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"The Shea and Winschel volume provides the best overview of the operations that opened the Mississippi River for the Union. This book is essential reading for all students of modern warfare."—Edgar F. Raines Jr., Journal of Illinois History
— Edgar F. Raines Jr.
"A fascinating look into an amazingly complex and intriguing operation. . . . Vicksburg is the Key will stand as the best overall one-volume account for many years."—Timothy B. Smith, Georgia Historical Quarterly
— Timothy B. Smith
"An excellent overview of this crucial episode. . . . An engaging, well-written narrative."—William Feis, The Journal of Military History
— William Feis
"Shea and Winschel do an outstanding job of placing their narrative in the context of the war in the Western theater."—Kurt Hackemer, Louisiana History
— Kurt Hackemer
“This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the Civil War. It is a very well-written, succinct account of one of the most vital campaigns of the war. The authors pack volumes into a short two hundred pages and never lose their engaging narrative momentum.”—Lorien Foote, Arkansas Historical Quarterly
— Lorien Foote
“Well written and tightly edited, Vicksburg is the Key keeps readers apace of developments in- and outside Vicksburg throughout the campaign, providing sufficient detail to understand tactics and strategy without yielding to the temptation of troop movement minutia.”—Gordan Olson, H-Net Book Reviews - H-CivilWar
— Gordan Olson
“A concise and comprehensive study that goes just far enough beyond the textbook level to create a lively narrative replete with valuable perspective and insight. . . . The book is very well organize; the maps are wonderfully and unusually adequate; and the narrative is consistently well written.”—James A. Ramage, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
— James A. Ramage
“Authors William L. Shea and Terrence J. Winschel know Vicksburg well, and their careful study reflects their extensive knowledge. Chapters are short, but loaded with detail; maps are clear and frequent. . . . This is a valuable and informative book.”—Lesley J. Gordon, Gulf South Historical Review
— Lesley J. Gordon
“The authors have produced a concise and very readable study of the hard-fought campaigns in the Mississippi River valley that sealed the fate of the Confederacy. . . . certainly a most worthy addition to the libraries of all those who enjoy reading about the Civil War.”—Roger Cunningham, Journal of America’s Military Past
— Roger Cunningham
"Many books have been published about the Vicksburg Campaign, perhaps more than about any other military event in the West. . . . This book is one of the best."—Albert Castel, The North Carolina Historical Review
— Albert Castel
"[A] very perceptive and well crafted study of the operations along the Mississippi River in 1862-1863, the authors have expertly prepared a book that reveals the essence of the Vicksburg Campaign, yet it is not so detailed as to obscure the central course of events. The overview of the significance, maneuvers, strategy, and fighting is superb, and this book will be a welcome introduction for many to the critical events and personal performances at Vicksburg and Port Hudson."—Wiley Sword, Blue and Gray
— Wiley Sword
Long before cannon thundered at Fort Sumter, Americans North and South recognized the economic importance of the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the sprawling region west of the Appalachian Mountains. The vast river system provided farmers and merchants in more than a dozen states with an easy and inexpensive means of transportation. It was a vital outlet to the Gulf of Mexico and the world beyond, not only for Southern cotton and sugar cane but also for the bountiful produce of the Midwest.
When the Civil War erupted in the spring of 1861, the Mississippi acquired additional importance. In military terms the river was both an asset and a liability to the nascent Confederacy. The Mississippi's silt-laden waters connected many of the western secessionist states, but its broad surface also served as a natural avenue of invasion.
Bvt. Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, the aged commanding officer of the U.S. Army at the outset of the war, recognized the strategic importance of the Mississippi River. He suggested to Pres. Abraham Lincoln that Union military forces carry out a two-pronged offensive against the Confederacy by blockading its seaports and gaining control of the Mississippi. The Confederacy would slowly collapse of economic strangulation. Criticsderisively dubbed Scott's proposal the "Anaconda Plan," after its pythonlike approach to squeezing the rebellious states into submission. Scott's proposal was, in truth, too passive and too limited and would not have suppressed the rebellion by itself, but the old warrior had grasped the Confederacy's crucial geographic weaknesses. Lincoln shared Scott's strategic vision. "The Mississippi is the backbone of the Rebellion," he observed; "it is the key to the whole situation."
