I have been spending a lot of time lately with the latest volume in Southern Illinois University Press’s “Civil War Campaigns in the West” Series, Vicksburg Besieged, edited by Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear (see info on the book here). The volume caps off a three-volume study that began with 2013’s The Vicksburg Campaign, March 29-May 18, 1863, and continued with 2019’s The Vicksburg Assaults, May 19, 22, 1863.
Drs. Woodworth and Grear were kind enough to answer a few questions about their most recent work.
CM: In some respects, the siege of Vicksburg tends to get overlooked. People lump the six weeks into “the siege” without taking a particularly close look at it. Why do you think that is?
Grear: There were so many moving parts with Vicksburg. Grant had several movements going on all the same time in addition to three major cavalry raids. There were several battles over a large area. It is much easier to comprehend a campaign if it is geographically static. The goal of the campaign was to capture the city of Vicksburg, so that is where people focus their attention. Not Jackson, Big Black River Bridge, Newton Station, Port Hudson, etc. The more people read about the Civil War more they can appreciate the nuances. There are plenty of people that do that outside of historians. Every time I give a talk to a Civil War Roundtable, their members teach me something new or provide a different perspective. Their input is always appreciated.
CM: Your collection demonstrates that there are a number of fascinating components to examine. How did you go about peeling back the onion to decide what facets to look at and what stories to tell?
Grear: We simply asked the contributors what they wanted to examine. Historians tend to produce better studies on the topics that interest them. All we did was make sure none of them overlapped with one another. All the credit goes to the contributors; we just said thank you.
Woodworth: Exactly right.
CM: Are there other aspects you’d have covered if you’d had more space available?
Grear: Personally, I would have liked to see a comparison with the Gettysburg campaign. We looked at the impact on the Trans-Mississippi, but I would be interesting to dig deep and see what people in the East had to say. From my personal studies of Texas in the Civil War, the Texas Brigade was not held up to the same esteem during the war and immediately afterwards as it was decades later. Instead, men such as Tom Green were celebrated for staying to protect the Lone Star State. I would be interested if people in the east at the time viewed Vicksburg as more important than Gettysburg. As you can read in my chapter, the men in the Texas Brigade viewed Vicksburg as a more devastating loss than Gettysburg.
Woodworth: Good points. I would have liked to have dived deeply into the question of possible Confederate relief of Vicksburg. Joseph Johnston and Jefferson Davis had an epistolary argument afterward about whether or not it would have been possible. I would have liked to have explored the possibilities and come to a well researched conclusion not only about whether or not it was possible but laying out the specific reasons why or why not.
CM: As an editor, I’m always delighted when an essayist writes something that surprises me. Are there instances in the book where your writers brought up something that gave you one of those moments?
Grear: The one chapter that pleasantly surprised me was Richard Holloway’s. He told the story of the fighting at Jackson between William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Relief through the songs played by the troops of the 19th Louisiana and Washington Artillery. Specifically, a piano in the trenches that was played during the Union siege of the Confederate lines. The piano still exists and is housed at the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans. My one regret was the pictures of the piano, an older and recent photograph, did not have a high enough resolution to be included in the book.
CM: The book caps a three-book series on the Vicksburg campaign, the assaults, and the siege. How did that sequence help you, individually, better understand the overall story of Vicksburg?
Grear: It would be tough to imagine, but we are not done with Vicksburg. We have two more volumes planned that look at the failed attempts to capture the City on the Hill. We intentionally broke up Vicksburg into multiple volumes to emphasize the importance and complexity of this campaign. Compared to other major campaigns this one is multi-faceted. Every branch of the Union military played an important role from the navy, engineers, cavalry, commanders, etc. It has a major Southern city cut off from the rest of the world and citizens played an active role in the events. There are numerous battles, movements, assaults, sieges, trenches, tunnels, etc. Militarily it is only missing alpine soldiers. You can see aspects of future battles in Vicksburg such as the tunnel explosion at Petersburg. In short, by spreading Vicksburg over several anthologies, we can focus more on the nuances of the campaign while placing it in the context of the campaign and overall war.
Woodworth: Exactly. And when you consider how thoroughly some of the eastern campaigns have been studied — and rightly so — it becomes clear that a campaign such as Vicksburg, spanning eight months and deciding the control of the central part of the continent, offers more than enough good material for several volumes.
CM: How do you think it helps readers understand the overall story?
