Book review

Champion Hill - Decisive Battle for Vicksburg

by Timothy B Smith

 

(ISBN 1-932714-00-6) published by Savas Beatie. 411 pages + appendices

 

Review 1 by: Rees Taylor.

 

I do not recollect ever seeing a book devoted entirely to the battle at Champion's Hill, Mississippi. Mostly historians have tended to include Champions Hill as part of 'The Vicksburg Campaign' rather than concentrate on the battle itself. It looms large in volume II of Ed Bearss work on the Vicksburg campaign with 93 pages devoted to the battle and this seems to have set the pattern for the next generation of writers.


Whilst there have been two recent publications on the 'Vicksburg Campaign,' Michael Ballard's 'Vicksburg' and Terrence Winschell's Triumph and Defeat' both welcome publications, it would not be unfair to say the actual ebb and flow of the battle in detail has been neglected.

 

In his book Timothy Smith redresses the balance and does so superbly. The narrative text of the book flows effortlessly and it is well supported throughout with maps of the action.

 

The Confederates were badly beaten at Champion Hill and the author examines in depth why and how this happened. He addresses the successes and failures of both sides and provides a skilful picture of events; a not inconsiderable task given the nature of battle.

 

There is a wealth of detail down to the tactical and personal level to satisfy the most demanding of readers. A priceless addition comes at the end of the book where the author provides a series of photographs of the terrain which is key to link with a map of the action.

 

I recommend this book not only to those who are interested in the campaign, but to any reader interested in a good well written narrative of a battle.

 

- Rees Taylor

 

Review 2 by Tony Daly

 

Any book with a forward by Terry Winschel, Head Ranger at Vicksburg National Park, has got to be worth a read. (Sorry if I've got his title wrong). Indeed, Smith rightly recognises the importance of both the campaign in Mississippi and this, the decisive battle. Whether this is the most important battle of the war, or of the west, is a debate that one can argue forever!

 

Having studied this theatre and its events, I have to say I recognise a number of the sources that Smith has called upon in his research. In doing so, he trawls the celebrated tracks, and makes the same errors and some of the assumptions of those who have gone before him. Smith really fails to emphasise the importance of Steele's Delta operations and so fails to stress sufficiently Grant's ability to use and so confuse his resources and those of the enemy. Indeed, it would be interesting to gauge the mood of Grant's subordinates in what might have seemed a muddled approach to the problem of capturing the citadel city. To simply relate John McClernand's dissatisfaction with life is to just skim the surface.

 

Smith fails to credit brigadier Grenville Dodge with the idea of the Grierson raid through Mississippi. Dodge's boss was Steven Hurlburt, 16th Corps commander. The activity would start in La Grange, Tennessee and required the co-operation of neighbouring army commander William Rosecrans, to lure Forrest's cavalry away from the Yankee plans. As relations between Rosecrans and Grant were so poor, after the earlier battles in northern Mississippi, it would have been interesting had the author paused to explore the human aspects involved.

 

I would have liked Smith to have stressed quite why the US navy was so reluctant to run the Vicksburg batteries, which proved to be far less formidable than those at Fort Donelson. He might have explained the damage done early in 1862 had so cowed the Brown Water Fleet and again pondered the views of various naval commanders. Perhaps these aspects are not the object of the work, so maybe I'm being too hard. Perhaps that may be for another book?

 

Smith describes McClernand as a thorn in Grant's side, though quite how that matches with his stubborn stand at Shiloh, I am not sure. He wasn't any easy man to work with, but that is only one side of the story. The author states that Peter Osterhaus was a Prussian, when in fact he was born in Coblenz, Westphalia. As a vassal of Prussia, his statesmen were required to serve in what became a militia, enjoying not much more than a summer camp and a few beers. He was not the celebrated, professional soldier he has been erroneously painted often before and here again Indeed, the author is too forgiving of both Osterhaus and McClernand in their failure to use their initiative at Champion Hill. The excuse that they were told to advance cautiously is just that. Had they and A.J.Smith, on the southern flank had the courage or foresight to smash through the flimsy southern defences, as the Confederate line crumbled, the Yankees might have put the vast majority of the rebel army in the bag, and the Vicksburg siege might never have been necessary. Those are 'ifs', but they need to be addressed.

 

Neither Smith, nor Ulysses Grant himself, in his memoirs, really recognises the splendour of Grant's tactics. Rarely has there been such fluidity in movement and thinking in such a hazardous endeavour as the Vicksburg campaign. In Grant that may be down to natural self deprecation. That should not influence others in their assessment of one of the great campaign: of history. There is too much blame allotted to Pemberton and not enough credit to the Union commander.

 

It is easy to be critical of any work, so enough of that. The book is a splendid addition to the bookshelf on the Vicksburg campaign. It is lucid and well detailed without confusing or allowing minutiae to frustrate. The maps are plentiful and appropriately placed as to the content. That in itself is a relief, when so many fine scripts are belittled by the absence of illustration. There are plenty of anecdotes which give ; more humane picture of the most inhuman of activities. I liked the credit properly apportioned to John Logan, though would have liked more of the blame for the Confederate debacle to have been placed at the feet of Jefferson Davis and Joe Johnston. Pemberton, in my own humble opinion, was the wrong man for the wrong job. He was not 'Just a clerk', as Smith implies, but a fine administrator, and there's no shame in that. Who appointed the man and who oversaw him, must shoulder much of the responsibility for events?

 

Let me be positive in my summary, how ever. Should a book be such that one's immediate instinct is to want to sit down with the writer and argue the points over a quiet pint? If so, then Timothy Smith is to be congratulated. I don't believe he is always right in his emphasis, but, as I ask, shouldn't that how it should be?

 

- Tony Daly