Scott soon retired, but his ideas were incorporated into Union military strategy. Blockading forces began to seal off Southern seaports from Chesapeake Bay to the Rio Grande, and plans were laid to move down the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, and up the river from the Gulf of Mexico. In mid-1861, contracts were let to boatyards in the Midwest to build seven partially iron-clad, shallow-draft gunboats. In addition, nearly seventy existing steamboats were purchased and fitted with various combinations of timber and iron armor. This innovative riverine force was intended to demolish Confederate fortifications along the Mississippi and its tributaries, defeat any Confederate vessels that might appear, and escort troop convoys downstream. Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, a fleet of powerful oceangoing naval vessels slowly gathered off the Louisiana coast. One by one these deep-draft warships worked their way over mudflats and sandbars and entered the mouths of the Mississippi.
The Confederates were far from idle during the first year of the war. Soldiers and civilians alike could see the threat posed by growing Union naval strength in the West, but the very size of the Mississippi River made its defense problematical. Below Cairo the river is so wide and its current so strong that chains, pilings, sunken hulks, and other barriers could not be relied upon to prevent vessels from passing. In addition its channel is so deep that for much of the year oceangoing ships could enter the river's mouths below New Orleans and venture upstream for nearly a thousand miles.
The topography of the lower Mississippi Valley complicated matters for both attackers and defenders. The east bank of the Mississippi is bordered for much of its length by an impressive line of bluffs. Atop the northern third of this escarpment lie Columbus, Kentucky, and Memphis. South of Memphis, the river bends westward away from the middle third of the escarpment, but it returns to it at Vicksburg, where the bluffs reach their greatest height, towering over two hundred feet above the water. From Vicksburg the bluffs crowd the east bank of the Mississippi down to Baton Rouge. Perched atop or nestled along the base of this southern third of the escarpment are Grand Gulf, Natchez, Port Hudson, and Baton Rouge. Below the Louisiana capital the river loops across a swampy plain of recently deposited alluvium. Located precariously amid this sea of mud, ninety miles from the Gulf of Mexico, is New Orleans. The intermittent highlands along the Mississippi presented numerous locations for defensive positions, but the extensive lowlands permitted unfettered movement of ships and boats.
If Union strategy regarding the lower Mississippi Valley was offensive in nature, Confederate strategy was defensive and relied primarily on fortifications. Thus the struggle for control of the Mississippi River featured a textbook example of strategic opposites: an active approach based on maneuver versus a passive resistance dependent on fixed positions. With the benefit of hindsight it is apparent that the Confederacy's static defense, like all static defenses from the Great Wall to the Maginot Line, was doomed to fail when tested by an aggressive and resourceful enemy. Fortifications along waterways have several inherent weaknesses. When improperly sited or weakly constructed, or when manned by dispirited garrisons, they generally can be pounded into submission by naval forces. Fortifications that prove resistant to bombardment often can be bypassed by naval commanders willing to take risks. A bypassed stronghold generally becomes irrelevant. Its garrison might escape to fight again elsewhere, but its weapons and stores, transported and emplaced at great cost in both time and money, are usually lost. Fortifications also are vulnerable to overland encircling movements. Troops disembarked from transports can threaten them from the rear and compel their garrisons to evacuate or surrender.
Whenever a fixed position is captured, bypassed, or otherwise neutralized, the river is opened to the next stronghold, if any exists. The process is inexorable. No fortification, no matter how strongly built or ably manned, can halt a determined advance; it can only delay the inevitable. This was not at all clear in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, because the implications of industrial military technologies such as steam engines, iron armor, rifled artillery, and explosive shells were imperfectly understood. For the first time in centuries, new weapons and methods of warfare were emerging, and no one knew just what to expect when the shooting started.
Despite the Confederacy's belief that batteries of heavy guns behind brick or earthen walls would keep Union forces out of the lower Mississippi Valley, construction of fortifications during the first year of the war was delayed by woeful mismanagement, chronic shortages of money and material, and a strange lack of urgency. By the beginning of 1862 an embryonic defense in depth, that is, a series of fortifications one behind the other, existed only along the Mississippi above Memphis. With the crisis approaching, Confederate defenses in the West resembled a perilously thin, hollow shell.
