The day the American Confederacy suffered its death blow? Generations of schoolchildren could pinpoint the time and the place: midafternoon, July 3, 1863, when Pickett's Charge came up short and the curtain went down on the epic Civil War encounter in the Pennsylvania market town of Gettysburg.
Right time, wrong place.
On that same afternoon, half a continent away, a taciturn, uncompromising Union general sat beneath a stunted oak and discussed terms for the impending surrender of the "Gibraltar of the West" -- the Mississippi River fortress of Vicksburg and its encircled garrrison of 29,000 Confederate troops. Ulysses S. Grant presided over a surrender that servered the Confederacy at the Mississippi River and returned the vital waterway to Federal hands. For the Confederate government in Richmond, Gettsyburg was a heartbreaker. Vicksburg was the back-breaker. Yet it has been Gettysburg, not Vicksburg, that has served as the centerpiece of Civil War literature. Which is why Samuel Carter III's "The Final Fortress" is a welcome re-creation of one of the war's most critical and colorful campaigns.
Carter skillfully recreates the land and naval battles -- Vicksburg was as much a battle for the river as for the semmingly impregnable fortress situated on the bluffs above -- andinterweaves the personal accounts of front-line combatants and beleaguered Vicksburg residents. It is the siege as seen through the eyes of civilians that provides a dimension unfamiliar to Americans: citizens huddled in makeshift caves, subsisting on rations supplemented with mule meat, and trying to weather the incessant land and naval bombardments that set the encircled city's dogs into uncomprehending howls -- the London blitz set in an antebellum jewel of a city terraced in the Mississippi hills.
The narrative opens with Union successes along the river in the early months of 1862; infantry and navy move on Vicksburg, gunboats shell the city and await the surrender that does not come. Small wonder: "The forbidding bluffs and rolling hills, topped by a jagged silhouette of buildings, gave the impression of a tessellated castle in the air, a medieval fortress girded for siege."
Before it could come to that, Grant would have to confront a more formidable opponent -- the river itself. The problem was simple: Grant's army, situated on the west bank of the Mississippi across from Vicksburg, could best operate against the fortress from a point southeast of the city. His ships, anchored north of the city, would be needed to escort his troops across. Situated high above them, their guns trained on the waters below, were the forbidding batteries of Vicksburg. Since Grant could not move them, he would endeavor to move the river.
Grant's "battles of the bayous," waged not with rifles but with picks and shovels, constitute one of the more remarkable events of the war, as he seeks to fashion a waterway beyond the range of the Vicksburg batteries that will get his amphibious force south of the citadel. The finale of this ill-starred campaing provides some bizarre scenes, as Union vessels float through the treetops of the flooded Mississippi woodlands and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman rallies his troops from his vantage point in a canoe.
The river has Grant's number; not so the citadel. Carter's account of Grant's last-ditch effort follows the Union forces as they launch their amphibious offensive from aptly named Hard Times and seek to-establish a beachhead on the eastern shore, and culminates with the surrender conference at the stunted oak. As the offensive unfolds, the reader gains valuable insight into Grant's generalship. There is little doubt who commands. Grant may not be able to move rivers, but he deploys troops crisply and decisively, and emerges as a clearheaded, no-nonsense professional who mixes hard liquor with hard fighting, not the sot so regrettably entrenched in American folklore. While Carter's combat scenes dominate the final stages of the Vicksburg campaign, the final days also provide some of the most memorable incidents of the entire campaign. Among them:
Grant's cavalry commander, a former music teacher, after completing a 16-day mounted raid through Mississippi in which his troops have destroyed railroads and siphoned off troops from the Vicksburg defenses, steps down from horseback, which he hates, and takes a turn at his first love -- a piano in the parlor of a Louisiana plantation.
Sherman, at Jefferson Davis' plantation east of Vicksburg, finds a book lying on the ground. Davis' name is inscribed on the flyleaf. It is the Constitution of the United States.
A Vicksburg mother, weighing the relative merits of song and survival, fashions a cup of soup for her starving child from a tiny jaybird.
As the white flags go up on the Vicksburg parapets, it is the garrison's grudging recognition that it can no more staunch the wounds inflicted by Grant's siege than Grant could change the flow of the river below. Of course, both tried their damnedest. And Carter has gotten it all down in a first-rate narrative.