When the last stronghold of the Confederacy fell

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When the last stronghold of the Confederacy fell

Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy by Donald L. Miller, Simon & Schuster, US $35.00, Pp 662, October 2019, ISBN 978-1451641370

The Civil War historians have generally given more importance to the battle at Gettysburg at the cost of the battle Vicksburg, Mississippi. The victory in Vicksburg proved decisive, no less than the victory at Gettysburg, for the Union victory in the Civil War. Vicksburg was the last stronghold of the Confederacy on the Mississippi River. Sitting on a high bluff, overlooking the river, it made it impossible for the Union forces to use the river for shipping between the Union-controlled Midwest and New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. The Union forces did win the battle after a year-long campaign after General Ulysses S. Grant found a way to lay siege and force the city to capitulate. As the Union forces continued their war effort, thousands of slaves crossed over to Union lines where more than twenty thousand became soldiers. Others seized the plantations they worked on and created a revolution-like situation.

By the end of 1862, it had become clear that Vicksburg was the most important strategic point in the Confederacy. Vicksburg was a fortified town on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. It was the last obstacle facing Union forces trying to gain control of the great river of America and split the Confederacy in two, separating Arkansas, Texas and much of Louisiana from secessionist states east of the Mississippi. In November 1862, the Federals tested Vicksburg again with Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. In Vicksburg, Donald L. Miller tells the full story of Grant’s Mississippi Valley campaign, from Cairo to Vicksburg, along with Farragut’s capture of New Orleans and his frustrating summer in front of Vicksburg in 1862, which is an essential part of the Union’s Vicksburg campaign and mere prelude to it. Vicksburg is based on primary sources such as letters, diaries, memoirs, and official reports, collected over the course of twenty-two years in over forty major archives.

Donald L. Miller says that Vicksburg was those decisive battles that produce war-turning strategic consequences. The only Civil War battle remotely like it was Antietam. In stopping Lee’s northward thrust at Antietam Creek, Maryland, in September 1862, George McClellan had opened the way for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation which changed a limited war to preserve the Union into a revolutionary struggle to save the Union and destroy slavery. Donald L. Miller says that Meade’s victory at Gettysburg had less of an impact on the course of the war. Importantly, it stopped the second Confederate invasion, and the monumental blood-letting virtually assured that there would be no third attempt, but the battle was decisive only because losing it would have been catastrophe for the Union cause. Donald L. Miller argues that Gettysburg had nothing to do with emancipation, and Meade’s halting pursuit left Lee to escape to Virginia, replenish his shattered army, and return to his former line defending Richmond, with the army’s morale virtually intact.

By contrast, Vicksburg had immense strategic consequences. Donald L. Miller says that it did more than open the river and split the Confederacy. It took the river counties of Mississippi and Louisiana out of the war and left the strongest Federal army in the Deep South, where it could move anywhere at will. At Vicksburg, General Ulysses S. 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. Turning the Army of the Potomac into an agile, improvising force, he used lightening maneuvers, like the crossing of the James; patient siege tactics to bottle up Lee in Richmond; and scorched-earth raids in the Shenandoah Valley — all of which led to Appomattox and the end. All the while, with Grant’s approval, Sherman cut a swath of destruction through Georgia and the Carolinas, causing Deep South fathers and sons to desert the trenches around Richmond and return home to protect their families and farms.

In losing its hold on the Valley of the Mississippi, the Confederacy would be forced thereafter to fight a desperation battle for survival, a war of attrition – Grant style – that it could win only by an absence of political or moral resolve in the North, not by force of arms. Donald L. Miller tells us that when Grant and Sherman moved east in 1864, they prevailed by protracted campaigns that bore down on the enemy and employed every instrument of the state to crush him. In such a struggle, the enemy would not yield if defeated in one or even a succession of fixed battles. It was indispensable to annihilate armies and resources, to prosecute a people’s war, knowing that the people as well as the armies of the South must be conquered. And to win that kind of war he had to war on slavery. And they did.

Vicksburg is an authentic and elegant account of military leadership and war. Donald L. Miller has done a huge amount of hard research. The battle of Vicksburg was an important military campaign in itself and an important part of the civil War. Apart from its military and strategic importance, the battle of Vicksburg set more than a quarter of a million slaves free in the Mississippi Valley. Donald L. Miller has written a magnificent and insightful book not only on the Civil War but also General Ulysses S. Grant. It is a brilliantly written portrait of General Grant and his soldiers. It is packed with drama, suspense, horror, excitement, and everything a war offers.

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