Book Review: Vicksburg Besieged

Vicksburg Besieged
Edited by Steve E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear
Southern Illinois Press, 2020, $29.50 hardback
Reviewed by Sean M. Chick

It is inevitable that as Ulysses S. Grant’s stock has risen over the decades, more books on Vicksburg would appear. It is a welcome development. Vicksburg, considering its scale and importance, is under-studied and certainly when compared to western battles such as Shiloh and Chickamauga.

Vicksburg Besieged is a collection of essays solely about the siege of Vicksburg after Grant’s failed second assault. This may work for a book, preferably one in a multiple volume series on the campaign. This is particularly the case with Vicksburg. It was one of the grandest, most complicated, and arguably the longest campaigns of the war, if you think it started with David Farragut’s attempt to seize the city in the summer of 1862. The siege, though, seems like the dullest part. Most sieges are, unless there is something dramatic. Fort William Henry is recalled for the murder of prisoners and Vienna in 1683 for the dramatic assaults and even more dramatic rescue. There are countless others in history: Tyre, Mantua, Turin, etc. Vicksburg is not among them, save for the results of the siege.

An essay collection on the siege was always going to be tricky, but Steven Woodworth has edited many such collections before and he would be the right man. Joining him in Vicksburg Besieged is Charles D. Grear. Even for these two gentlemen, it was going to be tough, since essay collections suffer from the same thing that hurt short story collections and anthology films (anyone remember Twilight Zone: The Movie?) Some work, others do not, and a few are in the middle, and you will always find yourself comparing them. First must rank Andrew Bledsoe’s look at Grant’s staff. It shows Grant’s staff work was improving, but not yet to the level of professionalism it reached in the crucible of Virginia. What I really liked here was the discussion of personalities, combined with weighing out conflicting views on the staff, such as the talents of John Rawlins. The piece on Andrew Hickenlooper and the Vicksburg mine is good, particularly for those who like technical detail. The piece on the Army of Relief is solid, but did leave me wanting more. The same for the one on Vicksburg’s civilians; it’s good but not stellar.

The rest I fear are less compelling. The essay on black soldiers is decent, but had troubling errors, such as labeling the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Natives Guards as USCT, which they were not at this stage. On the plus side, though, the authors deal with the question of atrocities at Milliken’s Bend with some fairness, it seems. Sadly, the worst of the bunch is Woodworth’s “Nights at Vicksburg.” It seemed esoteric, almost like a bit of historical impressionism. That is not bad in or of itself, but it does not play to Woodworth’s strengths. The essays on sharpshooters and Trans-Mississippi are a little light on content.

Vicksburg Besieged had a hard road to travel. Sieges often lack the drama of battle, and there is the issue of essay collections being mixed in quality. The quality here is mixed, but more importantly the siege’s bigger issues are missing. I was hoping for an examination of John Pemberton’s thinking leading up to surrender, Confederate logistics during the siege, plans at relief and why exactly Joseph E. Johnston did what he did. Sadly, I am used to a better standard from Woodworth’s essay collections. The one he did on Shiloh years back was excellent. Vicksburg Besieged is not terrible, but I could only recommend it to a true aficionado of the campaign.

2 Responses to Book Review: Vicksburg Besieged

  1. I would agree generally, pointing out that the essays vary in quality. And so we have – just recently released – Tim Smith’s one volume treatment of the siege. It is strongly recommended.

  2. A full examination of Johnston, Sherman, and the Army of Relief would be a great addition to the literature.

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