It is very difficult to write a great Civil War history book. Many writers have tackled a multiplicity of topics related to America’s most defining conflict but only a relative few have produced great books. Some historians like Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote produced noteworthy books primarily due to their enormous capacity to use narrative historical storytelling to bring past events to life. Other historians like Bell Wiley used detailed study of primary sources to craft a profound social history of life on both sides of the firing line. Writers such as Stephen Sears and James McPherson adopted an approach that focused on comprehensive research linked to an analytical mindset that took readers inside the events of the Civil War. There have been a number of different approaches to producing great Civil War history books and in Donald L. Miller’s latest publication yet another tactic has been used to generate a great book worthy of attention.
In Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy Donald L. Miller focusses his narrative attention on drafting an insightful biography of Ulysses S. Grant from his pre-war life through the culmination of his torturous campaign along the Mississippi River. Along the way, Miller details a biographical sketch of the penultimate Union commander in a way that truly brings him back to life for readers. Miller’s portrayal of Grant is authentic as it encompasses not only that redoubtable American general’s great talents but also his dire shortcomings. Alongside Grant’s biography, Miller fills in the spaces by doing a first-rate job of recreating the sequence of events in the Western Theater of Operations in the Civil War from the start of the conflict until the fall of Vicksburg. In this way readers are provided a fast-paced narrative populated by such interesting characters as Albert Sidney Johnson, William Tecumseh Sherman, David Porter, Henry Halleck, and Abraham Lincoln. But above all other actors in the true-to-life drama that unfolded in this critical region of the Civil War, Miller returns, time and again, to Grant and the flawed human being that he was.
While there have been many books written about Ulysses S. Grant, no recent publication surpasses Miller’s work in terms of capturing the contradictory nature of this man. Years ago T. Harry Williams, a great historian, commented that, “Grant’s life is, in some ways, the most remarkable one in American history…There is no other quite like it.” A dashing young officer during the Mexican War, Grant succumbed to the personal demon of alcohol abuse while stationed in California. Forced to resign his commission, Grant’s life as a civilian was always tottering on the edge of disaster. A series of vocational failures in Ohio and Missouri left the stricken Grant family on the precipice of financial disaster. On one occasion a former military colleague ran into Grant dressed in a seedy coat and peddling firewood. The former fellow officer exclaimed, “Great God, Grant, what are you doing?” Grant responded in his typically terse manner by sadly saying, “I am solving the problem of poverty.” Eventually, Grant had to call on family members to stake him to a job in a store in Galena, Illinois where he was living when the Civil War broke out.
Miller does an outstanding job of chronicling the tangled pathway Grant had to pursue to secure a commission to serve in the newly expanding Federal Army. Turned away by a former colleague, George Brinton McClellan, Grant landed a commission with a fractious Illinois volunteer regiment. This commonplace assignment grew to a brigade command that allowed Grant to begin his combat duties at Belmont, Missouri. From that indecisive but bold effort, Grant rose to a position of authority that brought him command at places like Forts Henry and Donelson. There, success was won and fame garnered. However, for Grant progress was not a straight and ascending line as the fame won along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers was almost destroyed at Shiloh. Caught unprepared for the Rebel onslaught in April 1862, Grant finally won a victory in the two-day battle at Shiloh. However, the bloody cost in human life assessed by Grant’s lackluster first day performance nearly scuttled his career. Only the intercession of President Lincoln, who could not put aside one of his few fighting generals, saved Grant from the perdition demanded by the northern press, Grant’s superiors, and many other voices.
It is Grant’s resilience that Donald L. Miller so effectively captures in this fine book that one can almost feel the will power as a leader that the eventual overall Union commander possessed. Grant was a penultimately determined man. One fellow officer described Grant in this way, “He habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it.” Grant distilled his years of military experience down to a rather simple tactical philosophy. When once asked about the “art of war” Grant described his style of action in this way, “The art of war is simple enough; find out where your enemy is, get at him as soon as you can, and strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” Generally calm in tough situations Grant once was asked why his self-control was so pronounced, even to the extent of his virtually never swearing and responded by saying, “I have always noticed…that swearing helps to rouse a man’s anger; and when a man flies into passion his adversary who keeps cool always gets the better of him.” Described as a “butcher” in the last year of the war during the Overland Campaign in Virginia, Grant was not unmoved by the pain and suffering of his men. During the fighting at Champion’s Hill and Big Black River, Grant stayed a night on the porch of his opponent, General John C. Pemberton’s, former headquarters which had been converted into a field hospital. Later, reflecting back on this moment, Grant wrote, “While the battle is raging one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or the ten thousand, with great composure…but after the battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as a friend.” These qualities helped make Grant a supremely successful commander and one whose persistence allowed him to overcome so many obstacles at Vicksburg.
