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Review: Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg

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  • Brett Schulte
    http://www.brettschulte.net/ACWBooks/vicksburg.htm Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg. Timothy B. Smith. New York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC (2004). 502
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 26, 2005

      Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg. Timothy B. Smith. New
      York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC (2004). 502 pp. 41 maps.

      This is a review and summary of Timothy B. Smith's Champion Hill:
      Decisive Battle for Vicksburg. Dr. Smith sets out to write the first
      detailed history of the most important battle of the Vicksburg
      Campaign (some would say the entire war), and he has done an admirable
      job. Champion Hill is a detailed tactical level description of the
      battle, which occurred on May 16, 1863 on the eponymous hill located
      over 20 miles east of Vicksburg. This is no "New History" book filled
      with the social or political aspects of Champion Hill and its results.
      Instead, Dr. Smith announces early on in the Preface that "what you
      are about to read is a battle study molded out of the old school".
      And he makes good on his promise. The action picks up as Smith
      details how Grant's Union Army of the Tennessee tried all winter of
      1862-1863 to find a way to get at Vicksburg from dry land east of the
      Mississippi River. It then goes on to chronicle the battles leading
      up to Champion Hill. The majority of the text describes in tactical
      detail the ebb and flow of the Battle of Champion Hill. He follows up
      with a brief description of the pursuit to Vicksburg, the Siege, and
      the surrender of the Confederate Army on July 4, 1863. The book
      weighs in at just over 500 pages, with exactly 400 pages of text. The
      book contains an interesting amount of other material after the main
      read is finished. These include a "Thereafter", which details the
      lives of the main players after the Battle, a regimental-level "Order
      of Battle" which includes even regimental commanders (but no unit
      strengths), and a very interesting set of modern-day photos of the
      battlefield along with a keyed map allowing you to see the facing and
      position of the camera. Dr. Smith includes almost 40 pages of
      endnotes and an impressive bibliography containing numerous primary
      sources from manuscript collections and of course many secondary
      works, including the important previous works of Ed Bearss and Warren
      Grabau. And last but not least are the maps. Ted Savas, the
      publisher, has as usual filled this book to the brim with detailed
      tactical maps of the fighting. By my count, of the 41 maps, 32 cover
      the Battle of Champion Hill, with most of the others covering the
      preliminary action at Port Gibson, Raymond, and Jackson.

      Smith leads off with a chapter detailing exactly why Vicksburg was so
      important to the Confederacy. He mentions that Vicksburg is situated
      on high bluffs on the eastern side of the Mississippi River just after
      a hairpin bend, making it an ideal place to fortify and block the
      River. As long as Vicksburg (and to a lesser extent Port Hudson to
      the south) held, the Confederacy was not split in two. Vicksburg
      became even more important as the Federals took both Memphis and New
      Orleans, two key points to the north and south respectively. Grant's
      six failed attempts while situated in Louisiana west of Vicksburg are
      described, and Smith concludes that these diversions, along with some
      fortuitous Union cavalry raids, set up Grant's ultimately successful
      seventh attempt.

      Details are given on the past history of the two commanding Generals,
      Pemberton and Grant, along with brief descriptions of the Division and
      Corps commanders. A point Smith goes back to time and again is the
      fact that he regards Pemberton as "a bureaucrat", not a field general.
      He believes that although Pemberton meant well, his skill set was
      simply not suited for a fight to the finish against a man with plenty
      of practice at hard fighting in Grant. The Confederate Division
      commanders were all West Pointers with the exception of William
      Loring. John Bowen is referred to as "Pemberton's finest field
      subordinate", and Stevenson is marked as a "thoroughly untested field
      commander". Smith goes on to describe Grant's struggles, both in
      private life and early in the War. But he makes the point that Grant
      had always stuck to whatever he set his mind on doing, and that this
      trait would help him in the Campaign ahead. Grant's triumvirate of
      Corps commanders, Sherman, McClernand, and McPherson, are given brief
      introductions similar to those of the five Confederate Division
      commanders. In his descriptions of these men, Smith differs from the
      commonly held view. He is higher on McClernand and harder on
      McPherson than most, and although I do not entirely agree with this
      assessment, it is nevertheless refreshing to see someone do their own
      research and not just rehash old views ad nauseum. Grant landed on
      the east side of the Mississippi at Bruinsburg, Mississippi on April
      30, 1863. The Federals then moved inland, where they attacked
      brigades under the command of John Bowen. In the resulting Battle of
      Port Gibson, Smith writes that Bowen bought time for Pemberton to take
      charge of the deteriorating situation. However, according to Smith,
      Pemberton's fortress holding mentality rendered him incapable of the
      aggressive action required to save the day, and the city of Vicksburg,
      by attacking Grant then and there and pinning him against the River..

