- Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg by Justin S. Solonick
Justin S. Solonick’s book provides a thorough and engaging study of the Union army’s siege operations against the pivotal river city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The volume also goes beyond Vicksburg and serves as an excellent primer on how nineteenth-century military thinkers understood siege warfare. Solonick’s main point, which he repeats throughout the text, is that “American military engineering on the eve of the Vicksburg Campaign was sophisticated, but the shortage of engineers in the Army of the Tennessee forced that particular Union army to mix its by-the-book siege techniques with western soldier improvisation” (p. 3).
According to Solonick, “The common western soldier, as well as those unacquainted with military science, came to Vicksburg with [the] perception of siege craft” as a matter of “Hem them in, starve them out” (p. 114). “It would,” he argues, “take the efforts of the handful of professionals in Ulysses S. Grant’s army to correct this misinterpretation of siege warfare” (p. 114). Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg corrects this misperception for the reader as well. Readers will walk away from the volume with a great deal of respect for the hardworking engineers of the Army of the Tennessee who faced various obstacles and challenges. Rather than just surrounding Vicksburg and waiting for its defenders to capitulate, Grant’s men transformed themselves from a marching army into a besieging one. [End Page 439] Throughout the siege, engineers kept the men in constant motion, digging ever closer to the Confederate lines and attempting to breach them.
In ten chapters, Solonick covers a range of topics from the placement of batteries and the development of wooden mortars to the sharpshooters’ contest at Vicksburg. He also takes the reader into the West Point classroom of Dennis Hart Mahan, whose French military theory–based teachings influenced several generations of graduates. Additionally, Solonick reviews other sieges in American history, paying particular attention to the siege of Veracruz during the U.S.-Mexican War. Such examinations provide excellent background once Solonick brings the reader to the scene that faced Grant and his engineers in Mississippi. Solonick meticulously examines what military manuals prescribed and how Grant’s officers and men adapted such concepts to their particular circumstances. Weaving in primary accounts along with his descriptions, Solonick provides a rich and fascinating account of siege operations. His writing is clear and engaging, with several sections successfully capturing the drama of the operation.
Because some of the language used to describe the siege may not be familiar to readers, Solonick has graciously provided a useful glossary of terms. He also includes a bibliographic essay, noting other scholars’ works and engaging with the historiographical debate about the modernity of the American Civil War. While thorough in reading his sources concerning the siege, Solonick makes unnecessarily debatable claims when discussing soldiers’ motivations and the importance of the Vicksburg campaign. However, such assertions are limited, unlike his distractingly repetitive point about how western troops improvised textbook siege tactics to deal with the particular circumstances they faced.
Despite these issues, Solonick has produced an excellent work. While he covers the Confederate perspective in limited fashion, he makes the case that some future scholar ought to take up the challenge. One hopes that Solonick himself, who has demonstrated his command of the subject matter, will be that scholar. Future works might also analyze the investment tactics used during the entire war. Solonick touches on these matters briefly but leaves the reader wishing for more of his intriguing insight.