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Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege Michael B. Ballard

 Southern Illinois, University Press

A commander, observed Carl von Clausewitz in his monumental work forth the appropriate decision. By total assimilation with On War, “must always be ready to bring his mind and life, the commander’s knowledge must be transformed into genuine capability.” In Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege, Michael Ballard explores how Clausewitz’s observations rang especially true for Union General Ulysses S. Grant during the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg. Grant’s skills as a strategist and tactician began to emerge during the 47-day siege, as he demonstrated at a critical moment in the nation’s history the “genuine capability” of which Clausewitz wrote. Ballard’s impressive research effort and adept analysis of events dispel many accepted notions about Grant’s conduct of the Vicksburg Campaign, while also exposing the commander’s human qualities.

Throughout the siege, Grant learned the valuable lessons of managing personalities and avoiding micromanagement. It is this avoidance, according to Ballard, that brought one of the issues of command to the forefront at Vicksburg. When black soldiers arrived, they were immediately relegated to noncombat roles involving menial labor. Grant tried to organize blacks into cohesive fighting units, but the attitude of his men in general toward the freed slaves worried him.

Surrender negotiations with Confederate commander Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton to end the siege were particularly intense at the time, since Grant was expecting an attack from Joseph Johnston’s forces near Jackson. Ballard dispels the myth that the Union general consumed alcohol at critical points of the siege, placing responsibility for those rumors on reporter Sylvanus Cadwallader, who implied that the general was an alcoholic in a book written after Grant’s death. “Cadwallader lied and lied to the extreme,” Ballard writes, and “did nothing more than deepen the stains of gossip, rumors, and half-truths about a famous general and president.”

Grant at Vicksburg is a fair and definitive portrait of one of America’s most celebrated military leaders, who managed to keep his large army motivated during a tedious siege. In Ballard’s eyes, Grant perfected his management skills at Vicksburg. Throughout, Ballard emphasizes Grant’s fighting abilities and points out his men unfailingly embraced his fighting spirit.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.