Review of Winston Groom's latest novel, _Vicksburg 1863_
- Alabama author Groom's best known work is, of course, _Forest Gump_....
--A.J. Wright // ajwright@...
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Subject: H-Net Review Publication: '"Why This Happen?"'
Winston Groom. Vicksburg 1863. New York Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Illustrations. x + 482 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-307-26425-1.
Reviewed by Christopher R. Waldrep (San Francisco State University)
Published on H-CivWar (July, 2009)
Commissioned by Matthew E. Mason
"Why This Happen?"
_Vicksburg 1863_ is the skillfully crafted work of an experienced
writer. In 1978, Winston Groom published his first book, _Better
Times Than These_, based on his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam.
Other books have followed, and Groom most forcefully established his
credentials in 1986 with a comic novel on his Vietnam experience that
became a hugely successful movie: _Forrest Gump_. In _Vicksburg
1863_, Groom exhibits not only his storytelling prowess but also a
delightful talent for mischievous observation. Henry Halleck is "the
nervous bug-eyed military whiz" (p. 56). William Tecumseh Sherman had
"zany" adventures in California before the war (p. 85). The USS
_Benton_ came into battle "like a bear beset by hornets" (p. 121).
Groom's descriptions are clearly the work of a talented novelist:
"The night was villainously dark" (p. 276). "Vicksburg twinkled along
the great bluffs like a miniature galaxy" (p. 277). Such vivid
characterizations and crisp sentences are the most obvious reasons to
read Groom's history writing. Reviewers have generally praised Groom,
one calling him "first-rate."
Groom does not intend to appeal to academics or even history buffs.
In a 2005 book on a different war, Groom warned readers that some of
his information might be "old hat" to "those who devour every scrap
of detail about the Second World War." Groom explained that he did
not consider such aficionados to be his audience: "it is not for them
that I write but to the average American reader." He frankly stated
that he hoped readers would "take renewed pride in what our
forefathers dealt with and determined to accomplish." Groom has no
patience for "the new liberal fad of 'moral relativism' or 'moral
equivalency.'" He believes, in fact, that there are good guys and bad
guys, and dismisses "the fetish of self-hatred that has become so
pervasive in the mainstream media and the halls of academia." For
its part, the "mainstream media" has called Groom's faith in moral
progress "endearing but inherently ridiculous."
In short, this well-written and entertaining book has no scholarly
pretensions. There are no footnotes--even though the narrative is
laced with juicy quotations and his earlier history books do have
notes. Groom appends a three-page bibliographic essay entitled
"Acknowledgements and Source Notes" that will allow curious readers
to chart the limits of his bibliographic explorations but not trace
the sources for specific facts and quotations. The introduction, a
place where academic readers will go looking for a thesis statement,
curiously only summarizes the author's genealogical connections to
Vicksburg. His great-grandfather, it turns out, joined the Fourth
Mississippi Cavalry which raced to the aid of Vicksburg's beleaguered
defenders. Armed with that not obviously helpful knowledge, the
reader plunges into a 464-page narrative. A brief argumentative
passage at the end makes the case that Vicksburg was the most
important battle of the war, forty times more important than
Gettysburg. But that argument does not animate this narrative which
aims more for detailed description than analysis. One event follows
another--at one point Groom suggests that the Confederates might have
marched up and captured Chicago, "not that they would have," he adds
(p. 71). In this way, and perhaps only in this one way, Groom echoes
the thinking of a leading academic historian of the Civil War. Unlike
Groom, Edward L. Ayers eschews turning points, but like Groom, Ayers
"focuses on deep contingency." To that, Groom might say "Amen."
The author of _Forrest Gump_ knows a thing or two about contingency.
Readers will find in _Vicksburg 1863_ the contingency that Ayers
recognizes, but joined with the kind of national affirmation Ayers
rejects. In searching for an explanation for this apparent
contradiction, the Vietnam War is an obvious place to go. One critic
has observed that "two landscapes loom large in the work of Winston
Groom": Vietnam and the American South. These "twin towers" prop up
Groom's fiction, he writes. Groom has said that there will always
be an important connection between _Forrest Gump_ and all his other
books. There is, he explains, "a little bit of Vietnam" in many of
his books. Returning from Vietnam, Groom knew his service had been
honorable. Confronted by the antiwar movement, "I just kept my mouth
These two landscapes shape Groom's Civil War narrative just as
surely, if more subtly, as they do his novels. Groom has no trouble
recognizing that slavery animated southerners' march to war. He makes
that clear in the first chapter of _Vicksburg 1863_. He also knows
that slavery and racism were and are evils; in _Forrest Gump_, he
names his main character after Nathan Bedford Forrest, nevertheless
observing that "startin up that Klan thing was not a good idea--any
idiot could tell you that." Into that single sentence Groom
incorporates both his recognition of the South's racialist past and
his condemnation of it. In _Forrest Gump_, one unlikely event follows
another until one soldier dying on a Vietnam battlefield pleads, "Why
this happen?" and another character explains that "it is all part of
a scheme of some sort." No dying Confederate asks exactly that
question in _Vicksburg 1863_. If one had, Groom would presumably have
had to point to slavery. Slavery was "paramount" on the "list of
contentions" between North and South, he writes (p. 29). Increasingly
militant abolitionists bedeviled the South. John Brown--"aging and
unbalanced"--infuriated white southerners (p. 30). Those white
southerners mistook Lincoln for a "die-hard abolitionist" (p. 33).
