Book Review: Vicksburg

Although published in 2019 this work is extremely thorough and well worth reviewing a few years late. Vicksburg is one of the few major battle sites I have not been to, and this book has made me determined to visit.

Author Donald L. Miller provides a thorough overview of not only the Vicksburg Campaign, but also the entire Union effort in the Mississippi Valley and Tennessee, from New Orleans to Forts Henry and Donelson to Shiloh to Corinth. Along the way we see the evolution of the war, such as new adjustments by the U.S. Navy, which had to orient itself from open sea warfare to fighting along the rivers within the nation. The navy had to adopt its tactics and its technology. Planners developed new ironclads and mortar ships to deal with Confederate ironclads and land batteries.

The author also focuses on the evolution of General U.S. Grant, following his maturity as he rises to command larger forces, and we follow his thought process and decision making, as well as his struggles with alcohol. A spirit of cooperation between Grant and Admiral David D. Porter became the key to success. 

Vicksburg was difficult to get at, surrounded by rivers and swamps. Every effort met with failure until Grant finally was able to move his forces around the city. The campaign required immense logistical support, engineering, and army-navy coordination.

Every good history should bring untold and lesser-known facts to light, and Miller reveals the suffering of Union troops that winter of 1862-3, camped in marshy ground along the Mississippi. Disease took a terrible toll and morale sank. He also sheds light on the plight of runaway slaves who joined Union forces, often enduring brutal working and living conditions in a hope for a better life. Miler shows the complexity of the relationship: Union officers who care nothing for the free blacks, former slaves who risk all for the army, and Federal officers who earnestly tried to help the black refugees.

Here is Miller’s real contribution to Vicksburg campaign scholarship, highlighting the experiences and contributions of African Americans as the campaign unfolded. The army struggled to find ways to use and treat the free slaves, and Lincoln’s insistence on addressing the issue resulted in improved conditions, and eventually the enlistment of men and creation of U.S. Colored Troops. 

Emancipation had a huge impact on the campaign, embittering Confederates and depriving them of labor as slaves attempted to escape. It forced the U.S. Army to deal with refugees and find ways to use the freed people who flocked to them. In 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation changed everything, and the author carefully lays out the evolution of Government policy, including the Second Confiscation Act.

Miller highlights how the US Government used African Americans as cooks and laborers for the army and began recruiting soldiers. There were also experiments in resettling the freed people and having them work the land to produce cotton, sales of which funded the war effort. These experiments that caused political and social upheaval in the region.

It was part of a process of hardening the war effort: Union generals and soldiers became convinced that the war would be a long one, that harsher measures were needed against Southern civilians, and that attacking slavery was an important war goal.

The author leaves us with a final point worth considering: Vicksburg “brought down Dixie. It is campaigns, not battles, that win wars. Civil War armies of sixty and eighty thousand men were too large and powerfully outfitted to be annihilated on the battlefield; and battles between such armies rarely had . . . history-altering outcomes.” Donald Miller’s book provides a good balance of Union, Confederate, civilian, and African American perspectives, as well as ties together military political, and social aspects of the campaign.


By Donald L. Miller

Simon & Schuster, 2019, $22.00

Reviewed by Bert Dunkerly

2 Responses to Book Review: Vicksburg

  1. I enjoyed this book, but I think it is misnamed and shouldn’t be subtitled Grant’s campaign, but rather Lincoln’s or the US military’s campaign to break the Confederacy. This book does a great job explaining the US military’s entire process at getting after Vicksburg from the start of the war and Grant had no part in directly going at Vicksburg until the latter part of 1862.

    I’ve been fortunate to make it to Vicksburg twice this past year and drive around many of the campaign locations on either side of the river. Lots of laid back driving down the backroads of Mississippi and Louisiana.

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