Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg by Justin S. Solonick (review)
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Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg. By Justin S. Solonick. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015. Pp. 289. $37.50 cloth)

The Vicksburg campaign, which culminated in the surrender of the Gibraltar of the Confederacy on July 4, 1863, following a forty-seven-day-long siege, was one of the longest and most complex campaigns of the Civil War. Indeed, many historians consider it one of the most decisive campaigns in American military history. The operations conducted against Vicksburg by the Army of the Tennessee, led by Major General Ulysses S. Grant, established the Union commander as one of the great battle captains of history. His campaign of maneuver is highlighted in modern military manuals and still studied at the United States Military Academy.

Understandably, most works on Vicksburg focus on the operational phase of the campaign and the brilliant maneuvers by which Grant defeated Confederate forces in five battles over a seventeen-day period, pushed his army deep into the interior of Mississippi, and drove Confederate troops back into the city’s formidable defenses. They also detail Grant’s attempts to take the city by storm. Failure of these assaults compelled Grant to lay siege to the city, or, as he phrased it, to “out-camp the enemy” (p. 66).

However, few works provide more than a cursory examination of the siege warfare that for six weeks was vigorously prosecuted by Union soldiers to seal the fate of Vicksburg. As author Justin Solonick asserts, the siege was more than “hem them in, starve them out” (p. 109). In this, the first exclusive treatment of the Vicksburg siege operations, Solonick makes the compelling and convincing argument that the Confederate garrison commanded by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton was not starved out. Rather, the southern defenders of Vicksburg were dug out by extensive and relentless siege operations that blended Vaubanian theory and soldier improvisation.

Solonick’s work begins with an examination of earlier American experiences with siege operations, especially those conducted by General [End Page 95] Winfield Scott at Vera Cruz during the Mexican War—operations in which many future Civil War generals gained initial experience with this unique form of warfare. He also covers the rudimentary training that many of these men received in siege operations as cadets at West Point.

But as Grant and his men soon discovered, the city’s unique topography and the elaborate line of fortifications that ringed the city did not lend themselves to textbook siege operations. Compounding the situation for the Union army was the fact that only a small percentage of Grant’s officers’ corps had been trained at West Point. Also, there were few military or civilian-trained engineers within the army. The solution was to blend both theory and improvisation, which was done with stunning success.

The author covers the spectrum of siege as practiced at Vicksburg, from establishment of the line of circumvallation to the saps, approaches, and parallels that led to the final phase of the siege. He also discusses the mining intended to destroy the earth and log bastions that guarded the city and blocked unfettered navigation of the Mississippi River. Solonick gives readers an excellent and comprehensive understanding of the complexities of the siege operations that sealed the doom of Vicksburg and with it the Confederacy.

Although the work would have benefited by a closer edit to eliminate a number of minor factual errors, this book is a truly significant contribution to our understanding of the Vicksburg campaign. Engineering Victory is an outstanding work that fills one of the few, yet major, voids in the literature on the Vicksburg campaign and taps into scores of soldier memoirs, diaries, and letters that add much human interest to this study. Engineering Victory is an essentially important work that will enhance the most complete collection of Vicksburg titles. [End Page 96]

Terrence J. Winschel

TERRENCE J. WINSCHEL is a retired historian of Vicksburg National Military Park, where he served from 1978 to 2012. He is the author of Triumph & Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign, volumes 1 and 2.

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