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

6/12/2006 • Battle Of Vicksburg, Book Reviews, Ulysess S Grant, Union Soldiers

Reviewed by Brian J. Murphy
By Michael B. Ballard
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 490 pages

Michael B. Ballard’s new book on the Vicksburg campaign offers a refreshing experience. The research is exhaustive, and the writing is lively. It may not be surprising that a Mississippi historian would put a slightly Southern slant on the campaign, but Ballard’s point of view is in keeping with modern scholarship. This is not a history that romanticizes the Lost Cause, nor is the author dismissive of Grant, although he does not seem very fond of him.

What this narrative excels at is presenting the human side of history. The letters and memoirs of the men in the ranks as well as of those in command are quoted generously, giving the story a sense of immediacy and contemporary relevance. The book raises issues of morale and the impact of domestic politics on the war that are sure to resonate with today’s readers.

Ballard makes some well-reasoned arguments in support of officers he likes and against those he deems incompetent. John C. Pemberton, a transplanted Northerner and the principal Confederate commander in the campaign, is blamed for his consistently poor judgment. At the time of the disasters imposed by Grant, Pemberton was popularly suspected of selling out the Southern cause. In this book we find him a true–if inept–Southern patriot. Joe Johnston comes in for criticism as well; Ballard paints him as overcautious and hesitant.

Ballard defends John McClernand, the Union general who often comes in for stiff criticism in histories of the Vicksburg campaign. Ballard cites McClernand’s expedition to take Post of Arkansas as a sound strategic move and often writes admiringly of his conduct on the battlefield. McClernand was not too slow in advancing his corps at the battle of Champion’s Hill, Ballard argues. Rather, he was moving in the cautious spirit of Grant’s orders.

The author admires McClernand’s initiative at the subsequent Battle of Big Black River Bridge. McClernand, Ballard continues, was a victim of a feud with Grant. Ballard claims Grant did not support McClernand in battle as he did his other corps commanders, James McPherson and William T. Sherman. There is more than enough material presented for readers to make their own judgment.

The highlight of the book is the description of Grant’s May 22, 1863, assaults on the main works protecting Vicksburg. Before describing the assault, Ballard gives a detailed description of the forts, redoubts and defensive lines covering the city on three sides. His description of the actual attacks pulses with vivid action and is enlivened by eyewitness narratives.

The entire book is an authoritative account that has the additional charm of being an entertaining read. For newcomers to the subject, Ballard makes the campaign accessible. But he will delight those well read in Civil War literature with his depth of information and fresh perspective.