Books
11:43 am
Mon June 15, 2009

Vicksburg, 1863, by Winston Groom

Vicksburg, 1863, is Groom's fifteenth book, and it is beginning to look as if he will be known, in the end, as Winston Groom, gifted narrative historian, not just as the author of Forrest Gump, notwithstanding how delightful that novel is.

Vicksburg, 1863, is Groom's fifteenth book, and it is beginning to look as if he will be known, in the end, as Winston Groom, gifted narrative historian, not just as the author of Forrest Gump, notwithstanding how delightful that novel is.

Groom has become a great explainer. He does a great deal of research into primary and secondary materials, but his real strength is in digesting and synthesizing the masses of material and then explaining, in dramatic, novelistic fashion, what happened, how it happened and why it happened, and what the implications were.

So, why Vicksburg? Why was the capture of this little city on the bluffs of the Mississippi River so very important?

Groom explains that the South, although obviously rich in fertile agricultural land, at the beginning of the Civil War did not raise much a person could actually eat. Planters raised tobacco and indigo and the fantastically profitable cotton and only enough fruits, grains and vegetables for local consumption. It took a year or two to switch from cotton to comestibles, and much of the South never did. A large percent of the beef, corn and grain, food for Confederate soldiers and animals, came from the three trans-Mississippi Confederate states, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, where they were still being grown. The supplies were brought across the river, then shipped on by rail to rebel armies, even the Army of Northern Virginia. General Ulysses S. Grant could not ignore Vicksburg, known as "the Gibraltar of the West."

Since Vicksburg sat astride the Mississippi, the rebel guns there prevented the farmers and manufacturers of the Midwest from shipping their products down the river and then to the northeast or to Europe. Midwesterners tended to be less passionate abolitionists than New Englanders and this massive inconvenience and financial loss was affecting their zeal for the war.

Groom gives a thumbnail sketch of Grant's life and career and it is edifying. He had been a poor child, not smooth in manner, a West Pointer and then a hero in the war with Mexico. He did have a drinking problem, but never while leading troops in battle. As Lincoln probably said, "Find out what kind of whiskey he drinks and give it to all my generals." When complaints about Grant reached Lincoln he replied Grant was indispensable because "he fights."

Grant fought. He and his friend William Tecumseh Sherman were two Union Generals who realized the war could only be won by "hard war," burning fields and cities and destroying railroads, and by attrition. The South could never match the North in casualties. The population of the North was triple that of the Confederacy. So Grant attacked, and at Vicksburg, it took nine tries.

Groom describes Grant's attacks from every imaginable angle. At one point Grant even attempted to dig a huge canal to redirect the Mississippi and leave Vicksburg high and dry. Some attacks were across open stretches at rebel ramparts with horrific casualties which Groom describes in such a way as to make the reader afraid and filled with wonder at the soldiers' courage. The British had thrown themselves at fortifications like that in 1812 in New Orleans, which Groom covered in Patriotic Fire. There were advances through impenetrable terrain--"steep ravines, streams, ridges, canebrakes, thick timber, and underbrush fit only for ?bears, wild boars, [and] panthers . . . ."

Once Grant had Vicksburg surrounded, he laid siege and a kind of trench warfare began, with anywhere from 500 to 5,000 shells falling on the city every day, around the clock, for 41 days, while the inhabitants slowly starved in little hillside caves.

Vicksburg fell, as it inevitably had to, and Groom reminds the reader that the war and the slaughter should have ended that day. The Confederacy was truly a lost cause from then on, with half of the war's 650,000 deaths occurring, needlessly, after Vicksburg.

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