An autopsy of the fall of Vicksburg to General Grant

By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / April 21, 2009
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The five maps included in Winston Groom's account of the Union campaign to seize the Confederacy's strategic Mississippi River stronghold of Vicksburg all but tell that story just by themselves.

The maps depict five of General Ulysses S. Grant's eight failed attempts to take the city from late 1862 through the early months of 1863.

Those attempts included digging a canal to cut off the river's hairpin turn under the Confederate guns on Vicksburg's bluffs - no sooner completed than washed out - and advances through the tree-choked bayous and backwaters north and south of the city.

There also were attempts by the Union's ironclad fleet to run the gauntlet of the guns.

An indication of how central those efforts to take the city were to the Union campaign, it is not until about two-thirds through Groom's narrative that Grant gets his army across the river some 24 miles south of the city in an amphibious operation that stands with Washington's crossing of the Delaware.

Groom calls the eighth attempt, a 200-mile loop through the rivers and bayous north of the city, as "one of the strangest wartime expeditions in naval history." Because of flooding, the ironclads that led the armada were often steaming higher than the drowned houses and forests on the riverbanks.

"Not only that," Groom writes, "but the trees and branches were inhabited by all species of swamp creatures that had sought refuge from the flood." Whenever a ship bumped into one of these trees, "its decks were immediately inundated with . . . live zoological specimens: 'coons, possums, snakes of all descriptions and temperaments." Sailors tried to sweep them overboard, but some resisted which, Groom comments, "made life aboard ship more interesting."

When Grant's troops were finally across the Mississippi and advancing on Vicksburg from the east, they encountered, Groom writes, "[a] puzzling, tortuous terrain . . . [of] hills, valleys, folds, dead-end gulches."

Up to this point in his account, Groom has focused on the strategies and tactics devised by Union and Confederate commanders. There is little from common soldiers, and only one civilian voice. But that, of Kate Stone, a young woman living on a plantation across the river from Vicksburg, is a revealing one, describing such domestic matters of a family in a war zone as the conclusion that coffee made from okra seed was a better substitute than that made from "parched potatoes, parched pindars, burned meal, roasted acorns."

But once Grant has invested Vicksburg, civilian voices assume greater importance in Groom's narrative.

Readers of a certain age may be reminded of World War II air-raid shelters by descriptions of the caves dug into the bluffs on which Vicksburg sat.

Some of these cave-dwellers, Groom writes, "began dragging in their furnishings to make the caves more comfortable - Persian rugs were laid over bare dirt floors, sofas, easy chairs . . . [and] paintings, mirrors, even tapestries were hung on the dirt walls."

After a private meeting with Grant - and a siege of seven weeks - the Confederate commander, General John C. Pemberton, agreed to surrender the city on the morning of July 4.

When his officers objected, the Philadelphia-born and West Point-trained Pemberton quieted them: "I am a Northern man, and I know my people. I know their peculiar weaknesses and their national vanity; I know we can get better terms from them on the 4th of July than any other day of the year. We must sacrifice our pride to these considerations."

Groom, perhaps best known for his novel "Forrest Gump," is also the author of a number of other war histories. "In all the earlier ones," from the War of 1812 to World War II, he writes, "some relative was involved in the conflict." He had thought there was no such link to Vicksburg, but a cousin discovered a great-great-grandfather who had served with the Fourth Mississippi Cavalry, perhaps at Vicksburg. Readers can hope that other ancestors are found to inspire future books.

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

'Vicksburg, 1863'

VICKSBURG, 1863 By Winston Groom

Knopf, 482 pp., illustrated, maps, $30