In Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign that Broke the Confederacy, Lafayette College historian Donald Miller is at pains to explain that he’s not a Grant “hagiographer.” His book convincingly balances praise of Grant’s successes with criticism of the ways that Grant went wrong.
Grant suffered from the opposite condition of Union commanders in the East. While McClellan overrated Robert E. Lee and the enemy in general, which made him too cautious, Grant underrated Confederates. This attitude was both a strength and a weakness for Grant. Valuing Confederate generalship low made Grant bold but sometimes reckless.
Failure to prepare for a Confederate attack while massing troops at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee to march on the rail junction at Corinth just across the state line in Mississippi almost cost Grant his army on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh.
In the Vicksburg campaign, underrating the enemy caused mistakes like Sherman’s failed attack on the city at Chickasaw Bayou in December 1862 or, five months later in May of 1863, the failed assault on the fortifications at Vicksburg while the city’s defenders were still strong. After taking heavy casualties but making few gains, Grant ordered his forces to settle into the siege that would exhaust the city and lead to its capitulation several weeks later.
If anything, reading how Grant made mistakes and then learned from them to change course afterwards makes the story of the Vicksburg campaign more interesting.
And that’s really the point of Miller’s text. While Gettysburg has gotten all the attention, Miller argues that Vicksburg was far more important to the outcome of the Civil War.
Vicksburg More Important than Gettysburg
Gettysburg has all the elements of a good story: dramatic battles where armies clash in open fields or defending hills, narrative unities of place and time worthy of Aristotle (the battle happened in one place and over a contiguous three-day period), and colorful personalities on both sides. Especially on the losing Confederate side — Robert E. Lee but also Jeb Stuart, James Longstreet and George Pickett.
Vicksburg is more complicated. Though centered on the fortified city on a bluff over the Mississippi, the story of Vicksburg is too spread out over space and time to offer a reader the satisfaction of narrative unities.
The Vicksburg campaign lasted not three days but about a year. It involved not just the army but the navy too. The campaign started far away along the Mississippi, both upriver in Cairo, Illinois, and downriver in New Orleans. Grant tried half a dozen different times to take the city, until he finally hit on the idea of attacking the riverfront citadel from the landward side to the east, which required him to make a circuitous march over a couple weeks through the heart of the state of Mississippi.
Finally, the Vicksburg campaign ended not as Gettysburg did with a glorious but doomed charge over an open field in the span of a fateful hour, but instead with a month-long siege whose main requirement was not courage but perseverance.
Though harder to understand, Vicksburg was more important. Despite the drama that Southerners have felt ever since about Pickett’s Charge, Gettysburg changed little in the war. Lee marched into the North, fought, lost some troops, and then marched his armies out again, leaving the situation largely unchanged.
Only if Lee had won and went on to threaten Washington, DC could Gettysburg have influenced the outcome of the war. But that’s not what happened. Though Lee failed in his goal of inserting himself between the Army of the Potomac and the national capital city, he did succeed in retreating with his army intact enough to fight another day. And to keep fighting for nearly two more years.
Vicksburg by contrast, spelled the beginning of the end for the Confederacy because of the importance of everything the South lost when Confederate General John Pemberton surrendered the city to Grant’s forces on July 4, 1863:
- Grant captured a whole Confederate army, the second of his career.
- The South was cut in half. This nearly cut off the ability to ship food and raw materials from Texas to armies in the East. Symbolically, the Confederacy could no longer claim to be a unified nation, reducing its political credibility at home and abroad.
- The Union gained control of the Mississippi River to ship the crops of the Midwest down to New Orleans. As Lincoln put it when he learned that Grant had taken Vicksburg, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
- In a further blow to the Confederacy’s credibility as a nation, Vicksburg was the hometown of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the wealthiest city in his home state of Mississippi. The loss of Vicksburg anticipated the fall of Atlanta and Richmond.
- The cooperation of the army and the navy, both blue-water (ocean) ships under Admiral David Farragut coming up from New Orleans and the brown-water (river) fleet of Admiral David Porter coming down from Cairo and Memphis, was innovative and established a precedent for joint operations that Grant would take to the East to win the war against Lee.
- The Vicksburg campaign, fought in the heart of the slave plantation country of the Mississippi delta, accelerated the liberation of enslaved people, the enlistment of Black soldiers, and the system of contraband camps and support services that would serve as a model for Reconstruction through the end of the war and into the post-war period.
You Can’t Edit Slavery out of Vicksburg
Though Miller doesn’t mention it, other historians have noted that Gettysburg also has appealed to generations of white Civil War buffs because Black soldiers did not fight in combat roles there.
This allowed white people to forget the role of slavery and race in the war and let them focus instead on battlefield tactics while celebrating the valor of (white) men on both sides. It was easier to see the Civil War as a white man’s fight if you talked about Gettysburg instead of other battles. As a Union victory with Southern valor, Gettysburg’s story became an episode in a story of reconciliation between white people of North and South by editing out the divisive issue of slavery.
Celebration of white valor at Gettysburg helped create an inaccurate view of the Civil War that ignored its cause (slavery), its most important issue (race), and its legacy of unfinished work (civil rights) up to the present day.
You can’t edit out slavery from the story of Vicksburg. It turns out that you can’t edit out race and Reconstruction from the aftermath of Vicksburg either.
Miller does an excellent job of introducing Grant’s efforts to deal with the influx of self-liberated Black people into his lines. Though unprepared to receive such a large quantity of freedom seekers, Grant quickly instituted a system to house and feed tens of thousands of Black civilians in the middle of a war zone and then to employ them in ways useful to the war effort, from shouldering a rifle to building entrenchments to growing cotton on their old plantations (now for wages) for sale up North.
One of the most under-appreciated aspects of Vicksburg is that it helped make Grant a “committed emancipationist,” claims Miller, “freeing by military action over one hundred thousands slaves in the lower Mississippi Valley and working…to put nearly twenty-one thousand black men in Union blue by the end of 1863.”
Miller offers a compelling argument that you can’t understand the Civil War without understanding the Vicksburg campaign.
“At Vicksburg Grant evolved a war-winning strategy for the North. His triumph led Lincoln to call him east to take on Lee in Virginia, and there he fought as he had in the west,” writes Miller.
After Shiloh, Grant learned that the South would not be defeated by merely losing battles. In a people’s war as the contest between North and South had become, only capturing armies and destroying both the enemy’s ability and its will to wage war could bring victory.
The Civil War was in many ways the world’s first modern war. And as Miller writes, in a contest of modern armies of 50,000 or 80,000 men, “it is campaigns, not battles, that win wars.”