Sunday, January 3, 2010

Just finished reading - Vicksburg is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River by William L. Shea & Terrence J. Winschel

In the fall of 2007 I had the pleasure of visiting Vicksburg, Mississippi for the first time. On the trip I served as tour manager for a group of members from the museum I worked for at the time. We had a great visit in part because our tour guide was one of the co-authors of this book. Terrence "Terry" Winschel probably knows more about the Vicksburg campaign than anyone on the face of the earth (except for possibly Ed Bearss). He is currently a historian at Vicksburg National Military Park. During this trip we went to numerous areas associated with the campaign that I had certainly heard of, but knew little about. Terry's presentations and explanations made what was previously a confusing story for me come together clearly.

In my reading on the Civil War I have spent most of my time looking at the battles of the western theater in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia and have almost totally ignored Vicksburg. While on the trip there I found out just how much interesting history I had been missing.

The campaign to capture Vicksburg is considered by most historians as being the longest and most complex of the war. It involved just about every facet of warfare available at the time. There were river naval battles, cavalry raids, pitched land battles, and a long true siege. In what would become recognized by many as General Ulysses S. Grant's most impressive campaign of the war, it also proved to be a significant blow to the Confederacy's chance of winning the conflict.

This relatively brief (211 pages of main text) examination of the campaign serves as a great overview. The book naturally focuses on the military actions of the campaign, so if you are looking for a thorough discussion of how civilians experienced the siege, it might be best to look somewhere else. But, if you want to know more about the campaign without too much minutia to bog it down, but enough detail to keep it interesting, this is the book for you.

An especially interesting incident happened during the campaign's siege. Almost everyone has heard of the Battle of the Crater during the Petersburg campaign, but during Vicksburg the Union forces also incorporated a tunnel and its explosion in their strategy. At one of the Confederate redans that had proved especially difficult to assault, a mine was dug and exploded. The Confederates knew of the project and were attempting to find the tunnel by counter mining with slave labor, but were unsuccessful. When the mine blew it killed seven of the slaves working on it, but one slave was blown into the air and landed behind the Union lines. When asked how high he thought he went during the explosion he guessed about "three mile." The former slave became somewhat of a celebrity when Union soldiers set him up in a tent and charged comrades to see the miraculous survivor.

The Vicksburg campaign was marked with successes and failures on both sides. Sherman's blunder at Chickasaw Bayou and the unsuccessful attempt to construct a canal that would bypass Vicksburg serve as two examples of the Union's greatest missteps. Lack of Confederate coordination and cooperation, the defeat at Champion Hill, and the official surrender on July 4th were probably the biggest Confederate mistakes. Confederate General Pemberton (a former Pennsylvanian that had married a Virginia woman) surrendered on July 4th because he thought if that day was chosen he was more likely to get the terms he wanted; which was parole for his men, instead of being transferred to prison camps. He received his wish and his men were paroled, but I am not sure that surrendering on the 4th was the reason why. It probably had more to do with not wanting to transport and feed the surrendered troops.

The defeat of Lee's army at Gettysburg on July 3rd was bad enough for Southern morale, but with the loss of Vicksburg and the surrender of Port Hudson (further south on the Mississippi River) on July 9th, things looked bleak of the Confederacy in the summer of 1863. Now that the South has been split in two and the "Father of Waters" was open for Northern commerce and travel, the Confederacy's days seemed limited; and indeed they were.

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