- The Defense of Vicksburg: A Louisiana Chronicle
Historians have for years analyzed the social aspects of the Civil War and the common soldiers who fought it. Bell Wiley is perhaps best known for his outstanding and path-breaking studies of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. Only recently, however, has the study of the war's social aspects become a priority for historians. With the sobriquet "New Military History," historians are beginning to include social, economic, and political factors into the standard old treatment of battles and generals.
As part of this new emphasis on the social aspects of the war, historians have examined the soldiers themselves in a continuation of the Wiley school of the common soldier; James McPherson, James Robertson, and Reid Mitchell have all contributed important examinations. Other historians such as George C. Rable and Michael Ballard have incorporated this new history in their battle studies. Still, other historians have put an emphasis on publishing soldiers' letters and diaries. Now, in a new and interesting twist, the book under review examines whole letters and diaries of soldiers from one state within the context of a single Civil War campaign. The combination of these two older methods has hopefully produced a new wave in Civil War study that other historians will follow.
In The Defense of Vicksburg: A Louisiana Chronicle, Allan C. Richard Jr. and Mary Margaret Higginbotham Richard weave a campaign narrative around the letters and diaries of the Louisiana soldiers who fought in the campaign. Beginning with the organization of the Louisiana units, the first chapters lead up to the Vicksburg campaign, which is then covered in detail through the documents left by the soldiers. The most interesting portions of the book are the final two chapters, in which the authors let the Louisiana soldiers tell about the surrender, parole, furlough, and eventual reunion with the army. Very few campaign histories cover that part of the Vicksburg campaign.
The book is very good at providing the soldiers' views. As opposed to a publication of a single soldier's diary, letters, or journal, The Defense of Vicksburg [End Page 100] gives a more balanced portrayal of one campaign, with many different soldiers' views provided in one book. And with so many soldiers' letters and diaries, the entries provide not only the standard treatment of camp life, battle, siege, surrender, sickness, death, and homesickness, but also reveal a more comprehensive view of the same.
Unfortunately, the same factor that gives the book its broadness also contributes to one of its weaknesses: it is difficult to keep track of all the writers. Also, it is a difficult read due to the choppy nature fostered by necessary breaks between letters and diaries. Few will find the book easy reading. The book's importance, therefore, is in presenting a campaign through the eyes of one state's soldiers. It is reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century national park commission studies of the various states' troops at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga.
Although The Defense of Vicksburg is not a page-turner, as indeed few compilations of letters and diaries are, it is nevertheless an important addition to Civil War historiography. By opening a "new front" (state-oriented emphasis on a particular campaign), the book will perhaps pave the way for future studies that will hopefully enlighten our understanding of the Civil War even more.