      Grant next moved inland, staying east of the Big Black River and
      relying on the countryside for supplies. Smith relates that Pemberton
      "implemented halfway measures" throughout this crucial time, neither
      concentrating his forces for a decisive attack nor impeding Grant's
      advance with any kind of regularity. At the Battle of Raymond, James
      McPherson's Union Corps fought the Confederate Brigade of John Gregg.
      Gregg had moved from the state capital of Jackson to block Grant's
      movements in that direction. After describing the fighting in some
      detail, Smith allows that "Raymond was not James McPherson's best day,
      but it did offer a demonstration of his tactical abilities". The
      appearance of troops from Jackson caused Grant to change his plans.
      Instead of concentrating in between Jackson and Vicksburg and then
      heading west, he would instead deal a blow to the troops in Jackson first.

      Joe Johnston's record in the field was one of "perplexing mediocrity",
      according to the author. As Grant moved toward Jackson, Pemberton
      missed an opportunity to fall on the Corps of Gen. John McClernand at
      Fourteenmile Creek. McClernand was acting as a roadblock in the
      direction of Vicksburg while Grant took care of business to the east.
      Grant overran Mississippi's Capital rather easily in the almost
      misnamed "Battle" of Jackson. With this act, Grant prevented the city
      from acting as a troop concentration point for the Army of Relief
      General Joe Johnston was then attempting to assemble. Smith points
      out the contrast in the actions of the commanding Generals to this
      point in the Campaign. He characterizes Grant as "audacious" and
      Pemberton as bumbling. At this time, due to some now outdated
      directions from Johnston, Pemberton decided to move southeast and
      outside of his natural line of the Big Black River. Smith declares
      this to be an odd decision, given that by moving in this direction the
      Southern commander was basically interposing Grant's Army between the
      Vicksburg garrison and Johnston, rather than moving closer.

      As McClernand maintained his position, McPherson's Corps moved west
      from Jackson, and Sherman's Corps destroyed all government property in
      the city, including (and especially) the railroads. Grant's men were
      well-rested in the days before the battle, while Pemberton's were not.
      This would be important in the upcoming battle. On the night of May
      15, both Armies camped within several miles of each other, Pemberton's
      essentially in their positions at the start of the battle the next
      day. As the decisive battle loomed, Johnston was moving ever further
      away from Pemberton!

      Smith next takes a look at the topography of the battlefield, pointing
      out that Champion Hill dominated the surrounding area and that it
      would play the central role in the fight. He also mentions that
      Baker's Creek at Pemberton's back had only one bridge readily
      available to the Southern Army, though Pemberton's engineers were hard
      at work on a southern bridge on the Raymond Road. The road network is
      discussed as well. Grant was advancing against Pemberton on three
      roads, the Jackson Road to the north, the Middle Road in the center,
      and the Raymond Road to the south. The Jackson and Middle Roads
      intersected just south of Champion Hill. Smith marks this crossroads
      as vital. Pemberton's Army needed to keep control in order to be able
      to retreat over the bridge on Baker's Creek that they had just marched
      over the previous night. If the Federals took control of the vital
      crossroads, and the Jackson road to the west, Pemberton's entire Army
      could be cut off. Grant had similar forces on all three roads.
      Stevenson's large Confederate Division covered Champion Hill and the
      crossroads on the left of the line, Bowen covered the center, and
      Loring covered the Raymond Road to the south on the right flank.
      Pemberton had left two whole Divisions near Vicksburg, and to make
      matters even worse, he was forced to react awkwardly as his Army lay
      where they had camped the night before. It seems Grant had again been
      the first to move. The initial contact came in the form of
      skirmishing along the Middle and Raymond Roads. Unfortunately for
      Pemberton and the South, he had neglected to picket the northern
      Jackson road, and Grant was coming in hard on his flank with three

      S. D. Lee, who Smith rates very highly for his performance at Champion
      Hill, saw Grant's column north of Champion Hill, and rushed his
      Brigade to cover that flank and with it the vital crossroads just
      south of there. His Brigade was not nearly enough, even though he
      also had the help of two guns of the Virginia Botetourt Artillery
      unlimbered on the crest of Champion Hill. Cumming's Brigade also
      partially moved to the crest, although Cumming was forced to leave two
      regiments behind to hold off McClernand's Federals advancing west
      along the Middle Road towards the crossroads. Hovey's and Logan's
      Federal Divisions from Grant's column had moved into position north of
      Champion Hill, and they were ready to attack at around 10:30 A.M.

