Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review "Grant Wins the War"

Grant Wins the War by James R. Arnold (1999, Paperback)The scope of this book covers the entirety of Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg. Starting with naval battles as early as 1862, which solidified the importance of Vicksburg as a Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, the book covers all the key events of the campaign.  These include the battles of Champion's Hill, Big Black River, Jackson, Port Gibson, and Grierson's raid through Mississippi.  The book goes into great detail about the eventual siege, capitulation and end result of the campaign, covering the impact that the Confederate loss of Vicksburg had on both sides during the remainder of the war.
Arnold’s main thesis is to prove that the Union victory at Vicksburg was the turning point of the Civil War. In attempting to prove this thesis, he describes the negative impact that Vicksburg’s fall had on military morale, as well as the Confederacy’s ability to supply itself, and maneuver strategically due to the loss of the Mississippi River as a major logistical asset. On the Union side, the events at Vicksburg not only raised morale, but thrust U.S. Grant into the spotlight, eventually resulting in his command of all Union armies, and defeat of Robert E. Lee- dooming the Confederate cause.
Carefully researched, Arnold includes research from newspapers, letters and journals to add to the impact of his writing. This helps to make it personal, giving one a real sense of what it was like to be a participant.  Several hundred primary and secondary sources are listed in the biography, with the majority being primary. The author also pulls strongly from the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) Papers, and the papers of the Southern Historical Society, as well as resources available at the Vicksburg National Military Park. While the author does not claim to include any “new” material, the book is excellently researched, pulling from a wide variety of sources. 
Throughout the book, Arnold makes many assessments about the events of the campaign against Vicksburg, but backs these up with well researched facts and solid reasoning. One interesting point of the book that is a solid example of its accuracy is the issue of Grant’s supply line. Popular thought has it that Grant’s troops cut off their supply line and lived off the land as they moved inland from Grand Gulf. Arnold chalks this up to “hazy postwar recollections” by Grant and others. Grant according to the author claimed to have abandoned his supply line after May 3rd. “In fact,” according to Arnold, “on a regular, almost daily, basis through mid-May, wagon trains numbering up to two hundred vehicles hauled ammunition and rations from Grand Gulf to the front.”(Page 127)  Arnold acknowledges Historian Edwin Bearss for uncovering this key piece of “revisionist history” in his 3 volume work, The Campaign for Vicksburg.
The campaign for Vicksburg is described in a sound logical fashion. Key events are portrayed in a manor that is easy to follow. And while covering a lot of detail, the author’s style is neither tedious nor dull--and it is not just a narrative—it is an enjoyable read. The author logically covers all facets of the Campaign for Vicksburg to include the political situation, personalities, as well as strategic and tactical considerations. Grant’s particularly strong ability to win battles in this era of warfare is studied in detail. Arnold’s descriptions of the various naval battles leading to the campaign are outstanding. Also, Arnold’s description of the battle of Champion Hill is another highlight, as one can get a real sense of the issues that the soldiers who participated faced.
The author presents balanced criticisms of leaders on both sides. For example, Pemberton, according to Arnold was too indecisive and caught up in the petty politics that doomed the Confederacy in the West. Rightfully so, the author also makes much of Pemberton’s disregard of Johnson’s orders to attack Sherman at Clinton, among other things. Pemberton tells his subordinates that to adhere to these orders would be suicidal. Arnold calls this a “pitiful display which did not inspire confidence in his subordinates.” (Page 142)
The author also shows strong disapproval of Grant’s decision to leave his wounded on the battlefield after the attack on the Confederate works at Vicksburg because of his belief that to care for his wounded would be an admission of weakness. Arnold calls this “…abominable conduct, to be repeated once more in Virginia the next year.” (Page 257)
Some of the most powerful arguments occur after the description of the action ends, as the author begins his post campaign analysis of the long range affect Vicksburg had on the war.  Interesting points include: the relationship between Davis and Pemberton after the battle, and how Davis did not lose faith in Pemberton; how the Union Army fell into “an understandable complacency” as the ranks thinned with many seeking discharges and earned furloughs; the failure of Grant to sell his Mobile scheme; and the Battle of words between Pemberton and Johnson, to name a few.
But at the heart of his post battle analysis is how Vicksburg “elated Union morale and deflated Southern spirit.” The loss of Pemberton’s army meant only one major army remained in the Western Theater, and this was devastating to the Confederate cause. Lincoln’s analysis of the importance of events described by his words that”the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea” ably described the importance of the opening of the Mississippi to the Union effort.
Few would argue that U.S. Grant won the war for the United States, as described in the title of the book—but was it at Vicksburg as the author contends? The answer is yes, for two reasons. First, Grant won the war because of the two previously described points about the morale of both armies and the logistical importance of the opening of the Mississippi (and closing of it to the Confederacy)—these were crucial turning points that many would argue were at least as important as the Union victory at Gettysburg. The second reason was Lincoln's recognition of Grant as his next General-in-Chief, resulting in his command of all Union armies, transfer to the East, and eventual defeat of Robert E. Lee- dooming the cause of the Confederacy. Of course there would be the matter at Chattanooga to contend with first, and Grant would of course be in the thick of things there as well. As the author concludes in regards to the Union Army besieged there, “It would be up to U.S. Grant to rescue them.”(Page 317) And rescue them, he did.