I was pleased to spend some time recently with the most recent book by historian Timothy B. Smith, The Union Assaults on Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17-22, 1863, published by the University Press of Kansas (find out more about it here). Smith teaches history at the University of Tennessee at Martin. In 2017, his book Grant Invades Tennessee: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson won the inaugural ECW Book Award.
Chris Mackowski: You’ve been slowly working your way through the Vicksburg Campaign in your work. Was there anything in particular you were looking forward to when you started working on this volume?
Timothy B. Smith: Yes, exploring the assaults in more detail. In fact, that’s the goal in more than just this volume. That might sound odd considering there is already a massive three volume set on Vicksburg by Ed Bearss and other large one volume studies, but the Union effort to capture Vicksburg lasted more than thirteen months and the campaign proper more than eight months, so there is a lot of material to cover. Some aspects of the campaign have been barely treated, in particular the May assaults. The siege is also sometimes short shafted, as has been the fall/winter 1862 Mississippi Central/Chickasaw Bayou efforts. This will likely turn into a large five-volume series before its done, with volumes also dedicated particularly to the siege and those 1862 efforts.
CM: The assaults on Vicksburg tend to get forgotten about in the popular imagination; people mostly think of “the siege” of Vicksburg. Why do you think that is?
TS: It is odd. Obviously, the siege lasted a lot longer than the assaults. But both the assaults and siege “battlefields,” if you will, are contained in the Vicksburg National Military Park. But most people tend to gloss over the assaults phase and focus in on the weeks and weeks of siege. Likewise, before that came the monumental land campaign wherein Grant defeated the enemy five times in seventeen days. The assaults get kind of sandwiched in between these two “major” efforts, but it was the largest battle of the campaign in terms of numbers engaged.
CM: You’re well-steeped in the history of this battle. Was there something new that you learned or that surprised you as you worked on this book?
TS: Certainly, mainly again in the detail. Exactly how defensible Vicksburg truly was both by nature and human engineering was surprising, as was the sheer courage of the Union troops to attack across that terrain. Perhaps most of all was just how difficult the terrain was. You get some sense of it riding around or even walking or jogging the tour route, but to really understand it you have to get out into the woods and ravines themselves.
CM: What differentiated the assaults of the 19th from the assaults of the 22nd?
TS: Scope, size, and preparation. Blair’s attempt on May 19 was hurried and limited, Grant hoping to score a quick victory against a reeling opponent. Given all Grant knew at the time, it made sense. The May 22 assault was much better planned and equipped, but likewise failed due largely to the terrain and the stout Confederate defense.
CM: Is there a particular assault or a particular front you found especially interesting?
TS: I’ve always liked the Stockade Redan action, because it had major efforts both days and was until the last decade or so the only real place at the park you could get a sense of what it might have looked like, many of the trees being cleared there. Fortunately now, much more of the ground cover has been removed and you can see the terrain in other places as well. Mostly, though, it comes from the fact that I had two direct great, great, grandfathers (their children married each other long after the war) in the same company of the 36th Mississippi defending the redan during both days of the assaults. I had two other direct great, great, great grandfathers inside Vicksburg as well (and another marched away with Loring at Champion Hill), but neither were in the thick of the fighting like these two.
CM: How do you think Grant’s relationship with McClernand affected the operations on the 19th and 22nd?
TS: I’m not sure the previous relationship affected it much in terms of where or when to assault. All three corps were supposed to move forward on both days. As it turned out, only one division did on May 19 but all attacked on May 22. McClernand in fact gave it the best effort of all three corps commanders on May 22. The previous relationship of mistrust Grant had for McClernand if anything almost stopped the renewed assaults later that afternoon when McClernand called for help. Grant did not believe McClernand’s dispatches but Sherman talked him into trying again. Obviously, the problems emanating from the May 22 assaults had a much larger impact on the Grant/McClernand relationship than going into them.
CM: While the book’s title touts a focus on the Union assaults, the Confederate defense played a role in events. What do you think they did well during the battles? Did that help or hurt them in the long term?
