The Key in Lincoln's Pocket
By Winston Groom
Knopf. 482 pp. $30
For some Civil War buffs in this part of the country, anything that happened west of the Appalachians might as well have been a dispute between Belgium and Bulgaria. The same was true of some Civil War generals, to whom nothing could be more important than what was immediately in front of them: the bloody struggle between the capitals of the Union and the Confederacy. But broader thinkers, including Abraham Lincoln, could see the whole map. They understood that the Mississippi Valley, not Richmond, was the most vital strategic objective of the war and that the key to controlling it was the city of Vicksburg, atop steep bluffs at a sharp turn where the Yazoo River flows into the Mississippi.
Early on, Lincoln told his generals and admirals, "The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. . . . As valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so. We may take all the northern parts of the Confederacy, and they can still defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the States of the far South, and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference." But understanding that was the bare beginning. Getting there was a matter of many frustrating months for the Union Army and Navy: covering more than 500 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Illinois border, fighting battles along rivers, slogging through swamps, storming rebel fortifications, finally starving the besieged city into submission.
In his latest sortie into Civil War history, Winston Groom has brilliantly described the whole Mississippi Valley campaign, from late 1861 through the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, the day after the great Northern victory at Gettysburg. To tell such a long and looping story, he concentrates more on the decisions and rivalries among flag officers than on what individual soldiers and sailors set down in their letters and diaries. A long roll of great characters is present -- Farragut and Porter, Sherman and McPherson, Beauregard and Forrest, Johnston and Pemberton. But the central personal narrative is that of Ulysses S. Grant, who is occasionally drunk but whose determination and eagerness to fight eventually bring him to command all Union armies and win the war in the East.
What sets this campaign and this book apart from other chapters of the Civil War is the variety of strategy and tactics tried by the Union and parried by the Confederates until the final days. There are few set-piece land battles; instead we have Federal ironclads pounding Confederate forts to take New Orleans, gunboats pushing into shallow creeks until they are trapped by vines and weeds, cavalry raids rampaging through three states, thousands of slaves and soldiers digging a canal in a vain effort to divert the Mississippi, and eventually Confederate troops and citizens eating their bony mules to survive in the days before the city surrenders.
Groom narrates in a genial, almost conversational way, making all the twists and turns completely understandable. When he narrows the focus, the action comes alive, as when he describes the brief but remarkable saga of Confederate naval Lt. Isaac Brown, who fitted up the derelict remains of the ironclad Arkansas and took her out against a fleet of Yankee dreadnoughts in the Yazoo River.
The ship rammed and blasted through them: "Inside the Rebel ship the din was nearly unimaginable as hundreds of 'sledge-hammer blows were delivered to [her] armor plate.' " Cannonballs fired at close range crashed completely through the Arkansas; her decks were slippery with blood. Brown was wounded twice. He fought his way to Vicksburg, where a crowd rushed down to celebrate his victory but recoiled at seeing the gore and wreckage, leaving the crew to tend its own casualties. But sheer courage could not prevail for long against overwhelming odds; the battered Arkansas sought further action downriver, but the engines failed and the ship had to be scuttled. In only 23 days, she had driven two powerful Union fleets away from the prize city of Vicksburg and almost captured Baton Rouge in cooperation with the Confederate Army.
Groom's book is full of such authentically rendered excitement. Until now, his best-known work has been the novel that became the blockbuster movie "Forrest Gump." But with "Vicksburg 1863" he has fully arrived as a narrative historian, who proves again that facts skillfully woven can be more moving than the products of the busiest imagination. Rarely has the story of such a lengthy and complicated campaign been told with such clarity and grace.
Ernest B. Furgurson's latest book is "Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War."