Arguably the most important campaign of the American Civil War was for the control of Vicksburg, the key to the Mississippi [End Page 280] River. Compared to the battle that occurred in Pennsylvania, very little has been written on the siege of Vicksburg. Out of the limited examinations of this campaign, very few have been intended for the general reader. The most recent study by Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump (1986), attempts to rectify this deficiency.
Groom starts the book with an examination of northern and southern societies and the political tensions that ultimately resulted in the Civil War. While the author does cite slavery as a major cause of the Civil War, he is writing for a general audience and tries to simplify a very complicated and still politically charged topic. While he does a better job than most general historians, Groom still tries to deflect the impact of the peculiar institution on the South by magnifying other supporting causes for sectional tensions, such as the tariff of 1828. Overall, this chapter is a fairly succinct examination of antebellum America.
The next section introduces a major component of this study, the life of the Federal commander at Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant. The author examines the life of Grant from his adolescent days as a cadet at the United States Military Academy, his service in the Mexican War, and his antebellum financial troubles up through the battle of Shiloh. In this coverage, Groom mentions how Grant became an unintentional slaveholder but does not state that he quickly emancipated him when given the opportunity. Regardless, there is no reason why Grant as a slaveholder should be included in a study about the Vicksburg campaign. Overall, the biography of Grant includes no new sources nor is Grant's life shown in a unique way.
The rest of the book is devoted to the military actions that occurred around Vicksburg, from the U.S. Navy shelling the city in 1862 to the final capitulation of the Confederate garrison a year later. Groom's sweeping narrative of the campaigns for Vicksburg is painted with a broad brush. Focusing mainly on the generals that led both opposing armies, the narrative rarely gets to the divisional level, let alone brigade or regimental levels. A consequence of this is that the voices of the common soldiers who did the most fighting and [End Page 281] dying in the campaigns are rarely heard. Groom does an adequate job covering the 1863 campaign from the Union landing at Port Gibson, to the battle of Champion's Hill, and finally into the siege lines. Like his treatment of Grant, there is no new interpretation of the campaign and its outcome. Like many previous writers, Groom has a dislike of Confederate general Joseph Johnston, believing that he was to blame for the final loss of the city, an argument that, lacking the use of primary documents, ultimately fails to convince the reader. Ten maps aid the reader, but, like the overall narrative, these maps are general and lack the details needed to understand the campaign.
Vicksburg: 1863 is an easily readable account of the Vicksburg campaign intended for a general audience. In this regard, Groom has done an adequate job of simplifying such a complicated campaign. However, its lack of citations and lack of detail prevent the book from surpassing Warren Grabau's Ninety-Eight Days to become the definitive account of the most important siege of the Civil War.
William Backus is a former seasonal National Park ranger at Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Petersburg National Battlefield in Petersburg, Virginia, and is currently the historic interpreter for the Prince William County Division of Historic Preservation in Woodbridge, Virginia.