      Smith believes that Grant thought McClernand to be a better tactician
      than McPherson. His rationale for this is that Grant traveled with
      McPherson's column along the Jackson Road in the north, and he gave
      McClernand control of operations on both the Middle and Raymond Roads.
      At this point Smith also brings up the relative inactivity during the
      battle by the forces under McClernand. He justifies this
      uncharacteristic behavior of McClernand by pointing out that Grant had
      ordered him to be cautious and not to bring on a general engagement.
      Hovey attacked Champion Hill around 11 A.M., hitting and routing the
      part of Cumming's Brigade posted there. Logan's troops followed not
      long after, attacking Lee's and Barton's Brigades with similar results
      to Hovey. The Federals had gained control of the vital crossroads,
      and also had cut the Jackson Road to the west somewhat near the bridge
      over Baker's Creek. The situation was critical to say the least for
      the South.

      General William W. Loring and his Brigadiers were not at all
      cooperative with Pemberton. In fact, Smith relates that they were
      treasonously hostile on several occasions during the battle.
      Specifically, they first refused to come to the aid of the left wing,
      they later wanted to attack while acting as read guard(!), and then
      Loring performed the controversial move of abandoning the Army to its
      fate at Vicksburg. Bowen's Division moved north to the rescue of
      Stevenson's Division and counterattacked up Champion Hill around 2:30
      P.M. This fine Division of Missourians and Arkansans was combat
      hardened, and they drove Hovey's and Logan's Divisions back to their
      starting points near the Sid Champion house north of the hill. Some
      of Stevenson's routed Rebel Division tried to help Bowen, but their
      attacks soon faltered. Luckily for the Union, Marcellus Crocker's
      Division had reached the field, but it really only stabilized the
      lines until Crocker's third brigade under Holmes counterattacked.
      These fresh troops, along with heavy Union artillery fire and Bowen's
      lack of ammunition, turned the tide. Apparently Stevenson, on his own
      authority, had ordered Bowen's ordnance train west across Baker's
      Creek! Needless to say Smith is not very kind in his comments about
      Stevenson regarding this major mistake.

      Communication between the separated Federal columns was incredibly
      slow. Many wooded ravines covered this area of Mississippi, and it
      made lateral movement exceedingly difficult. As a result, McClernand
      in the center did not order an attack until 2 P.M., even though Grant
      had sent the order much earlier. For all intents and purposes,
      McClernand's column sat and skirmished against only 2 Confederate
      regiments from 11 to 2 while only several hundred yards to the west
      and the northwest Logan and Hovey were fighting for their lives.
      Loring disobeyed Pemberton for quite some time before finally moving
      with two of his brigades for the vital crossroads at around 2:45 P.M.
      As McClernand finally got into action, essentially outflanking Bowen
      on his right rear, Loring's first Brigade under Buford showed up.
      Buford had his last two regiments taken from him without his
      knowledge. They were used to excellent effect in delaying McClernand
      while Bowen moved south and out of the trap he found his Division in.
      The other six regiments of Buford covered Bowen's left. Loring then
      arrived with Featherston, and the Confederates at last managed to
      temporarily stabilize the situation. But it was too late. They had
      permanently lost both the crossroads and Jackson Road, and now they
      had to retreat on the southern Raymond Road, and hope that the bridge
      started by their engineers earlier in the day was finished.

      Pemberton withdrew around 5 P.M., with Featherston covering the rear
      on the left, and Tilghman covering the Raymond Road on the right.
      Skirmishing and artillery fire marked the extent of the fighting along
      the southern Raymond Road between Tilghman and the Federal Divisions
      of A.J. Smith and Frank Blair. Barton's Confederate Brigade, after
      having been routed earlier in the day by Logan, had moved west and was
      now covering the northern crossing of Baker's Creek. S.D. Lee had
      crossed at the southern crossing and was moving north to guard the
      northern crossing (Pemberton did not know Barton was already there).
      Barton thought Lee was the enemy, and withdrew from the crossing!
      Thus the Federals were handed a gift and crossed Baker's Creek.
      Bowen, covering the southern crossing and waiting for Loring, was then
      forced to withdraw. As a result, Loring, still east of the Creek as a
      rear guard, decided not to cross and took his entire Division south
      and then back northeast to Johnston. He thus saved his Division but
      deprived Pemberton of much-needed strength in the Siege to come. This
      decision has been controversial ever since, and Smith, although not
      committing decisively one way or the other, seems to lean towards the
      impossibility of Loring crossing Baker's Creek. He says that Union
      artillery already had the crossing covered, and that Loring's decision
      was a prudent one. This is the first time I had heard it presented
      this way. I had always thought Loring deliberately took himself out
      of the Campaign to rid himself of a commander he hated. Smith,
      although blasting Loring earlier for his disobedience, gives the
      Division commander a pass in this case.

