by Winston Groom, Alfred A. Knopf
Winston Groom is a first-rate spinner of yarns, and like the tales of his most famous fictional character, Forrest Gump, his accounts seamlessly transport readers into the story. Vicksburg 1863 is Groom’s second foray into Civil War history, and though he uncovers no new material in chronicling the lengthy campaign that ended with the fall of this critical Mississippi River stronghold city in July 1863—all but tolling the death knell for the Confederacy— he more than substantiates his contention that the campaign “was a hard and bloody road, rife with tenacity and indecisions, brilliance and stupidity, valor and arrogance, suffering and elation, victory and defeat.”
In true yarn-spinner fashion, Groom takes his time getting to the heart of the matter. Before he even turns to Vicksburg, in fact, he provides intriguing anecdotes about the respective Union and Confederate strategies for waging the war in the West, Ulysses Grant’s February 1862 campaign against Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee, the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh, and the history of the city of New Orleans and its capitulation to David Farragut’s Union flotilla the same month. Indeed, it is hard to think of a historical sidebar about the war’s Western theater on which Groom doesn’t wax eloquent in this book.
Likewise, Groom is at no loss for words when describing the region’s captains of war, both blue and gray. Commenting on Grant’s failed careers before the war, Groom reminds the reader that the legendary general once owned a slave of his own, was personally tolerant of slavery and was probably a closet moderate since, fearing Southern secession and certain civil war, he didn’t vote for Lincoln in 1860.
Groom also opines that Jefferson Davis can reasonably be considered a reluctant secessionist because he ardently counseled against growing sectional differences while a member of Congress. Grooms asserts that throughout Davis’ Senate career, the future Confederate president warned of “the dire consequences likely to result from the sectionalism that seemed to be growing exponentially between North and South.” Davis emerges as a failed compromiser over the issue of slavery, and Groom contends that “he labored tirelessly to formulate logical arguments against abolitionism, some of them a stretch even for his usually rational mind.”
It should be pointed out that Groom, an Alabama native, is more objective when he evaluates Davis as a war leader, but there is always the lingering aura of the tragic hero in his portrait of the Confederate helmsman.
Groom’s flair for language and his proud Southern roots show clearly in his description of Vicksburg on the eve of war: “Until the war came Vicksburg and its genteel environs were like a land in a storybook. Passengers aboard steamboats plying the Mississippi could look with awe and envy upon broad lawns and green pastures surrounding the elegant mansions that lined both sides of the river.”
This is not to imply that Groom has imbibed too many mint juleps to be taken seriously. On the contrary, once he gets to the Vicksburg Campaign proper, his command of poignant historical details combined with a sound understanding of military tactics makes for an engaging read.
Of course, those who like their military history with fewer meanders than Old Man River himself might do well to consider Michael B. Ballard’s straightforward one-volume account of Vicksburg, or Terry Winschel’s two excellent volumes of related essays. But if you’re the type who loves to tramp around the Mississippi bottomlands and paddle up its silt-laden bayous, you will be hard-pressed to find a more personable companion than Winston Groom, the consummate yarn-spinner.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.