TS: They just had to hold their defenses and shoot down the enemy, so there was not a lot of decision making or tactical movements on the Confederates’ part. In fact, that was a problem I ran into, desiring to give both sides equal coverage. There are only so many ways you can say the Confederates held their earthworks and shot at the enemy columns. It gets repetitious after a while. On the other hand, there was a lot of decision making and tactical movements and maneuver on the Union side to cover. If the book is tilted a little toward Union coverage it was certainly not intended but more the result of who was doing more moving during the time. Plus, there are fewer comparative sources for the Confederate side whether its reports or letters or diaries. But that is something every historian of the war faces. But back to the question, the Confederates did well amid tough circumstances as well, although better off than the Federals. It definitely helped their continued defense in shoring up morale for the siege.
CM: You open the book by raising the tantalizing possibility of reinforcements from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia coming to Mississippi. Of course, Confederate officials decided on an invasion of the north instead. Simply for the sake of fun, let’s consider the “What If” question you raise: what if Confederate forces from the east shifted to the west to relieve pressure on Vicksburg? Would it have made any difference?
TS: Its hard to say what would have occurred on anything, but I’m not sure it would have made much difference. One, the distance involved was much farther than what Longstreet even did at Chickamauga. And getting equipment and wagons and horses and all to Mississippi would have been a mammoth undertaking. Then, these troops would not have gone directly into Vicksburg but would have been out under Joseph E. Johnston’s command in an effort to relieve the city. I’m not sure Johnston would have done anything even if he had huge numbers.
CM: Why is that?
TS: While not necessarily dealing with the assaults book, in writing the siege volume [his current project], I have become convinced that Johnston had made up his mind Vicksburg was doomed, probably because Pemberton had not taken his advice in getting out of the trap. He had a very timid outlook the whole time, never taking control of the situation but quickly starting to lay the groundwork for blame for the surrender on Pemberton, Davis, the trans-Mississippi Confederates, and anyone else he could think of. And he did only enough to make it look like he was trying, but my guess is he never intended to do anything to save Vicksburg. It is interesting that when Pemberton twice gave Johnston the max time he could hold out, which turned out to be very accurate–within a day or two of the real surrender date–Johnston only started to move just a few days prior to that, stopped the advance to reconnoiter for two full days, and then set his timetable of attack on July 7, which was after both days Pemberton had said he could only hold out to. I think this was a crisis that deserved a long-shot gamble, and I compare it to Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh, who took the gamble. Joe Johnston never did. I’ve never been a Joe Johnston fan, and researching his activity in the Vicksburg “Army of Relief” had lowered my estimation of him considerably.
CM: I love the converse idea you also pose, BTW: If Grant took Vicksburg, would Davis have allowed Lee’s campaign northward?
TS: Yeah, it’s a little-used reverse thought I guess, but it does show the strategic importance even of the isolated assaults themselves. Their effect went far beyond Mississippi.
CM: And here are a few short-answer questions: What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?
TS: I love them all, including the often-maligned boring Official Record reports. The letters and diaries are also fascinating, for their material but also I guess in the connection of how they are found and used. Most of the time it involves travel which I enjoy, and it’s almost like a treasure hunt. If I had to pick just one, though, it would be a memoir of a member of the aforementioned 36th Mississippi. It gives a good idea of what my folks would have seen.
CM: Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?
TS: Probably above all the common soldier on both sides. There were no real eye-popping tactical movements or flank marches or anything like that, just common soldiers slugging it out on perhaps some of the worst terrain imaginable. Vicksburg makes Gettysburg look like a pancake.
CM: What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?
TS: Some stick with you more than others, but I’ve written a couple of more volumes since then so it all starts to run together. For some reason I like the opening of Chapter 4, though, where May 19 dawns: “Colonel Winchester Hall of the 26th Louisiana had a perfect welcome planned for the Federals when daylight appeared on May 19. Although he was more than ready to give the enemy shot and shell, with an ample dose of small arms fire as well, he thought it would be more polite to greet them that morning initially with a good old Confederate tune. “I had ordered out the band,” he wrote, “and intended to give our opponents ‘Dixie’ at daylight.” Hall’s brigade commander Francis Shoup nixed the idea, however, Hall relating that he “considered it untimely to make overtures to the enemy.” The Louisianan’s bullets would have to suffice.”
CM: What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?
TS: The entire battlefield as contained in the national park, but again I always make a point to go by the Stockade Redan anytime I’m there.