Miller takes readers through the path of river war that brought Grant to Vicksburg and a strategic victory that fatally wounded the Confederacy. At Vicksburg Grant and his army faced multiple foes. The Confederate forces arrayed against Grant were capable troops who held a seemingly impregnable position on the heights above the Mississippi River. Geography was against Grant as approaching Vicksburg in non-direct ways was rendered improbable by terrain that featured swamps, impassable bayous, and unnavigable riverways. Likewise, climate became a deadly foe. The brutal heat and humidity, linked with the swampy landscape, created a pestilential breeding ground that cost thousands of men their health. During the lengthy Vicksburg campaign, it can be justly argued that disease was the great killer of Federal troops rather than their armed Confederate foemen. Miller does an amazing job of fleshing out this slow and grim wastage of men encamped on levees in a flooded landscape, dying of malaria, dysentery, and various fevers. It was this attrition by illness that forced Grant to attempt nearly a half dozen projects designed to circumvent the Confederate defensive position and avoid having to run his fleet past the menacing Confederate guns.
In describing the various odd projects that Grant initiated during the fight at Vicksburg, Miller takes his readers into the dense, malaria waters that helped defend the Hill City. Grant ordered men to dig canals, launch amphibious operations in treacherous and ultimately impassable waterways, and use backbreaking techniques to saw underwater stumps or carve a pathway through overhanging forests. None of these special operations bore fruit, all of them cost lives, and each of them was an example of Grant’s unwillingness to accept fate. Eventually, Grant was forced to send his gunboats and transport vessels past the Vicksburg guns and he did so with great success. Then, in a blitzkrieg-like way, Grant launched his army. As Miller notes, “In eighteen days Grant’s army had marched nearly two hundred miles won five battles—four in six days; inflicted a loss of 5,787 killed, wounded, and missing; compelled the abandonment of two Confederate strongholds…captured the capital of Mississippi; chased Pemberton’s army inside Vicksburg; and positioned his own army between the only two rebel forces in the state…It was a tactical and strategic masterwork, and the decisions that decided the outcome had to be made in a flash, without consulting staff, other commanders, or his superiors in Washington.” Grant’s brilliance during this critical phase in the Vicksburg campaign stands in stark contrast to his opponent, General Pemberton, who was described by one of his chief lieutenants as a man who “has many ways of making people hate him and none to inspire confidence.”
Grant was a flawed man, and Miller pulls no punches in describing these flaws. On several occasions, Grants action reports, as well as his memoir, glossed over terrible mistakes and near disastrous decisions he made. Likewise, Grant on several occasions refused to accept a willingness on the part of Confederate commanders to declare a truce in order to tend to dead and wounded troops following ill-conceived Federal assaults. Grant also issued a declaration expelling all Jews from his theater of operations due to suspicions of illicit trading. This poorly thought out proposal was submarined by Lincoln and represented the lack political foresight that would rear its ugly head again during Grant’s presidency. But the greatest weakness Grant possessed was his inability to handle alcohol. Miller does an outstanding job of addressing Grant’s alcohol problems which were exaggerated by contemporary opponents and whitewashed by his supporters and many biographers, were a reality. While there is no evidence that Grant was ever drunk or dysfunctional due to alcohol consumption at any critical moment during his Civil War career, Miller does describe times when he abused drink. These events occurred at low points in his wartime service or times when forced inaction left Grant tactically spinning his wheels. But drink did not bring Grant down as evidenced by the final Victory first at Vicksburg, and later at Appomattox.
In Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy readers are given a comprehensive look back at the war along the western rivers, the campaign that closed off the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy, and the fall and rise of Ulysses S, Grant. In telling this story Donald L. Miller also captures the life experiences of common soldiers, escaped slaves, plantation owners, and a host of other characters who lived at this critical juncture in American history. However, above all else, Miller has crafted an insightful and striking look at the actions of General Grant at a turning point not only of the Civil War but also of American history. This is a great book and one that Civil war enthusiasts should read.
Title: Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy
Author: Donald L. Miller
Publisher: Simon and Schuster