Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Vicksburg 1863 by Winston Groom-History as a Novel

If you like history written as a novel, then Vicksburg 1863 by Winston Groom is for you. I enjoy reading history that way so it worked for me.

Groom does excellent character portraits of the main players in the campaign. Grant, Pemberton & Johnston all come alive in this book. The author writes the history like the novelist that he is. He spends a great deal of time on these individuals and their motivations. You can see and feel their personalities.

The maps in the beginning of the book were excellent. I went back to the maps each time Groom mentioned a town or city in Mississippi. I could easily follow the battles.

He also did an fine job of describing the naval battles. He describes how the Confederates created their own improvised navy and how despite their disadvantages, gave the Federal navy a fierce fight for control of the Mississippi. For a landlubber like me, the naval battle section was educational.

Groom is quite effective at showing that the defeat of the Confederates in the Vicksburg campaign stemmed largely from bad leadership. Joseph Johnston seemed to do all he could to sabotage Pemberton by withholding troops and not coming to Pemberton's rescue when Grant closed the ring around the city. The man knew few other maneuvers but retreat. The author shows how Confederate numbers in the area were roughly equivalent to those of the Union yet incompetant generalship doomed them.

Groom's skills as a novelist shine when he describes the siege of Vicksburg. He evokes the conversations between the soldiers during the truces and their taunts when they stood on different sides of the lines. He also exhibits the Union shelling of the city and its effects on the civilians inside the city. His descriptions show how the shelling was a forerunner to the strategic bombing of Germany in World War II. Like the U.S. Army Air Force over Germany, Grant sought to break the citizens' morale and induce surrender. The Civil War was in many ways a 20th-century conflict.

The book of course has its share of flaws. Groom makes some dubious word choices. He writes on P.188, "That assumes that the enemy will let you bown over him like a dummy made of straw." That metaphor seemed a bit clumsy. He also makes the dubious assessment that Gettysburg was a mere bloody skirmish compared to Vicksburg. Gettysburg was significant because the Confederacy's losses condemned the South to remain on the strategic defensive for the rest of the war. The South would never have the ability to launch a knockout blow that could end the war. Vicksburg and Gettysburg held equal importance as turning points in the war.

He also engages in his epilogue in a dubious section about how the South should have made peace after Vicksburg. Too many men had died for that to be possible. The Southern leadership could not go back to its people after all that suffering and tell them that the war was lost. In addition, what political class votes itself out of power? That's what peace would have meant. These are politicians we're discussing.

However, these flaws are outweighed by the book's strengths. Groom makes the valid point that Vicksburg crippled the Confederacy since it was cut off from the Trans-Mississippi and its food shipments. Vicksburg made Grant's 1864 campaign of attrition possible. He also shows how Jefferson Davis's demonization of Lincoln made him irrational and prevented him from taking advantage of Lincoln's generous offers of peace. There is a pitfall to believing your own propaganda. It clouds your judgment to hate your enemies.

I'm an Eastern campaign man. Vicksburg was a good tuturial in the West for me. It is enjoyable and entertaining.

Has anyone had a chance to read it?

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