Book Review: The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863


by Timothy B. Smith

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020. Pp. xx, 48. Illus., maps, appends, notes, index. $34.95. ISBN: 0700629068

Grant Attempts to Storm Vicksburg

Timothy B. Smith’s latest book describes the actions around Vicksburg in the context of the 1862-1863 Vicksburg Campaign. The narrative focuses on the Federal assault of the principal Confederate works and fortifications on May 17-22, 1862 by the Union Army of Tennessee commanded by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant against the Confederate Army of Vicksburg commanded by Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton. This expert historian on the Western Theater has written several excellent volumes on this campaign and, other than Edwin C. Bearss, is perhaps the most influential writer on this important operation and battle.

The second week of May in 1863 was extremely eventful and important to the Civil War. The battle of Chancellorsville was perhaps Gen. Robert E. Lee’s and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s greatest victory. A significant incident in of this battle occurred when Confederate Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire, to die on May 10th. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans was moving his forces southward toward Chattooga, and in Mississippi, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was moving his army north from the Port Gipson area following the crossing of the Mississippi River. By the start of the following week, Grant’s men had defeated Southern troops five times and were approaching the gates of Vicksburg. In additional to these victories, Grant and his forces had taken Jackson, the capitol of Mississippi, and destroyed it as a commercial and logistical center of the area.

Perhaps the most important decision made during this period was when Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave his blessing to Robert E. Lee’s bold plan to invade the North, rather than sending some of his army, such as Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s division, to Mississippi and other of his troops to middle Tennessee. Lee’s campaign eventually led to the battle of Gettysburg, culminating in an important Union victory. This excellent author makes the vital point that Lee’s invasion failed to end the war, was unsuccessful in convincing Great Britain and France to recognize the CSA or mediate the conflict, and did not pull some of Grant’s solders away from this critical location in the South. Smith further makes a compelling assumption that had Grant’s forces captured Vicksburg by May 22nd, CSA President Davis might have rescinded his approval of Robert E. Lee’s plan to invade the North and quite possibly the battle of Gettysburg would not have taken place.

Smith focuses his attention on why U.S. Grant wanted to attack the works quickly and how he intended to take this important city and gain total control of the Mississippi River. Though important, these assaults failed to lead to the Federals taking Vicksburg by May 22, 1863 and this is not emphasized in most studies of this operation. While historians in recent decades have produced an impressive body of work concerning the Vicksburg Campaign, this title is the first major complete narrative solely on these events, which based on numbers of fighting men involved, was the largest battle of the Vicksburg campaign. Additionally, Smith provides readers with excellent insight and analysis of the land campaign from Port Gipson to Champion Hill to Big Black River Bridge that lead up to the attacks in May and prior to the final battle and Union victory at Vicksburg.

One of the many excellent observations that Professor Smith makes is that throughout the war and prior to the Union’s Army of the Tennessee gaining control of Vicksburg, and thus the Mississippi River, was the importance of the city to commerce by river and rail for both Northern and Southern states as well as international trade. Smith reveals the importance and forward thinking of former U.S. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan”, which called for Union forces to control rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic seaports as well as gaining military victories. Additionally, Smith effectively proves that this long-term operation to open up the Mississippi and control Vicksburg was truly a turning point and ultimately essential to the Union victory in the Civil War and Grant‘s becoming the Commanding General of all United States armies.

Throughout this tome, Smith has provided an exceptional examination of the events and analysis of the reasons for the failure of the many Union assaults on the Confederate fortifications and how it led Grant to implement a siege that resulted in the eventual Federal victory in the battle for Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. Smith pointedly observes that the Union assaults on Confederate entrenchments were repulsed with heavier losses than Pemberton’s army took but did not end the campaign. The Union attacks were hindered by the efforts of Confederate Captain Samuel H. Lockett’s defensive efforts, fortifying Vicksburg with significant earthworks, lunettes, redans, and battery sites surrounding the city and covering the river that extended for several miles. Smith also skillfully covers the poor performance by Union generals William T. Sherman, James B. McPherson, and John A. McClernand during the many assaults. Two added features to this volume are the writer’s study of first hand accounts from the noncombatants in Vicksburg and many Union soldier’s letters, in which the troops offered their belief that the deadly, concentrated cross and enfilading fire by the Confederate forces was a major contribution to the Union failure to capture Vicksburg prior to July 4th and their surprise at the Southern army’s successful efforts.

Timothy Smith’s unquestioned writing talent has produced a moving account of the assaults on Vicksburg. This is a splendid contribution to the history and literature of this period and this important campaign. This University Press of Kansas publication includes fifteen excellent maps, thirty-five helpful photographs, a detailed bibliography, and notes, as well as a first-rate index, and two important order of battle appendices.

A volume in the Kansas series “Modern War Studies, The Union Assaults At Vicksburg provides students interested in the Civil War, the Western Theater and the Vicksburg campaign with an understanding of the dramatic political, and military events and personalities, as well as an appreciation of the sheer tragedy of this important fighting. This important work is expertly researched, illuminating, thought provoking, detailed, engaging, and a real page turner. Enthusiasts will not go wrong by purchasing this work.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall is a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. He earlier reviewed The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War.


Note: The Union Assaults at Vicksburg is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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