MITCHAM: Vicksburg (2018)

Vicksburg: The Bloody Siege that Turned the Tide of the Civil War by Samuel W. Mitcham. Regnery History, 2018. Cloth, IBSN: 978-1621576396. $29.99.

Samuel Mitcham’s recounting of events along the Mississippi River takes the focus away from Ulysses S. Grant and shifts it toward John C. Pemberton and Vicksburg’s Confederate defenders. While readable, Mitcham’s provocative narrative overreaches in other ways.

The Confederate perspective helps Mitcham offer a rehabilitation of Pemberton’s actions during the campaign. While he necessarily considers Grant’s activity, much of the book looks at Pemberton’s defensive planning and conflicts within the Confederate leadership. While defending Pemberton’s reputation, Mitcham also criticizes certain elements of the general’s performance. Pemberton’s main failure is his inability to reconcile competing objectives: Joseph Johnston’s order to concentrate his forces against Grant and Jefferson Davis’ order to hold Vicksburg first.

Mitcham takes a long view of the action surrounding Vicksburg. He begins with the first siege in early 1862, when the navy arrived following the capture of New Orleans. This early attempt on the town prodded Confederates to fortify the region prior to Grant’s arrival in late 1862, which complicated his efforts to take the city. The narrative surrounding Grant’s various attempts at Vicksburg is familiar, though with greater focus on Confederate decision-making and southern civilians. Mitcham’s retelling of the siege contains many fascinating accounts from southerners, especially women, who found themselves trapped in the city. Depredations committed by Union soldiers against southern civilians are given plenty of room.

While the defense of Pemberton is plausible, Mitcham’s other assertion, dealing with what he calls a “politically correct” interpretation of the war that overemphasizes slavery, is less convincing. Mitcham is unapologetically pro-Confederate; he claims that he is pushing back against a simplistic narrative of the war that pits an abolitionist North against a pro-slavery South. At first it feels out of place, given that his brief narrative regarding secession as a dispute over tariffs and taxation along with slavery is not really pertinent to the campaign. This information is hardly unknown to scholars, and few would be surprised to learn that many Union soldiers did not enlist to end slavery or secure racial justice.

Mitcham highlights the bravery of southerners, both soldiers and civilians, discussing how Vicksburg residents hid and survived during the city’s bombardment by Union forces. Mitcham is sure to highlight the depredations committed by Union soldiers, including assault and rape perpetrated against slaves. The inclusion of a late chapter about the Sultana disaster seems to exist only to further highlight corruption, incompetence, and insensitivity within Union army bureaucracy, regardless of any connection to the central campaign. Additionally, he shows a black population that supported the southern cause, especially in the form of black men fighting for the Confederacy. While other scholars have addressed the complicating factors of these narratives, Mitcham is not interested in engaging them.

The work’s bibliography is extensive and covers a variety of sources, but Mitcham does not cite particular information from these sources in his notes. Only occasional references to particular authors’ quotes lets the reader know the source of a particular detail. Given the vast number of anecdotal pieces in his narrative, sourcing would be a welcome addition, and it would benefit any reader interested in the many fascinating civilian tales of the Vicksburg siege. Mitcham would also be greatly aided, as without sources, these tales of depredation and survival are passed along at face value, Contemporary family lore, for example, is uncritically included in the narrative.

Mitcham writes with a clear, easy-to-follow style that moves briskly through the events surrounding the campaign. Military historians may find it useful to engage with his evaluation of Pemberton, particularly his conclusion that the Pennsylvanian was a good commander who forced a great general, Grant, to (in Mitcham’s words) “up his game” in order to succeed. Others may take interest in the accounts of civilians under fire, or the changing perceptions of the campaign and siege over time. This, though, is a book for popular audiences—particularly those seeking a perspective more sympathetic to the Confederates.

Dr. Keith Altavilla teaches history at Lone Star College-CyFair.

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SOMMERS: Challenges of Command in the Civil War (2018)

Challenges of Command in the Civil War: Generalship, Leadership, and Strategy at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Beyond by Richard J. Sommers. Savas Beatie, 2018. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1611214321. $29.95 Every serious student of the Civil War…