The first four days of July 1863 were a decisive turning point in the Civil War. Ending with the repulse of Pickett’s charge on July 3, the Union won a decisive victory at Gettysburg. Lesser known, but equally decisive in the West, Grant received the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, opening up the Mississippi as a Union waterway, severing the connection with the western states of the Confederacy.
In this work of historical fiction, the second in his series on the Western Theater in the Civil War, Jeff Shaara chronicles the series of events leading up to this surrender. We learn of Sherman’s futile attempt to attack up the Yazoo the previous December. Then Admiral Porter bravely moves Union transports and gunboats past the Vicksburg batteries to be followed by Grant’s crossing the Mississippi south of Vicksburg and his movements between Vicksburg and Jackson, occupied by Johnston’s troops.
As Grant is on the move, we see the contrast between him and Pemberton, the Confederate general charged by President Davis with holding Vicksburg while ordered by Johnston to move against Grant before Grant takes Jackson. Grant is clearly his own man, despite being dogged by undersecretary Dana and newspaperman Cadwallader. Pemberton is not and only reluctantly moves part of his forces out of Vicksburg and in not enough time to relieve Johnston but in just enough time to lose several battles including that at Champion Hill to Grant, despite the heroic action of some of his generals, especially John Bowen at Champion Hill. Then, instead of taking the chance of joining forces with Johnston, he returns to Vicksburg in a valiant but impossible attempt to defend the city against much superior forces who can wait him out.
The seige of Vicksburg occupies the second half of the book. It begins with two demonstrations of the folly of charges upon entrenched positions, strengthened by Pemberton’s engineer, Lockett, something it would take military leaders another fifty years to fully grasp, only in the latter stages of World War I. Thereafter Grant and his generals extend their lines and settle in for a seige that lasts from mid-May until July 4.
How do you tell the story of a two-month wait? Shaara does so by chronicling the role of sharp-shooters, of whom Fritz Bauer, who we met in A Blaze of Glory, is one. He details the effects of repeated artillery bombardments in terms of the destruction of the town, the sheltering of its people in caves, and the scores of shrapnel wounds suffered. This leads to an innovation in a Shaara novel, the introduction of a civilian character, Lucy Spence, a single woman who becomes a volunteer nurse, braving the horrors of a Civil War field hospital with its ghastly wounds, amputations, and dying men. And we see the most deadly result of siege warfare, the creeping starvation that reduces people to trapping rats and squirrels and leads to increasing desertions.
The story concludes with the surrender, negotiated by General Bowen, himself a dying man from dysentery. His previous friendship with Grant and sterling battle record helped overcome both the hard edges of “unconditional surrender” Grant and the pride of Pemberton. Nine days later, he is dead.
Shaara gives us a read that sustains our interest through the seige and helps us glimpse once again the nobility and futility that combine in the horrors of war. And for those who feel most of their knowledge of the Civil War is limited to the Eastern campaigns, this helps us understand the decisive role these Western battles played.