Vicksburg 1863, by Winston Groom
It is strange to think that the author of Forrest Gump as being a Civil War historian, but that is the case. This is in many ways a mixed bag. The author has a strong sense of the narrative, and that is something that is conveyed here, especially the author’s fondness for discussing the civilians of Vicksburg and the surrounding area and their experience of the dramatic and lengthy and portentous Vicksburg campaign. This strength certainly makes the book an interesting and worthwhile one. That is not to say that this book is perfect as history. Indeed, as a history there are definitely some aspects that are lacking, unfortunately. In particular, the author seems to have a difficult time grasping the overall narrative of the Civil War and in particular the geographical aspect of it. A previous reader of the copy of the book I read noted this by correcting nearly all of the direction markers in the book because the author had trouble properly marking things on the map when it came to orienting himself, and thought that Lincoln called Grant east after Vicksburg while neglecting the Chattanooga campaign. These are mistakes that a seasoned historian of the Civil War who has a deep knowledge of its geography and chronology would simply not make but a popular novelist who wrote occasionally about the Civil War would and does make here.
This book is a bit more than 450 pages long and twenty chapters long divided into three parts. The book begins with a preface, introduction, note on military organization, weapons, and tactics, and maps. After that the first part looks at the movement of the war south, setting the stage for the Vicksburg campaign (I), with chapters on the opening of the war (1), the early war experiences of Sherman (2) and Grant (3), the efforts of Confederate generals to do the best they can (4), the squeezing of the Anaconda (5), the refusal of Vicksburg citizens to surrender (6), and the information about the war that was known by the public (7). After that the author discusses the vicissitudes of Grant’s early efforts against Vicksburg (II), which features chapters on the various failed efforts to storm Vicksburg or to bypass it with canals. Finally, the last third of the book consists of a discussion of the siege and surrender and aftermath of the Vicksburg campaign (III), after which there are acknowledgements and source notes as well as an index.
Still, even though this book is by no means perfect does not mean that it is not without its charms. So long as the reader comes to this book with a firm knowledge of the Civil War and how it went, this sort of book can provide a service by making the history more humane and more gracious. All too often military history is not the sort of place where people explore how the ordinary person experiences war, and the author here has enough familiarity with the civilian sources of the Civil War that are relevant to the campaign to add a lot of human interest to his account. That is of value, if not necessarily the most obvious value that one gets from popular narrative histories of war. The author also manages to step into some dangerous territory in writing about Grant and his drunken benders during the campaign and not everyone will be pleased to see that particular human interest angle, although the author does deal with it somewhat gracefully after a fashion. This is a book that seeks to create a Civil War story that shows the importance of Vicksburg and the suffering that was involved in its siege and fall and that makes it worth reading if this is your sort of thing.