel commander into the city itself (7) which was put under siege (8). The siege is discussed in grim detail before Grant’s victory through starvation is detailed (10), showing Grant’s mastery of the logistical strategy of war.
There are a wide variety of sources and incidents included that connect with the Vicksburg Campaign. Surprisingly little is said, for example, about the efforts that Grant made to avoid the city through digging canals. Yet on the positive side the book has a lot to say from the point of view of the people of the city itself who suffered under the siege conditions for a couple of months. We even get the point of view of blacks, although it is not through their own writings but rather through the accounts told of them by soldiers and sailors, who the author frames as being sometimes racist (certainly by our own contemporary standards), and who often speak in a familiar dialect and frequently show a great deal of wit and intellect themselves, as happens when a slave is launched by the explosion of a mine from the Confederate lines where he served as a body servant to the Union lines, noting wittily that he had been blown from the Confederacy all the way to the Union. By and large this book is full of good sources and as a result it is a book that is easy to recommend for those who want to know more about Vicksburg. Although I am not familiar with the author’s work as as whole, if it is like this it is definitely well worth checking out.