Thanks to Timothy B. Smith, the past decade has been a good one for anyone with an interest in the great campaigns conducted by Ulysses S. Grant that restored Union control of western Tennessee and the Mississippi River. Here, Smith makes another superb contribution to scholarship, offering an excellent account of the critical week in May 1863 that saw Grant’s army arrive at the outskirts of Vicksburg and launch two assaults on its western defenses. The failure of these assaults demonstrated that despite repeated tactical defeats during the campaign of maneuver Grant conducted during the first half of May, John Pemberton and his army still had plenty of fight left in them. They also set the stage for the demise of John McClernand, the presumptuous political general who was a thorn in Grant’s side, removing a major source of friction in the Union high command.
While there is no shortage of excellent scholarship on the Vicksburg Campaign that addresses the actions in this book, never have they been accorded the importance or been chronicled in such spectacular detail as they are here. There is always the danger in works that go into this level of tactical detail of losing sight of the bigger picture. Smith never does this, making a point of keeping before the reader the larger operational and tactical picture on May 19 and 22 and how each aspect of the battles on those days fit into it, with excellent maps to help readers follow the action. Those looking for a sense of the “face of battle” at Vicksburg will appreciate the way Smith draws on an exceptional research effort to chronicle the experience of soldiers at every level in the Union and Confederate chains of command, while readers interested in how the operations of May 1863 impacted local civilians will appreciate the space Smith gives to that subject.
Smith has produced yet another exceptional study. Well-written, rich in detail, and compelling in its analysis, it will appeal not only to students of the struggle for Vicksburg and the men who shaped its course and outcome, but anyone looking for a good read as well.