Book Review: The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, May 23-July 4, 1863


by Timothy B. Smith.

Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2021. Pp. xxviii, 724. Illus., maps, appends., gloss., notes, index. $45.00. ISBN: 0700632255

Vicksburg Besieged

While Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (March 29-July 4, 1863) has received considerable attention from historians, they have not spent very much time on the actual siege of the town, despite the fact that it lasted for 46 of the 97 days of the campaign (May 19-July 4), which is what Tim Smith seeks to correct in this book.

Vicksburg was truly a very defensible place, both by the nature of its geography and by human engineering.

Smith tries to give equal coverage to both sides. However he found significantly fewer reports, letters, diaries, and other documentation from the Confederate side. So if the book seems tilted a little toward the Union, it was certainly not intended, but due partially to the sparsity of documentation, and also to the fact that one side was moving around more. There are only so many ways you can say the Confederates held their earthworks and shot at the enemy, while on the Union side there was a lot more decision making, movements, and maneuvering. The Confederates did well under very difficult circumstances, and their resistance helped shore up morale, which enabled them to continue the fight.

Smith argues that Gen. Joseph Johnston, Confederate supreme commander in the West, had made up his mind that Vicksburg was doomed, probably because Lt. Gen. Joseph Pemberton, commanding the army that became bottled up in the city, failed to take his advice to keep out of Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s trap. Johnston displayed a very timid outlook, never taking control of the situation, but quickly began to prepare to blame the surrender on Pemberton, President Jefferson Davis, the trans-Mississippi Confederates, and anyone else he could think of. Although Johnston made it look like he was trying to relieve Vicksburg, Smith argues that he never intended to do so. It is interesting that when Pemberton twice gave Johnston the maximum date on which he could hold out – which turned out to be accurate within a day or two – Johnston only started to move just a few days prior to that, and then stopped his advance to reconnoiter for two full days, before setting the date for an attack on July 7, which was after the dates Pemberton had said he should be able to hold out until. In addition, Smith argues that this was a crisis that deserved a long-shot gamble, one compared with Albert Sidney Johnston’s decision to attack at Shiloh. Joe Johnston never did take that chance, perhaps, as another author has written, delaying “as long as he thought prudent to save his reputation without risking the possibility of battle.”

Smith observes that there were no significant strategic actions or movements during the siege, just common soldiers slugging it out on perhaps some of the poorest ground conceivable. Readers will gain an appreciation of what the troops on both sides went through during the siege. In addition, Smith paints an affecting picture of the challenges that Vicksburg residents went through in order to survive, with food in short supply, a constant Union artillery bombardment, and the destruction of housing. Toward the end all the ladies could do was pray for the safety of Vicksburg.

Smith’s work will help students of the war in understanding the experience of the long siege that crowned the Vicksburg Campaign.

Well illustrated and with many excellent maps, The Siege of Vicksburg, a volume in the Oklahoma series “Modern War Studies”, is a thorough account that explains how the Union gained Vicksburg and split the Confederacy in two. Rooted in excellent research, with many first hand accounts, this is detailed, engaging, very readable, and highly recommended.

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Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been 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. His previous reviews include The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home Freedom, and Nation, A Republic in the Ranks, An Environmental History of the Civil War, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, Arguing until Doomsday, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour, Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign, Defending the Arteries of Rebellion, A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era




Note: The Siege of 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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