- Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi
Among the most prolific and accomplished of Civil War historians is Michael B. Ballard, whose latest effort, Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi, is an authoritative account of the year-long struggle for the Confederate bastion. Ballard's focus is exclusively on Vicksburg and his command of the subject is evident on every page. He deftly describes the complex mix of personalities and politics that dictated strategic decisions and presents a clear and evenhanded account of the military and naval operations that decided the campaign. The result is the finest one-volume history of the Vicksburg campaign yet published.
A particularly attractive feature of Ballard's fast-moving narrative is the inclusion of a large number of quotations from previously unused sources. Civilians as well as soldiers describe the rush of events and the result is a surprisingly fresh take on a familiar story. To top things off, the author employs a comfortable prose style that makes this book a pleasure to read. A phrase such as "Pemberton said okay" (245) may strike some as excessively casual, but on the whole Ballard's approach works very well. More historians should try it.
Ballard depicts Ulysses S. Grant as a general at the top of his form, whose most valuable (if not most valued) subordinate was John A. McClernand, a troublesome but talented amateur soldier who is only now beginning to receive the credit he deserves. In sharp contrast, the author views John C. Pemberton, the hapless Confederate commander, as an overmatched paper shuffler, but he rightly places much of the responsibility for the fiasco on the vacillating and ineffectual Joseph E. Johnston, who made no effort to relieve Vicksburg and thereby doomed Pemberton to his fate. In addition to doling out credit and fixing [End Page 198] blame, Ballard slays a slew of myths and convincingly refutes the half-baked notion (recently advanced by some half-baked historians) that Vicksburg was an affair of no particular importance. "Grant's victory irrevocably turned the tide of the war in the Western Theater in favor of the Union" (413), concludes Ballard, and since the Civil War was decided in the Western Theater the impact of the Confederate calamity at Vicksburg can hardly be overestimated.
Convention requires a reviewer to point out one or two minor errors and disagree with some aspect of the author's thesis, or at least his choice of words. As this reviewer lacks the moral courage to break with convention, he will simply remark in passing that David G. Farragut's passage of the Port Hudson batteries in March 1863 was hardly "unimpeded" (351). Having satisfied convention, he is pleased to state that Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi can be read with pleasure and profit by everyone interested in how the United States of America bested the Confederate insurgency.