Saturday, November 26, 2005

Smith: "Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg"

[ Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg by Timothy B. Smith. (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2004. Pp. 520, $34.95, Hardback, photos, 38 maps, OOB, notes. ISBN 1-932714-00-6)]

Although U.S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign has long been recognized as a masterpiece of operational skill, the individual battles have not received the same highly detailed book length treatment that so many less deserving engagements have been given. Until now, the chapters contained in Ed Bearss’s massive 3-volume history of the Vicksburg Campaign remained the best writing on the subject. If any of the campaign’s battles cry out for a modern book length assessment it is the decisive May 16, 1863 clash at Champion Hill. Historian Timothy Smith has responded to the call and has filled this void most admirably.

The first hundred pages comprise a quick overview of the Vicksburg campaign that is well organized, ably written, and supported by deft analysis. However, a few maps depicting operational movements in addition to the existing tactical battle maps would have been helpful. The bulk of the book is a classic tactical battle study of Champion Hill. The conduct of the fighting is described minutely from top level decision making all the way down to action at the regimental level. Dozens of maps track all troop movements described in the text and ensure that the reader is never lost in the details. The maps by Ted Savas deserve special mention as they are uniformly excellent, showing placement of individual regiments over finely represented terrain features. Additionally, a nice photo gallery is included at the end, which gives the reader a good visual representation of the terrain. Aside from a few typos, the book’s presentation is first rate.

As with previous works, Confederate Generals John Pemberton and William Loring do not come off well, although the author exonerates Loring from charges that he deliberately separated his division from the rest of the army during the retreat. Several regiments, specifically the 12th LA and the 35th AL are singled out as deserving of special mention. John S. Bowen’s division is justifiably praised for its gallant and effective counterattack that cleared the vital Jackson/Ratliff/Middle Road crossroads but I think that Smith joins previous authors in exaggerating the danger to Grant’s army. On the Union side, Smith lauds Grant’s approach to and conduct of the battle and avoids excessive criticism of John McClernand.

Champion Hill is exceptionally well researched. The list of manuscript sources alone is impressive, though I was a little disappointed to see no specific discussion in the book of Pemberton’s recently uncovered Vicksburg manuscript edited by David Smith and published in 1999. However, the criticisms here are only minor quibbles that cannot detract from the reality that this work is a top level battle study that will likely be the definitive treatment of the Battle of Champion Hill for some time to come. Champion Hill has my highest recommendation.

(p.s. the Pemberton manuscript has been mentioned before on this blog. See this posting.)

(Reprinted with Permission from North & South Magazine. Originally published in Vol. 8 #2, pp. 86-87, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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