Writer Winston Groom, whose works range from Forrest Gump to Shrouds of Glory, returns to the Civil War with his new book, Vicksburg 1863.
What prompted you to write about Vicksburg?
I had written an earlier book on the Battle of Nashville (Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville: The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War). But I love the Civil War, and I had visited the park there at Vicksburg a number of times; I enjoy going back there. And I finally concluded it was the most important battle of the war; Vicksburg and Gettysburg ended within a day of each other—and ended any reasonable hope of a military victory for the South.
There are a lot of books about Vicksburg; most of them are about the battle itself. But it was a whole campaign; it started in Illinois. I thought I had a different approach than other writers—when you bring a novelist’s eye to history, it’s about 10 degrees off the norm.
As you were researching the book, was there anything that particularly surprised you?
One of the things that I didn’t know was the extent of Grant’s failures to get at Vicksburg. Sherman had tried to get in, Farragut tried to come up from the south, there were defeats at Holly Springs and Yazoo Pass; Grant tried to get through the backwater but was turned back.
But Richmond was so delighted they kept defeating Grant that they didn’t take seriously that Grant was sitting there on the other side of the river from Vicksburg with a dangerous army, and they failed to send reinforcements.
What draws you to revisit the Civil War?
Well, it was a seminal event in American history, and it’s not that far away from us. My great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, and he lived until what, 1926, so my father knew him well.
And it was a huge thing—it’s just like if you lived through Katrina, you never forget it. And my family were packrats; they saved everything, and it finally devolved upon me to go through it all. And that’s where you find a connection—it’s a real connection; it’s not necessarily “history.” These were real people.
Who is your favorite Civil War personality, and are you planning more Civil War work?
There’s not a particular one; there were a lot of colorful personalities: Lee, Grant, Jackson, Lincoln.
John Bell Hood was interesting to me; he was a violent man on the battlefield, but off the battlefield he was a gentle giant. Stuart was fascinating. Brigadier General John S. Bowen at Vicksburg—I’d never heard of him before; he died, unfortunately, after the battle.
And Sherman—he was very smart. He was brilliant strategically and politically.
I haven’t any plans to do more Civil War books; I’m now working on a book about [Stephen] Kearny’s march out from Leavenworth in the West. But I love the Civil War; it would be sort of a shame not to go back to it.
Is being known for a novel like Forrest Gump an asset or an impediment when you then write history?
It’s certainly not an impediment—Gump is what lets me do this; you don’t make a lot of money doing history.
Novels are like dancing on the sharp edge of a knife; your reputation can be hurt if reviewers don’t like the story. With histories, I have a little more control over it. Occasionally a critic will start out saying “after Forrest Gump…”but I don’t worry about that now.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.