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Book Review: Vicksburg, 1863 by Winston Groom

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Of all the different battles of the Civil War, two stand out in my mind as the epitome of “man’s inhumanity to Man.” One is Picket’s charge in Gettysburg, where Lee ordered a charge to take place in spite of warnings from his generals that the mission was impossible. I can only imagine how inhumane Union soldiers felt tearing asunder the bodies of men amassed shoulder to shoulder driving uphill against them.

The second battle is not really one battle but according to Vicksburg, 1863, several battles and a siege that eventually forced the city of Vicksburg to surrender. The city and its starving inhabitants along with the Confederate forces under General Pemberton surrendered on July 4, 1863.

Why was Vicksburg so important to the Union cause? Grant felt that this city would unlock the Mississippi river for the North. Control of this river would sever Confederate forces — east from west. But one glance at a Civil war map shows the difficulty of capturing this geologically strategic area.

For some distance directly in front of the city, what amounts to a large horseshoe shaped meander in the Mississippi’s course would not allow any Union ships passage without suicidal bombardment from the bluffs on both the north and south ends of Vicksburg and from the fort fronting the city itself.

Although Grant tried a number of times to attack Vicksburg through the interconnected swamps and bayous north and south of the city, his army simply floundered with little to show for it but a reduction in fighting power due to disease. But to Grant, these bayou setbacks at least kept his enemy on the move. He would maintain an aggressive cutting edge into the Confederate stronghold by forcing it to waste energy, supplies, and manpower trying to uncover his next point of attack

According to Vicksburg, 1863, General Grant edged his way west of the Mississippi, then south, then again east much like a reversed upside down question mark. Eventually, he and his army crossed the Mississippi. His intentions: to hook around, join in an assault from east to west with Sherman driving south. Within 18 days, Grant had won five engagements but both Confederates and Unionists incurred abominable losses.

The Confederate defeat at Champion Hill, shoved that army under General Pemberton into the fortress-like protection of Vicksburg itself. In spite of numerous attacks to win the city, the Union was not successful. Eventually, Grant and Sherman held Vicksburg and its protecting army hostage.

To starve out a people and their army in siege (May 18 – July 4), to my way of thinking, is as inhumane as Picket’s charge at Gettysburg. However, there is a vast difference. Under siege, men, women, children, animals, officers, and soldiers, die a much slower death from disease, starvation and improperly treated injuries, more often than not, caused by horrific and continual shelling of Vicksburg itself.

Citizens were reduced to digging underground shelters where possible. In other places, they lived in dugout caves. Food became so scarce that household pets and even mules were butchered for any edible parts. Rats were openly sold in what was left of the city’s marketplace.

Although both occurred on the same day — July 4 — Vicksburg, 1863 will make the reader wonder where the tide of the Civil War turned: Was it the surrender of Vicksburg or the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg? For sure, the double calamity in both war theatres sealed the fate for the south. Vicksburg: 1863 is one of those stories I read with utter shock.

It is difficult to read the horrors of the Civil War without wondering: “What would I have done? Could I have stood the test under fire and stayed in place when so many men around me lay lifeless; or if a terrified run-away retreat began would I still stay in the field firing my weapon as ordered?”

The book paints Ulysses Grant as a man of deep conviction, a relatively common man who fulfilled his duty to his country at all cost. In my mind, Grant’s battle plan was successful because of his belief that the North had an endless supply of heroic men who would march off into battle on land or on a ship because of their belief in a united democratic country. After any engagement, Grant would count his losses, however severe, and move on, and on, and on. He may not have been the greatest strategist, but his constant pressure at Vicksburg and later after Gettysburg proved that his battles of attrition were simply too costly for the South to endure.

If you’ve read other books about the Civil War or are a real Civil War buff, I would highly recommend that you read Vicksburg, 1863. Its maps, its pictures, but mainly its gripping historic story will yank you in, make you feel the hope and despair of battles lost and battles won, but ultimately make you ponder Robert Burns’ words:

'Many and sharp the num'rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And Man, whose heav'n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
(1785)

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