The principal reason for the Confederate reliance on fortifications was the lack of a navy. Nearly all of the steamboats plying the Mississippi and its tributaries before the war were Northern owned and operated. When fighting broke out, these vessels and their crews, which included many valuable pilots and mechanics, returned home. Some were purchased by U.S. authorities and converted into gunboats; many others were purchased or leased as transports. The Confederates had to make do with what remained. They converted fourteen ships and boats at New Orleans into the rather grandly named River Defense Fleet and began work on five ironclads: two at Memphis, two at New Orleans, and one on the Tennessee River. Unfortunately the skills and machinery needed to create such behemoths were hard to come by in the agricultural South. While boatyards in the Midwest cranked out vessels of every size and description, progress on the Confederate ironclads lagged.
Such was the situation in the West at the beginning of 1862. Both sides recognized the economic, political, and military importance of the Mississippi Valley. With superior resources and industrial capacity, the Union was determined to gain control of the western rivers. The Confederacy, short of resources, was equally determined to dig in and hold on.
Confederate forces west of the Appalachian Mountains were commanded by Gen. Albert S. Johnston, a professional soldier and a friend of Pres. Jefferson Davis. Johnston faced an impossible task. His defensive perimeter ran along the northern boundary of Tennessee, Arkansas, and the Indian Territory, eight hundred miles of rugged country divided into segments by several major rivers and served by a poorly developed transportation system. Johnston recognized that no commander could hope to exercise effective control over such an immense area. Consequently he allowed his subordinates a great deal of leeway.
One such subordinate was Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, West Point graduate, Episcopal bishop, and military incompetent. Polk commanded in Western Tennessee and was responsible for the defense of the Mississippi River. He believed that the village of Columbus, located twenty miles north of the Kentucky-Tennessee state line atop a line of towering bluffs, was the perfect place to stop a Union thrust downstream. Polk ignored the inconvenient fact that Kentucky was not a part of the Confederacy. In early September 1861 he occupied Columbus. Confederate engineers threw up immense earthworks along the heights, brought in 150 guns, and attempted to block the Mississippi River with a mile-long chain.
The Confederate occupation of Columbus did not go unchallenged. The Union commander at Cairo, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, led a small waterborne force down the Mississippi to Belmont, a landing on the Missouri shore opposite Columbus. Though Grant was compelled to withdraw in the face of superior numbers, his aggressive response was a harbinger of things to come. The Confederate victory could not disguise the fact that Polk had stirred up a hornet's nest.
Instead of ordering Polk to return to Tennessee, Johnston gambled that a bold show of strength would confound Union commanders and mask Confederate weaknesses in the West. He led most of his troops into Kentucky and established a strong position at Bowling Green in the south-central part of the state. The only Confederate contingents to remain behind in Tennessee were the garrisons at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland.
The Confederate incursion into Kentucky had serious consequences. Having maintained a precarious "neutrality" since the outbreak of hostilities, most Kentuckians were outraged at the presence of Confederate troops on their soil. Kentucky declared its allegiance to the United States and permitted Union land and naval forces to enter the state without hindrance. Polk got Columbus, but the Union gained both banks of the Ohio River and direct access to Tennessee across a four-hundred-mile front. The Columbus affair was a blunder, but it remained to be seen how the Federals would take advantage of the altered strategic situation in the West.
The Union commander in St. Louis at the beginning of 1862 was Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, known rather derisively in the prewar army as "Old Brains." Halleck did not cut a dashing figure, but he was a first-rate administrator and strategist. He also was more offensive minded than any other Union commander at that stage of the war, and he was determined to move against Johnston.
Halleck recognized that victory in the West depended on control of the rivers. With the Ohio and upper Mississippi in Union hands, he turned his attention to the Tennessee, Cumberland, and lower Mississippi, all of which flowed through Johnston's line. In the first half of the new year, Halleck launched three loosely coordinated offensives that wrenched over a thousand miles of navigable waterways out of Confederate hands and punched three gaping holes in Johnston's defensive perimeter.
West of the Mississippi, a small army under Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis swept Confederate forces out of Missouri and into Arkansas. This operation secured the Union supply depot at St. Louis and allowed Halleck greater freedom of action elsewhere. Beginning in February 1862, Curtis's army struggled across the Ozark Plateau into Arkansas, routed a Confederate army at Pea Ridge on March 7-8, and then turned east toward Helena at the Mississippi River.
