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Book Review: Grant Wins the War: Decision at Vicksburg (by James R. Arnold)

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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Grant Wins the War: Decision at Vicksburg, by James R. Arnold, John Wiley and Sons, New York, (212) 850-6000, 398 pages, $30.

When General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck congratulated Major General Ulysses S. Grant on capturing Vicksburg, he rejoiced that in "boldness of plan, rapidity of execution, and brilliancy of results, these operations will compare most favorably with those of Napoleon about Ulm." Halleck made an apt comparison, for Napoleon had maneuvered to the rear of an Austrian army before it could gain reinforcement by a Russian force, then besieged it at Ulm, forcing the Austrians to surrender while the Russians remained 100 miles away.

At the time Vicksburg surrendered after forty-seven days under siege, General Joseph E. Johnston commanded a sizable army in Mississippi. Vicksburg's commander, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, had waited vainly for relief from Johnston, who became Grant's next target. In his new book, Grant Wins the War: Decision at Vicksburg, James R. Arnold, a prolific writer of military history whose previous publications include a study of Napoleon's defeat of Austria, joins Halleck in marveling at Grant's military masterpiece.

Only two Civil War campaigns, in Arnold's opinion, deserve comparison to those of Napoleon: the Shenandoah Valley campaign of "Stonewall" Jackson and Grant's Vicksburg Campaign. Both Jackson and Grant believed that by pushing men on strenuous marches, they could place their armies between opponents who might be defeated one after the other. Both campaigns achieved prodigious results with relatively few casualties. Arnold compares Grant to Napoleon in a number of areas: careful logistical preparation, maximum use of troops, capitalizing on weakness and indecision in foes, and flexibility in reaching goals. Arnold applauds the Napoleonic audacity of Grant's strategic improvisation–Grant drove toward Jackson, Mississippi, rather than Vicksburg in May 1863–and finds a parallel to Napoleon's high point at Austerlitz in the Battle of Champion Hill.

Arnold's weakness rests less in such Napoleonic parallels than in their paucity. Although he possesses an enviable knowledge of two centuries of warfare, Arnold sets out essentially to narrate the Vicksburg Campaign as if it required retelling, believing that the Battle of Gettysburg forever eclipsed Grant's achievement in Mississippi. In doing so, Arnold combines a traditional string of quotations–from privates through general officers–with thoughtful asides. His narrative emphasizes the decisive role of the Battle of Champion Hill, which ultimately divided Pemberton's force from Johnston's, as ensuring the capitulation of Vicksburg.

Arnold's first chapter summarizes the achievement of the Union navy in taking control of Western waters. Though Arnold admires Confederate efforts to create a freshwater force, he notes, nonetheless, the significance of Union control of the rivers. Federal attention focused on Vicksburg, terminus of the last remaining railroad connecting the Mississippi River with the Confederate east. Sharing the belief that the fate of Vicksburg controlled Confederate fortunes, President Jefferson Davis sent John C. Pemberton to command this vital citadel.

Could Davis have made a worse choice? Pemberton, who came from a Philadelphia Quaker family, broke his mother's heart when he joined the army–especially because it was the Confederate army. Confederates tended to view this Quaker convert of Northern origin with suspicion, forcing him to demonstrate Confederate loyalty. And his aloofness and inability to work effectively with subordinates had already caused considerable tension in the Rebel command. Pemberton recognized the wisdom of Johnston's advice that remaining in the city would surely cost him both the town and his army and that withdrawing would permit his troops to fight elsewhere. He feared, however, that to disregard Davis's orders to hold Vicksburg would expose him to charges of disloyalty. So Pemberton clung to Vicksburg, praying for relief from Johnston.

Johnston had assembled enough troops to challenge Union siege lines, and, in fact, only one month before Vicksburg would surrender, Confederate troops in Mississippi still outnumbered the Union troops. Even so, Johnston failed to move, despite Davis's sound judgment that time would more likely increase odds in favor of Grant. But who could blame Johnston when Pemberton declined to advance to join forces? So the siege progressed to its foregone conclusion–Pemberton's inevitable surrender followed by the equally inevitable rumors of his duplicity.

Recognizing the degree of Confederate involvement in the loss of Vicksburg does not eliminate Arnold's admiration for Grant. After all, Grant's brilliant campaign in May set the stage for the Fourth of July capitulation. Like Jackson had done in his Valley Campaign, so did Grant in his Vicksburg Campaign–great generals discredit their opponents.

Grant is the hero of Arnold's account. Arnold comments on his mastery of strategy and tactics, as well as his composure, flexibility, and cool self-assurance. Of all commanders on the field at Vicksburg, Grant possessed the greatest skill in maintaining analytical clarity. For little discernible reason, though, Arnold deplores Grant's removing from command "that distinguished patriot" Major General John A. McClernand, who, had he "possessed more self-control," might have become one of the "real heroes" of the Civil War. Yet, Arnold had already noted some of McClernand's failures in the field and his attempts to enhance his political and military career at the expense of fellow commanders and even Grant himself. Perhaps Arnold meant that McClernand would have been well advised to disguise the fact that he always kept an eye on Washington while keeping the other on the enemy confronting him. Many in Union command deserved the title of "distinguished patriot" more than McClernand. Like Grant, they placed military success before political goals.

The book jacket promises "fascinating reading for all Civil War and military history buffs." The book delivers this, yet some readers might want more. Although able to harvest contemporary opinions of officers and men, both Union and Confederate, Arnold occasionally reaches for the questionable anecdote provided by such unreliable sources as reminiscent accounts written too long after the battle or by such fabulists as David D. Porter in Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (1886) and James Harrison Wilson in Under the Old Flag (1912).

Like Jackson's Valley campaign, Grant's conquest of Vicksburg has a dazzling and breathtaking quality that will reward both those unfamiliar with its display of skill and those who know it well but can still thrill to some of its previously unnoticed nuances. Arnold writes for both audiences.

John Y. Simon
Southern Illinois University–Carbondale

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