The "national rift over slavery" ran so deep that it split religions
(p. 34). All this agitation over slavery lit the fuse leading to war.
In Vietnam, Groom writes, "we was tryin to do the right thing, I
guess." Groom cannot say that about the South in the Civil War.
In _Vicksburg 1863_, he finds no Confederate soldier asking the
Vietnam question, "Why this happen?" but he comes close. A young boy
asks his grandmother, the daughter of a Civil War soldier, "why did
they do it, Bamaw? Why did they die?" About Vietnam Groom can have
his character answer the same question, "it was a bunch of shit."
He cannot bring himself to say that about Vicksburg. For that battle
Bamaw answers, "I don't know, son. I supposed they'd all be dead now
anyhow" (p. 458). To Vietnam, Groom can bring a brutal truth, to the
Civil War, comic evasion.
In _Vicksburg 1863_, Groom recounts a string of events chaotic and
even (at times) "zany," albeit with less reflection than he brought
to _Forrest Gump_. Groom's determined rejection of the moral
relativism that Vietnam encouraged in others may be an artifact from
a different era stranded on a landscape remolded by the civil rights
revolution. In his Civil War book, Ayers rejects "works of national
affirmation" and "national redemption." When writing about
Andrew Jackson or World War II, Groom redeems and affirms national
values, though finding those qualities in _Vicksburg 1863_ challenges
his imagination. Groom at least twice accuses Sherman of pyromania,
as if some personal mental failing led him into wanton destruction.
Black soldiers' service at Milliken's Bend gets brief mention,
starting out with a claim that the battle "did not reflect much
credit on anyone concerned" (p. 387). Black soldiers ran for their
lives before triumphant Texans, he writes, saved only by the timely
intervention of Union ironclads. This is one version of what
happened--the version that most shortchanges black heroism on that
battlefield. Other narrators have been more generous, and even Groom
concedes at the end of this passage that black soldiers proved they
would fight at Milliken's Bend. He also repeats the old canard, made
famous by Ken Burns, that Vicksburg did not celebrate the Fourth of
July for eighty-five years after the war. Groom trips over that
perennial bugaboo for white southerners: Reconstruction.
Reconstruction is clearly not a topic of great interest for this
author, but he mentions it at the end, complaining that by early
1867, "the Radical Republicans had begun to enact severe
Reconstruction measures designed to divest many southerners of their
property" (p. 440). There are few professional historians working
today still deluded by the old idea that "Radicals" ever controlled
Congress or any part of Reconstruction or that Reconstruction was
Groom concludes with a patriotic salute to all Civil War soldiers:
"They were not Gods, nor were they saints, but in their time they
were giants who ruled the earth, and they feared not. No army as yet
assembled could have matched them" (p. 458). Here we have moral
positivism, not relativism--the kind of thinking that insists on
clearly defined bad guys and good guys, combined with a recognition
that southern soldiers (those fearless giants) fought for slavery.
. Michael A. Ross, "'Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean
Laffite at the Battle of New Orleans' Draws Jackson as Daring
Dazzling Man in Full," review of _Patriotic Fire_, by Winston Groom,
_New Orleans Times-Picayune_, July 30, 2006.
. Winston Groom, _1942: The Year That Tried Men's Souls_ (New
York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005), xiv.
. Winston Groom, "Hatchet Job in 'The War': Criticisms of the
World War II Documentary Are More Examples of Growing 'Moral
Relativism,'" _Mobile Register_, October 14, 2007.
. John Leo, "'Forrest Gump' and His Message the Movie Serves Up a
Box of Chocolates and Moral Values," _Charleston Daily Mail_, August
. Edward L. Ayers, _In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the
Heart of America, 1859-1863_ (New York: Norton, 2003), xx.
. Nicholas Proffitt, "Bad Dreams in the American South," review of
_Gone the Sun_, by Winston Groom, _Washington Post_, December 13,
. Roy Hoffman, "Novelist as Historian: 'Gump' Author Explores Year
of American Anger," _Newhouse News Service_, May 19, 2005.
. Groom, _Forrest Gump_ (Garden City: Doubleday, 1986), 3.
. Ibid., 58, 62.
. Ibid., 204.
. Edward L. Ayers, _In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the
Heart of America, 1859-186_3 (New York: Norton, 2004), xx.
Citation: Christopher R. Waldrep. Review of Groom, Winston,
_Vicksburg 1863_. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. July, 2009.
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