Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. By Michael B. Ballard. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Overshadowed by the almost concurrent Union victory at Gettysburg, the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg has never emerged from that shadow. Yet 4 July1863 brought to an end the longest campaign of the war and the most important in the Western Theater, a campaign that split the Confederacy in two and opened the Mississippi River to free travel by Union forces. Although what happened at Vicksburg and in the surrounding region may not have been as dramatic as the three days at Gettysburg, the results were perhaps more decisive.
The strategists on both sides recognized the vulnerability of the Confederacy in the West represented by the Mississippi River and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. From the start of the war, a Union aim became to break the hold on the Mississippi anchored on the citadel of Vicksburg. The Union Navy’s tight grip on the upper reaches of the river caused the Confederates to concentrate efforts on beating back threats on the river in general and on the section between the mouth of the Ohio and Memphis, Tennessee, in particular. Thus, it could be said that the Vicksburg Campaign began with the breaking of Kentucky’s neutrality in 1861.
Michael Ballard has brought a new depth of understanding to consideration of the Vicksburg Campaign. His work is more than a recounting of the series of battles and the siege that led finally to the fall of the city. He examines the human, as well as the military, aspects of the campaign. He discusses soldier attitudes on both sides and the effects of the campaign on civilians in and around Vicksburg. The relationship among senior Union Army and Navy leaders comes under his scrutiny, including the political pressures they experienced on both sides. Here in one volume the reader will find a thorough, yet concise, discussion of all aspects and factors associated with the events leading up to the fall of Vicksburg itself.
An interesting aspect of this book is how it demonstrates the character of Ulysses S. Grant as he attempts various approaches to capturing Vicksburg, fails and tries again, until finally arriving at his bold solution of crossing the river below the city and approaching it from a new direction. His persistence in achieving final victory had much to do with his choice by Lincoln as overall Union Army commander.
The depth of research associated with this work contributes to its overall quality. Ballard has drawn from both published works and a vast number of private papers in various collections. The result reflects an understanding drawn from personal accounts of all the participants, from generals to privates, from recruits to veterans, from refugees to besieged citizens, and from Union loyalists to die-hard Confederates.
Unfortunately, as with so many campaign accounts, the quality and number of maps falls short of the quality of writing. It seems clear that the mapmaker was charged with making few maps do the work of many. This is only a shortcoming, however, to an otherwise significant contribution to Civil War literature.
BG Philip L. Bolté, USA-Ret.
West Union, SC