Vicksburg, 1863 - Winston Groom Does this scenario sound familiar: a society riven by controversy with each side taking increasingly rigid positions; a new form of communications technology that permits news to travel in seconds which used to require days, Supreme Court decisions that seem to feed the flames of divisiveness, and massive immigration from other countries seeking filling the need for cheap labor in factories and farms. Such was the situation just before the Civil War. Slavery was the issue, the telegraph provided near instantaneous communication, and the Irish fled the Potato Famine and worked in slave-like conditions in northern factories. Plus ca change....

The author suggests that following Vicksburg (which occurred the same day as Gettysburg), that Jefferson Davis should have thrown in the towel and negotiated peace with Lincoln. Losing Vicksburg meant loss of control of the New Orleans ports and the lower Mississippi, which meant the Confederacy no longer had any way to export cotton to England, and it was cotton that gave England some reason to purchase Confederate bonds which help fund the war. It was only Davis's pig-headediness and foolishness that kept them fighting and this ultimately resulted in economic collapse for the south after 1865. Before the war, Mississippi had ranked near the top in per capita income. Ever since 1865, it has ranked near the bottom.

Groom’s descriptions of the details of battle are worth reading.

“,,,as a “minié” ball, after its French inventor. In the full fury of an assault, assuming that one corps had attacked another, it would not be inconceivable that during any given minute sixty thousand deadly projectiles would be ripping through the air toward flesh and bone. The size and weight of the bullet would be sufficient to disable most men no matter where it hit them, even in the hand or foot. Because they had no munitions factories at the beginning of the war, the Confederates equipped themselves with weapons from state militias or by seizing federal armories, as well as by making large purchases from abroad, principally from Great Britain. As the war ground on they added to their arsenal by collecting Union weapons left upon the battlefield. More worrisome for the foot soldier, attacks were accompanied by or defended against by artillery fire, which the troops feared even more than rifle bullets because its effects were so ghastly. (Even so, small arms fire caused most of the casualties during the war.) The artillery pieces had come a long way since the previous major world conflict—the Napoleonic Wars half a century earlier. . . .The muzzle velocity of these guns was low compared with twentieth-or twenty-first-century weapons, and soldiers could often actually see the rounds arcing toward them like deadly black grapefruits. One veteran recalled a companion who, watching one of the seemingly slow cannonballs bouncing over the ground near him, stuck his foot out as if to stop the thing and in a split second the foot was ripped completely off his leg. In a battle early in the war a Union general seated on his horse heard a strange sound next to him and, when he turned to investigate, was horrified to see that his chief of staff, still erect in his saddle, had had his head completely taken off by a cannonball.”

The early 19th century had seen a dramatic rise in the economic value of cotton. The cotton gin made removing the seeds from cotton much less labor intensive and the plant’s value as a cash crop skyrocketed. For four decades in a row, according to David Blight, cotton’s economic value increased four-fold and by the beginning of the war slaves, essential to the production of cotton, had an asset value of $3.5 billion, more than the entire worth of railroads and industries in the north. As they represented property, it’s no wonder slave owners reared what they believed to be the confiscation of their property. And the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, backed them up first in Prigg v Pennsylvania, then in Dred Scott which invalidated the Missouri Compromise. Northern States like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were howling for states rights in passing laws prohibiting local magistrates from enforcing the Fugitive Slave Laws while the southern states, in a delicious irony, called for stronger federal and national enforcement of those same laws.

Typical of the type of Southern youngbloods ... was Charles Colcock Jones, a thirty-year-old Georgian who had graduated from Princeton and held a Harvard law degree and thus had had ample opportunity to observe the Northern abolitionist movement firsthand. He wrote his father, a clergyman: “The Black Republicans may rave among the cold hills of their native states, and grow mad with entertainment of infidelity, heresies, and false conceptions of a ‘higher law’; but Heaven forbid that they ever attempt to set foot on this land of sunshine, of high-souled honor, and of liberty. A freeman's heart can beat in no nobler behalf, and no more sacred obligation can rest upon a people than those now devolved upon us to protect our homes, our loves, our lives, our property, our religion, and our liberties, from the inhuman infidel hordes who threaten us with invasion, dishonor, and subjugation.”

In the meantime, Grant, having failed at just about everything else, had managed to secure a colonelcy after show considerable leadership in whipping into shape a recalcitrant regiment. He was one of the first to recognize, along with Lincoln, the importance of the Mississippi, control of which would split the Confederacy and provide a commercial outlet for northern products. He was also blessed with several technological advances in the development of the steamboat and its conversion into the river gunboat. “These were not “boats” in the conventional sense of the term. They were upwards of two hundred feet long and more, weighed as much as five hundred tons, employed crews of up to 150 men, and could bring to bear a concentration of twenty large-caliber cannons at over-the-water speeds of around eight to ten knots. They were self-sufficient except for the coal tenders that supplied their fuel, protected by iron armor plating two and a half inches thick....was one of the most remarkable feats of shipbuilding in the world, since the authorities in Washington had decreed that the vessels must be commissioned within sixty-four days from laying of the keel to final completion.” Had the steamboat been available, Grant would not have been able to subdue the Cumberland and the Tennessee, both of which ran north.

A substantial amount of the book is allotted to describing the events leading up to Vicksburg, including Shiloh and the naval battles for New Orleans. Each had important effects on the distribution of troops before the Vicksburg campaign. Groom has written an enjoyable, very readable account of a lesser known, but vitally important campaign in the west.