Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, 1863 by Earl J. Hess. University of North Carolina Press, 2020. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1-4696-6017-2. $40.00.
Vicksburg has fared well in recent Civil War historiography. Works by Bradley R. Clampitt (2016), Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear (2019), and Timothy B. Smith (2019 and 2020) offered probing treatments of the campaign and its aftermath, while Donald L. Miller supplied a moving narrative history last year. Now, in Storming Vicksburg: Grant, Pemberton, and the Battles of May 19-22, historian Earl J. Hess provides a critical reassessment of one of the campaign’s most pivotal periods.
Acknowledging the temptation to view the Battles of Champion Hill and Big Black River (May 16-17) or the siege and ultimate fall of Vicksburg (May 23-July 4) as the campaign’s defining chapters, Hess argues that there is much to learn about the campaign in the days preceding the siege’s onset. “Grant thought the attacks of May 19 and 22 were promising,” Hess writes. “He intended to end the struggle for Vicksburg in one stroke by storming the town. The fact that he failed is no excuse for passing over the May 19 and 22 battles as merely a prelude to the siege” (xii).
Hess breaks the campaign down into six stages, of which his principal concern is the penultimate. The author discovers myriad factors that contributed to federal failure during this juncture. In addition to disadvantageous terrain, Hess credits “stout Confederate defenders,” “poor preparation, lax command and control at the point of assault, and uneven combat moral” with frustrating Grant’s Army of the Tennessee (xvi).
As is customary with Hess’s battle histories, Storming Vicksburg is characterized by a clear and compelling narrative anchored on copious archival research. Hess’s customary attention to supply, logistics, morale, and fortifications are here as well. The author is true to his larger argument that effective battle histories must move beyond strategy and tactics to embrace the broader mosaic of the Civil War military experience. Indeed, Hess carries his story beyond the campaign to provide concluding chapters covering prisoner exchanges, burying the dead, and postwar commemoration and memory.
Making great use of archival sources located at the Vicksburg National Military Park, Hess believes that the efforts of William Rigby, the park’s first resident commissioner, proved critical in preserving Vicksburg’s often hidden truths. Rigby petitioned both Union and Confederate veterans to record and deposit their experiences, resulting in over 10,000 pages of documents. Using these frequently neglected sources, Hess overturns several of the campaign’s long recognized axioms.
Hess acknowledges that Grant was “the true shaper of affairs at this stage,” with Pemberton and Confederate theater commander Joseph E. Johnston reacting to the Ohioan’s initiative (12). Nevertheless, he provides a measured critique of Grant’s generalship during this phase of the campaign. Pointing out that historians have a tendency “to take Grant’s version of affairs for granted and overlook events that do not support a glowing portrayal,” Hess ultimately posits that “there is every reason to conclude that Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton outgeneraled Grant during the period of May 18-23” (xv).
The author’s analysis, however, reaches beyond a simple reevaluation of army commanders. For example, he shows that misinformation can prove pivotal to an operation’s outcome. The Union’s May 22 assault on Railroad Redoubt, led by Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand, proved to be pivotal. Misreading a stalemate as a breakthrough, the general urged Grant to provide reinforcements to secure a victory. McClernand’s request, however, was based “on slim and confusing information” and was peppered with purposeful exaggeration and imprecision (166). Grant, in turn, devoted troops to an attack that achieved nothing but bloodshed. While Grant was not blameless, McClernand’s subsequent sacking, Hess argues, was justified.
Hess’s arguments are convincing. During these few days, Grant went from being hopeful that he could quickly capture the city by assault to being resigned to a siege. Had the Union attackers surmounted the beforementioned liabilities on May 22, there is every reason to believe that “Vicksburg might have fallen that day instead of on July 4, 1863” (295). Hess promises that this is but his first foray into Vicksburg battle histories. Given what the author has done in recent years for the Atlanta Campaign, this should be welcome news to Civil War military historians.
Robert L. Glaze teaches history courses for Georgia Military College and Lincoln Memorial University. He is currently revising his manuscript, “Experiencing Defeat, Remembering Victory: The Army of Tennessee in Civil War Memory.”