East of the Mississippi, Grant pondered the lessons learned at Belmont and tried again. He assembled a powerful waterborne force and steamed up the Tennessee River. Naval support was provided by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote's revolutionary Western Flotilla, an assortment of ironclad and timberclad gunboats. On February 6, 1862, Foote's gunboats attacked Fort Henry, just inside Tennessee, with spectacular results. The fort surrendered after a brief pounding, though most of the garrison escaped to nearby Fort Donelson along the Cumberland River. The Confederates capitulated so quickly that Grant's soldiers did not have a chance to participate in the battle. With Fort Henry neutralized, Foote launched a raid up the Tennessee. His gunboats penetrated all the way to Muscle Shoals in the northwest corner of Alabama, captured the unfinished ironclad Eastport, destroyed railroad bridges and other military stores, and created havoc generally in the Southern heartland.
The capture of Fort Henry and all that followed was a model of interservice cooperation and demonstrated the tremendous advantage that command of the rivers conferred on Union forces in the West. It was a terrific blow to the Confederates, who saw for the first time what could result from the failure of a fortified position. Worse was to come.
A few days after the fall of Fort Henry, Grant marched his army eastward across the narrow neck of land that separates the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. He partially surrounded Fort Donelson and waited for Foote to arrive and pound the Rebels into submission. Following the raid up the Tennessee, the gunboats of the Western Flotilla returned to the Ohio River, then moved up the Cumberland toward Donelson. Foote also hoped for a repeat of the success he had enjoyed against Fort Henry, but he was in for a rude awakening. Donelson was better sited then Henry, and its battery of heavy guns was larger.
On February 14 the ironclads of the Western Flotilla approached Fort Donelson and opened fire. After several hours of furious combat at close range, Foote was forced to withdraw. All of his gunboats were damaged, some seriously, and casualties were many, including Foote himself. The next day the Confederates attempted to break through the encircling Union forces and escape. The effort failed by the narrowest of margins, and Fort Donelson surrendered to Grant on February 16. It was the first great Union victory of the war.
It also was the first great Confederate disaster. Johnston lost sixteen thousand men-about one-fourth of the troops under his command-along with irreplaceable guns, munitions, and stores. Even worse, the Cumberland River was now open to Nashville, due south of Bowling Green. In danger of being cut off, Johnston abandoned Kentucky and fell back through Tennessee all the way to northern Alabama. On February 25, Federal troops raised the Stars and Stripes over the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. Kentucky and much of central Tennessee were in Union hands.
The success of the Union offensive up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers had strategic repercussions far beyond the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. When Grant and Foote broke through the center of Johnston's defensive perimeter, they also dealt a severe blow to the Confederate defense of the Mississippi River. The lower Tennessee River flows roughly parallel to the Mississippi for two hundred miles and lies only about one hundred miles to the east. The Union forces that surged up the Tennessee past Fort Henry spilled around and behind Polk's impressive fortifications at Columbus. In military parlance Polk's position had been "turned," and he was in danger of being cut off.
Excerpted from Vicksburg Is the Key by William L. Shea Terrence J. Winschel Copyright © 2003 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Illustrations|
|List of Maps|
|Series Editors' Introduction|
|1||The River and the War||1|
|2||Gibraltar on the Mississippi||17|
|3||On to Vicksburg||33|
|4||The First Onslaught||46|
|6||Detour in Louisiana||76|
|7||River of No Return||90|
|8||The Odds Are Overpowering||106|
|9||The Shriek of an Eagle||117|
|10||Indecision, Indecision, Indecision||127|
|11||A Grand and Appalling Sight||140|
|12||Outcamp the Enemy||153|
|13||Too Weak to Save Vicksburg||161|
|14||The Glorious Fourth||170|
|15||No Longer a Point of Danger||179|
|16||The Mississippi Is Opened||187|
Posted April 21, 2009
This is a very readable and very good account of the Battle of Vicksburg. The only wish I had was that there a few more maps. I was able to talk to Terry Winschel at the Vicksburg Park and he said the editors were the limiting factor on that. Overall I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a good, quick and easy read of the Vicksburg Campaign.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.