Review of Winston Groom, Vicksburg, 1863.
New York: Knopf, 2009. Pp. x, 482. ISBN: 978-0-307-26425-1.
Fiction writer and historian,
Winston Groom, best known for his novel Forrest Gump,
returns to writing about the Civil War in his latest book,
Vicksburg, 1863, a study of the campaign that doomed the
Confederacy's bid for independence.
provides much more than just a
bullets and bugles account culminating in the Confederate surrender
of the Mississippi River bastion on 4 July 1863. Rather, Groom
offers a nearly overwhelming breadth of analysis. Not content to
focus only on battles, he examines the factors
that led to the outbreak of war, including abolitionism, technology,
and the economy, devoting five full chapters to the
background of the conflict and its key participants before addressing
directly the struggle for Vicksburg.
Accordingly, Groom examines the
entire Mississippi River Valley campaign, from the war's onset in
1861 to the crescendo of its pivotal year, 1863. In the process, he
argues that the loss of Vicksburg was more damaging to Confederate
hopes than the more celebrated Battle of Gettysburg, because it
"concluded the final chapter of Rebel domination" and with it "any
realistic chance of a separate southern nation" (420).
One of the strengths of Groom's
work is his extraordinary ability to interweave the opposing
personalities that waged war for control of the Mississippi River.
Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Joseph E. Johnston,
and John C. Pemberton, to name a few, all receive thoughtful
portrayals, a remarkable achievement in a book of less than 500
For instance, when discussing
the tenacity of Jefferson Davis, Groom vividly describes how, as
Secretary of War, he implemented the purchase and use of camels from
the Middle East for surveying duties in the American Southwest. Even
though this plan had originally been rebuffed while Davis served as
a U.S. senator on the Military Affairs committee, he later actually
acquired about 100 of the animals and had them sent to the Lone Star
State. "This episode demonstrates two things about Davis's
personality: that once he decided on something, no matter how large
or small, he was tenacious in seeing it through and, second, he
invariably took a direct hand in its implementation. These traits,
admirable enough in most people, were to cause trouble when, as
president of the Confederacy, he often injected himself directly
into the military decision making as the war in the West heated up"
Groom does not neglect the
military events surrounding the battles for Vicksburg. He covers all
of the campaign's major turning points, from the harrowing episode
of the Union gunships running the gauntlet of Confederate batteries
on the night of 16 April 1863, to the pivotal Battle of Champion
Hill. The emphasis is on operational and strategic matters rather
than tactical-level details of the military actions. For instance, the
author's presentation of the Battle of the Big Black River takes
less than five pages. And in the midst of his description of
Pemberton's last attempt to fight Grant's forces before they laid
siege to the city, he probes facets such as the personalities and
infighting that marked the Rebel efforts to hold off the Federal
Besides military and political
events surrounding the campaign, Groom touches on the human element,
aptly describing the trials and tribulations of the civilian
population in Vicksburg. He poignantly notes how the townspeople,
burned out of their homes, ate draft animals to stay alive and
resorted to living in caves to avoid the constant barrage from Union
guns. "The bombardment put a terrific strain on the citizenry, now
reduced to the bare, anxious life of some long-forgotten tribe of
cliff dwellers" (365). In sum, Groom clearly conveys how a "taste of
hard war" came to southerners living in the Mississippi River Valley
in 1863 (363).
Vicksburg, 1863 indicts
both the Union and Confederate high commands
for their too frequent propensity to work at cross purposes.
Particularly cumbersome, the author argues, was Confederate
incompetence at the highest echelons: he cites Johnston's
inclination to hesitate, Pemberton's lack of resolve, and Davis's
ignorance of the gravity of the situation in the Mississippi River
Valley. Groom also criticizes the Washington authorities for lacking
faith in Grant, who plays a central role throughout the narrative,
asserting that his book is "also the story of Ulysses S. Grant,"
whose rise from antebellum obscurity secured the critical victory at
Vicksburg "that should have ended the Civil War" (4).
Groom's high regard for Grant
goes beyond simply describing the Union general's "magnificent
campaign" (420). He dedicates more than a chapter to the impact of
Vicksburg, stressing, like other historians, the
significance of gaining control of the Mississippi River to the
Union war effort. He duly notes that even though the fall of
Vicksburg, with Lee's defeat at Gettysburg on 3 July 1863, revealed
that the "handwriting was on the wall" for the Confederacy, the
authorities in Richmond could not recognize their fate.
The book also explores the
postwar lives and careers of the principal players in the campaign.
He discusses the battle of the memoirs, as leading Confederates
blamed one another for the fall of the river bastion. He also gives
a friendly nod toward the modern scholarship of historical memory by
recounting the postwar efforts of politicians and veterans' groups
to control the remembrance of Vicksburg through monuments
commemorating the battle.
Readers will not find here any
groundbreaking interpretations or new direction in the
historiography of the campaign. Groom relies heavily upon existing
scholarship. Those familiar with the Civil War's Western Theater
will undoubtedly recognize many familiar arguments and
interpretations. After all, how many times have students of American
military history read about Grant's purported predilection for
alcohol? Groom includes no citations; scholars interested in
pursuing additional research will find only a few sources listed in
a short section along with the Acknowledgements. Also, some readers
might be troubled by the extensive background on the Civil War's
first two years or the central role given to Grant.
Nonetheless Groom's solid,
engagingly well-written, and fast-paced historical study of a
critical campaign and of the generals and the politicians who
dictated events during it will surely please general readers and
Civil War buffs alike, if not serious scholars. These qualities make
Vicksburg, 1863 a book to be recommended highly.
University of Texas, Tyler
 Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986.
 While Groom has recently written about other
wars in 1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls (NY:
Atlantic Monthly Pr, 2005) and Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson
and Jean Laffite at the Battle of New Orleans (NY: Knopf,
2006), his Shrouds of Glory: Atlanta to Nashville, The Last
Great Campaign of the Civil War (NY: Atlantic Monthly Pr,
1995) launched his venture into the genre of American military