Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New and Noteworthy---Engineering Victory at Vicksburg: Shovels or Starvation?

Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg, Justin S. Solonick, Southern Illinois University Press, 289 pp., 23 illustrations, 4 maps, 9 diagrams and figures, 1 table, 1 appendix, glossary, bibliographic essay, bibliography, end notes, index, $37.50.

From the Publisher: On May 25, 1863, after driving the Confederate army into defensive lines surrounding Vicksburg, Mississippi, Union major general Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee laid siege to the fortress city. With no reinforcements and dwindling supplies, the Army of Vicksburg finally surrendered on July 4, yielding command of the Mississippi River to Union forces and effectively severing the Confederacy. In this illuminating volume, Justin S. Solonick offers the first detailed study of how Grant’s midwesterners serving in the Army of the Tennessee engineered the siege of Vicksburg, placing the event within the broader context of U.S. and European military history and nineteenth-century applied science in trench warfare and field fortifications. In doing so, he shatters the Lost Cause myth that Vicksburg’s Confederate garrison surrendered due to lack of provisions. Instead of being starved out, Solonick explains, the Confederates were dug out.
After opening with a sophisticated examination of nineteenth-century military engineering and the history of siege craft, Solonick discusses the stages of the Vicksburg siege and the implements and tactics Grant’s soldiers used to achieve victory. As Solonick shows, though Grant lacked sufficient professional engineers to organize a traditional siege—an offensive tactic characterized by cutting the enemy’s communication lines and digging forward-moving approach trenches—the few engineers available, when possible, gave Union troops a crash course in military engineering. Ingenious midwestern soldiers, in turn, creatively applied engineering maxims to the situation at Vicksburg, demonstrating a remarkable ability to adapt in the face of adversity. When instruction and oversight were not possible, the common soldiers improvised. Solonick concludes with a description of the surrender of Vicksburg, an analysis of the siege’s effect on the outcome of the Civil War, and a discussion of its significance in western military history.
Solonick’s study of the Vicksburg siege focuses on how the American Civil War was a transitional one with its own distinct nature, not the last Napoleonic war or the herald of modern warfare. At Vicksburg, he reveals, a melding of traditional siege craft with the soldiers’ own inventiveness resulted in Union victory during the largest, most successful siege in American history.

Justin S. Solonick, PhD, is an adjunct instructor in the Department of History and Geography at Texas Christian University. His most recent publication, “Saving the Army of Tennessee: The Confederate Rear Guard at Ringgold Gap,” appeared in The Chattanooga Campaign, published by SIU Press in 2012.
Remarks by esteemed colleagues: 
“By showing why Vicksburg fell when it did, Justin S. Solonick’s book sheds new light on one of the most important campaigns of the Civil War. By exploring how Grant’s army achieved that success, it illuminates the nature of Civil War armies and on the society that raised them.”—Steven E. Woodworth, author of Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861–1865

“If Vicksburg was the front door to the Confederacy, it was engineering that proved to be the key to opening the door. Thus argues Solonick, as he proceeds to methodically and convincingly make his case. Lacking professional engineers, U. S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee often relied upon western ingenuity for mining and trenching. Their efforts, not fully appreciated by West Point theorists even after the war, won the day. Must reading not only for western theater enthusiasts but also for those who wish to grasp how the war evolved.”—Larry J. Daniel, author of Days of Glory: The Army of the Cumberland, 1861–1865 

“Justin Solonick has produced an important and necessary study of siege operations at Vicksburg, setting the story within the context of European siege craft and pointing to new directions in the history of Civil War military operations. This book is a breath of fresh air.”—Earl J. Hess, author of Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign

CWL: Exactly how did the Army of the Tennessee's engineers get a nearly all volunteer army to dig an impenetrable series of trenches around the Gibraltar of the Confederacy and gradually tighten the noose until starvation doomed the city?  Yankee ingenuity? Western can-do attitude?  West Point sophistication? Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg emphasizes the Union siege.  It's focus is on on the besieged army's efforts to resist encirclement. Justin S. Solonick provides in one chapter on the engineers' art and in a second chapter a discussion of America's other sieges of Yorktown and Vera Cruz and how West Point taught the art of the siege. Eight other chapters are details the siege of Vicksburg. The bibliographic notes, appendix, glossary, maps, illustrations and tables each add to the value of the book. Readers may imagine that reading a book on engineering would be dry, but Solonick focus includes the recollections of the enlisted men and their life in individual rifle pits, lunettes, and behind head logs. 

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