Timothy B. Smith Discusses “The Union Assaults at Vicksburg”

It was the third week of May 1863, and after seven months and six attempts, Ulysses S. Grant was finally at the doorstep of Vicksburg. What followed was a series of attacks and maneuvers against the last major section of the Mississippi River controlled by the Confederacy—and one of the most important operations of the Civil War. Grant intended to end the campaign quickly by assault, but the stalwart defense of Vicksburg’s garrison changed his plans. The Union Assaults at Vicksburg is the first comprehensive account of this quick attempt to capture Vicksburg, which proved critical to the Union’s ultimate success and Grants eventual solidification as one of the most significant military commanders in American history.

Establishing a day-to-day—;and occasionally minute-to-minute—;timeline for this crucial week, military historian Timothy B. Smith invites readers to follow the Vicksburg assaults as they unfold. His finely detailed account reaches from the offices of statesmen and politicians to the field of battle, with exacting analysis and insight that ranges from the highest level of planning and command to the combat experience of the common soldier. As closely observed and vividly described as each assault is, Smith’s book also puts the sum of these battles into the larger context of the Vicksburg campaign, as well as the entire war. His deeply informed, in-depth work thus provides the first full view of a key but little-studied turning point in the fortunes of the Union army in the West, Ulysses S. Grant, and the United States of America.

1. What’s your elevator pitch for The Union Assaults at Vicksburg? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

TS: The battlefield where the assaults took place is a national park, yet historians generally gloss over these events, concentrating instead on the siege or the earlier land campaign. But the assaults, while fostering little change in the actual situation at Vicksburg, did have huge strategic implications. Readers will have to dig in to find out how.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about Grant’s was final series of attacks and maneuvers against the last major section of the Mississippi River controlled by the Confederacy?

TS: The main reason was because there has never been a detailed, comprehensive, tactical study of these important events. Also, I’ve always been fascinated with Vicksburg, including the assaults and siege that are interpreted at the Vicksburg National Military Park. Growing up in Mississippi, we went there often. Also, I had a grand total of four direct ancestors inside Vicksburg, and one who marched the other way with William Loring at Champion Hill. Researching and learning more about their actions was a definite motivation.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?

TS: Probably matching the action as described on paper with the terrain. Plenty of records exist from reports to letters and diaries for us to be able to piece together a detailed rendition of what happened. But to overlay that on the battlefield itself is at places tricky, simply because over 150 years things have changed so much. Few of the original fortifications are still in existence, those in the park today being mostly recreations. While the original park commission did a good job of marking positions and events, seeing it how it would have been then is impossible, although recent deforestation at the park gives a better view shed. But so many roads, ravines, and ridges have changed that at places, such as around the visitor center for instance, where the battlefield has been permanently altered, it is difficult to determine exactly what was where.

4. Is it possible to imagine what would have happened had Vicksburg not fallen to the Union?

TS: By the time of the assaults, I don’t think that was a possibility. Grant had an open and secure line of communication and supply once he took Haynes’s and Snyder’s Bluffs on the Yazoo River, so he could outlast pretty much anything the Confederates did. Obviously, it didn’t hurt that he was facing two pretty much incompetent commanders. By May 18, it was all but a foregone conclusion that Vicksburg was doomed, barring of course Joe Johnston suddenly finding his spine. By then it was just a matter of determining how Vicksburg would be captured, quickly via direct assault or slowly by siege.

5. What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of Grant’s leadership as a military commander?

TS: In the public realm, most still think of him as a drunk, which modern scholarship has largely debunked. But old beliefs die hard and the alternative has not made its way into the public mind yet. Same thing with Grant as a butcher. Neither of those was his greatest flaw, however, which I believe happened to be overconfidence. That said, I think his adaptability and unflappability on the move was perhaps his greatest strength, and that is still largely misunderstood or not understood at all.

6. What attracted you Civil War research?

TS: As I mentioned, growing up in Mississippi between Shiloh and Vicksburg, we visited both often. As I grew older and began looking into my ancestors, I began to research their activities. That just led to larger research projects, and I found I love the treasure hunt nature of the research. You just never know what you might find next. The travel you get to do while on research trips is also fun.

7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

TS: That the assaults are not just something to gloss over, but were real actions that would be considered fairly large battles if they stood alone. And that they had immense repercussions.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

TS: Interesting question. Maybe for obvious reasons my mother who died a couple of years ago, but then she never read a word of my other nineteen books so she probably wouldn’t have read this one either. History wasn’t her thing; we’d drop her off at a Wal Mart while we went on those battlefield visits. I’d probably have to say one of my ancestors in the 36th Mississippi who defended the Stockade Redan during the assaults, with the proviso that I could ask him how accurate I got the descriptions in the book!

Timothy B. Smith teaches history at the University of Tennessee at Martin. His many books include, most recently, Grant Invades Tennessee: The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson as well as Corinth 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation and Shiloh: Conquer or Perish, all published by the University Press of Kansas.