Grear: I think it helps the common reader understand the complexity and importance of the campaign. Too many people just focus on the siege and have little understanding the trials and tribulations Grant went through to even get close to the city. Vicksburg was a tough nut to crack.
CM: What’s next for the series?
Grear: The next volume will examine the campaigns against Fort Henry and Donelson. We are still collecting chapters. As with past volumes we have a healthy collection of established historians and emerging Civil War historians ; ). Included in Forts Henry and Donelson is Brooks Simpson and Brian Steel Wills. Also, to note Jonathan Steplyk will be contributing as well. Jonathan will be taking over my role as series co-editor since this next volume will be my last. Between him and Steven Woodworth, the series will be in excellent hands and can only improve.
Woodworth: The Henry and Donelson volume will be another good one. And thanks, Chuck, for your work on these volumes. Couldn’t have done it without you!
And here are a few short-answer questions:
CM: What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?
Grear: For most of my studies I rely heavily on primary sources, especially soldier’s letters, journals, diaries, and reminisces. My office has a large filing cabinet full of Texas soldier’s letters. To give you an idea, while working on my dissertation I spent three days a week for an entire year scanning the bulk of these letters from the Texas Heritage Museum in Hillsboro, Texas. Also, copies were collected from around the state. In short, I probably have the largest collection of Texas Civil War soldier primary sources in the world. All are copies, though it would be interesting to own one but that is too much responsibility. As I tell my students, being a historian is a morbid profession. We read dead people’s mail.
Woodworth: I’ve especially enjoyed using the short articles by veterans in National Tribune.
CM: Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?
Grear: My perspective of Civil War history has always been from the bottom up. What the common soldier endured always amazes me. The Confederates defending the city with dwindling supplies and being creative with what little they had. The Union soldiers digging the trenches and engineering unique ways to protect themselves while enduring the hardships of the Mississippi weather. Amazingly both sides had the same ultimate goal, to get back home.
Woodworth: I’ll second that.
CM: What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote or edited?
Grear: I have two, an expression and a joke. My all-time favorite expression, which I use as often as possible comes from J. B. Polley’s friend Tom at the Battle of Chickamauga (4th Texas Infantry, Texas Brigade). Tom wanted out of the Eastern Theater so he stood behind a tree waving his arms up and down hoping an extremity would be hit by a bullet. Polley asked him what was doing, and Tom replied, “Just feeling for a furlough” and Polley commented that, Tom “continued the feeling as if his life depended on it.” It really captures some humor but also how desperate some men were to return home without deserting. The other is a joke from another Texan that I love to repeat because it shows that Texans have been disdainful of our neighboring states for a long time. When E. P. Petty (17th Texas Infantry) arrived in Arkansas he wrote his sweetheart, “I didn’t come to Arkansas to die—I think that God would never resurrect me here.” Additionally, there are numerous Union quotes that reflect peoples’ views of Texans (some of which people outside the state still hold) such as they were surprised Texans could read and they are not more animal than man. Civil War soldiers are humorous.
CM: What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?
Grear: Vicksburg would be the obvious choice. It is embarrassing that I do not get to visit that many battlefields because my family does not enjoy history as much as me. When I graduated from college, over 20 years ago, Dr. Donald S. Frazier took me on a week-long trip from Abilene, Texas, to Pensacola, Florida. We visited every Civil War battlefield and museum there and back. I learned more that week than we could over an entire year. On the way back we spent two days at Vicksburg National Military Park. It would be great to go back to Vicksburg with everything I know now to get a better understanding of the assaults and siege. Also, two days is never enough.
CM: What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?
Grear: This is the toughest question in the entire interview! Does Steven Woodworth know everything about Vicksburg and the Civil War? My answer would be yes and if he happens to not know it, it must not be important. It has been a pleasure working with him on these books. My departure from the series was not an easy decision but it was made in the spirit of why it started. A few graduate students at TCU and myself approached Dr. Woodworth to propose this series to Southern Illinois University Press hoping to give emerging scholars a platform to present their research. Similarly, I wanted to give this opportunity to Dr. Jonathan Steplyk.
Woodworth: Thanks, Chuck. Actually, there’s a lot I don’t know about the Civil War. I’m learning more all the time. I have been great having you as a co-editor on this series, and I’m looking forward to working with Jonathan.
(NOTE: The “Civil War Campaigns in the West” Series was formerly called the “Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland” Series. In 2016, I talked with Chuck about the series—a conversation you can read here.)