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Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi (Book Review)

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Mike Oppenheim
By Michael B. Ballard
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2004

Popular writers tell us the Confederacy successfully fought off the Union until July 1863. Then came Vicksburg and Gettysburg, after which defeat became inevitable. Meant to satisfy both sides, this traditional view pays too much attention to the stalemate in the East. Elsewhere, the Confederate retreat began in 1861 and scarcely paused. Mississippi historian Michael B. Ballard is not likely to change anyone's mind, but his Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi is a thorough, well-researched account of the Vicksburg campaign, the climax of the Union victories in the West.

It began before Bull Run, in May 1861, with the arrival of the first Union warship to blockade the mouth of the Mississippi. Others gradually arrived, but a year passed before a massive force under Admiral David Farragut moved upriver toward New Orleans. Everyone expected a hard fight, but the city was poorly defended, falling easily in April 1862. Common sense (a terrible source of military intelligence) suggested cities upriver would yield as quickly. This proved true for Baton Rouge and Natchez, but Vicksburg, perched on a high bluff, refused to surrender in May despite a naval bombardment. A larger bombardment in June also failed.
Farragut proposed a land attack, but local army leaders insisted Union forces were inadequate. Ballard is not certain they were right, pointing out that Vicksburg's land defenses then were weak. That was not the case in 1863.

Farragut could expect no help from General Henry Halleck in northern Mississippi. Halleck, who had replaced Ulysses S. Grant after Shiloh, seemed to have as his objective avoiding another bloodbath by remaining immobile. In July Lincoln summoned Grant to Washington. Grant regained his command, but he was not the aggressive leader he had been earlier. For months he remained curiously idle except for repeatedly requesting reinforcements. Historians theorize Grant's self-confidence had not recovered since he lost his authority to Halleck.

Pulling himself together in November, Grant ordered his army south from Corinth, in northeast Mississippi. The route ran through country with terrible roads, a fragile rail line and many swamps and rivers swollen by heavy rain. His slow progress halted in December, when Earl Van Dorn's historic raid destroyed the depot at Holly Springs, convincing Grant that supplying a 60,000-man army over the 200 miles from Corinth to Vicksburg was impossible.

He tried a northern approach. Swamps and rivers blocked his path, but Grant set his engineers to work dynamiting levees and clearing obstructions. In February 1863, warships with troops began squeezing their way toward Vicksburg but in numbers too small to overcome the defenses.

In April Grant gave this up and decided to move south of Vicksburg, where the shore offered a land route to the interior. His memoirs claim the idea came in 1862, but Ballard suggests this is hindsight. Certainly his initial moves suggest he was improvising. Bypassing Vicksburg by marching down the west bank, Grant first planned to overpower Grand Gulf, an outpost 40 miles to the south. Finding it well defended, he continued another 20 miles.

On April 30, transports began ferrying troops. After two days, with 20,000 men across, the army marched east, won several battles and reached the interior within a week, its numbers growing as more troops crossed. By mid-May, Grant still had no fixed aim beyond capturing Vicksburg. He decided to attack the state capital, Jackson, to secure his rear (which, in retrospect, was not threatened). That accomplished, he turned back, marching 60 miles to Vicksburg in five days with two pauses to crush opposing forces. A five-week siege followed. The rest is history–or at least popular history.

Everyone considered Vicksburg's fall a devastating blow. Ballard does not disagree but feels the blow was largely symbolic. Many histories assert the capture deprived eastern Confederate states of western cattle and grain. Examining the evidence, Ballard reveals that food supplies in the West mostly stayed in the West. There never was a massive transfer. He adds that the much-vaunted railroad through Vicksburg was a ramshackle affair with no direct connection to the East Coast. It was not an essential supply route.

After this revisionist jolt, Ballard makes no waves in evaluating poor Lt. Gen. John Pemberton, Confederate commander at Vicksburg. A general without charisma, he was unpopular at the time, and few historians have tried to restore his reputation. Yet no one suggests how a commander, outnumbered 2-or 3-to-1, could have beaten Grant. A vicious scorched-earth policy would have caused trouble, but no one wanted that. His superior in Jackson, General Joseph Johnston, commanded enough troops to give Pemberton near equality, but Johnston believed Vicksburg wasn't worth defending and refused to help. Although anxious to preserve Vicksburg, Jefferson Davis sent aid intermittently. Asked to detach a few divisions in May, Robert E. Lee declined, preferring to keep them for his invasion of Pennsylvania.

Staff colleges study Vicksburg as an example of a complex campaign, brilliantly carried out. Ballard's research turns up nothing to diminish this brilliance, although it turns out the traditional view of Grant operating while "cut off" from supplies is exaggerated. While troops foraged extensively, a steady stream of transports sailed down the Mississippi and hundreds of wagons struggled up bad roads from Grand Gulf to the army. Experts agree logistics were the most brilliant aspect of Grant's operation.

The author aims to present a complete picture of the campaign. He describes marches and battles with lavish unit-by-unit detail (but the usual skimpy maps). Military buffs will pay attention; the general reader will lose little by skimming.

Ballard includes the usual scenes of battlefield mayhem but also makes a point of examining what happened when soldiers weren't fighting. It's a surprisingly ugly picture. It turns out Union armies did not merely eat local livestock and burn fence rails. They looted houses and shops, vandalized buildings, started fires and killed farm animals. Some officers and men disapproved, but this was not the work of a few bad apples. It was general behavior. (Mississippi civilians cheered when Rebel troops marched by, but matters deteriorated if they camped nearby.) War is, of course, hell, but it's also squalid and depressing. Ballard tells a good story without letting us forget that.



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