      In the aftermath of the battle, Hovey's Division, which had suffered a
      disproportionate number of casualties, remained behind to tend to the
      wounded and the prisoners, and to bury the dead. Out of 29,000 Union
      troops present, 2,441 were casualties, for an 8.4% casualty rate.
      Pemberton suffered much more severely. Out of 24,000 men, he lost
      3840 for a casualty rate of 16%. When you throw in the removal of
      Loring from the campaign, the Confederate casualties were disastrous.
      Smith also points out that the above stats are a little misleading.
      Hovey's, Logan's, and Crocker's Divisions of the northern column had
      done most of the fighting for the Union, while the four divisions to
      the south suffered very little. I was amazed at just how few troops
      were casualties in McClernand's columns. To me, Smith gives
      McClernand a little too much of a free pass. If he had been more
      aggressive, Bowen or even the entire Confederate Army could have been
      trapped and destroyed. He does point out Grant's order to be
      cautious, but McClernand had to have heard the obviously major
      fighting going on right in front of him. Grant's orders at that point
      were for all intents and purposes obsolete. On the Confederate side,
      Stevenson and Bowen did almost all of the fighting, and Loring's
      tardiness allowed his Division to escape virtually unscathed from the
      The subsequent night time retreat of Loring near and sometimes almost
      through Union camps that night is an entirely different story,
      however. Smith calls Champion Hill a "decisive strategic and tactical
      victory" for Grant. He blames Pemberton almost completely for the
      defeat, citing his poor approach march, his lack of proper cavalry
      reconnaissance, his almost criminal neglect when he failed to ride
      over to the left completely to directly observe the fighting, and his
      decision to leave two full divisions behind in the entrenchments of
      Vicksburg. He points out again that Pemberton was unfit for command,
      and that he was a bureaucrat and a desk general. At this point he
      goes back to Loring's decision not to cross Baker's Creek and retreat
      with Pemberton. As I stated earlier, Smith believes that it would
      have been a close call if Loring had tried to cross the Creek, and
      that Loring might have been trapped and forced to surrender.

      In the final chapter, Smith describes the disaster that befell the
      Confederates at the Big Black River Bridge the next day. Grant
      pursued relentlessly, and as a result routed the Confederates out of
      their entrenchments on the east side of Big Black River. Over one
      thousand more Rebels were captured, and Grant was well on his way to
      besieging Vicksburg. He then proceeds to wrap up the ensuing
      assaults, the Siege, and the surrender of Pemberton on July 4, 1863.
      Smith points out that Champion Hill was the most important and
      decisive battle of the Vicksburg Campaign, although he stops short of
      calling it the most important battle of the entire Civil War. It
      vaulted Grant and Sherman to later prominence, although it cut
      McClernand down at the height of his success. He had only himself to
      blame, due to a selfish proclamation he issued to his Corps after the
      Second Assault at Vicksburg on May 22. Grant relieved him and he
      never again held an important field command. Finally, Smith points
      out that with some better decision making by Pemberton, and with some
      more timely support of Bowen, the Confederates could have won the day.
      Champion Hill was a closer-run affair than it would seem at first sight.

      In several interesting sections after the text, Smith details the
      later lives of the main players involved in the battle. He also has
      an excellent selection of modern-day photos, accompanied by a map
      depicting the position and orientation of the camera for each photo.
      What amazed me was that the Jackson Road in that area is obviously no
      longer used. It is little larger than an ATV path at this point!

      The first thing that struck me after reading Champion Hill was Dr.
      Smith's assessments of McClernand and McPherson. He states that Grant
      thought McClernand was a better tactician than McPherson, and bases
      that on the fact that he rode with McPherson's column on May 16 and
      allowed McClernand independent command to the south. I do not
      entirely agree with this assessment, as I mentioned previously. For
      instance, how did Grant know which column would strike the enemy
      first? And how did he know precisely where the enemy was in strength
      when he set out on the morning of May 16. Regardless, I do partially
      share Smith's high opinion of McClernand. Although I am not fond of
      his unbounded and very public ambition, the political General did show
      a good tactical eye and an aggressive nature in numerous fights.
      However, I would not excuse his timid performance on May 16 as much as
      Dr. Smith does. He points to an order from Grant to McClernand not to
      bring on a general engagement. This is all well and good, but heavy
      fighting raged only several hundred yards to the west and northwest of
      McClernand on Champion Hill. Surely he heard the racket made by tens
      of cannon and thousands of rifled muskets? At that point, Grant's
      orders had become obsolete. McClernand had a chance to at the very
      least bag Bowen's entire Division of excellent fighters, a fine prize
      indeed, but he was uncharacteristically timid this day. While I also
      agree that Pemberton was to blame for the defeat, Loring's performance
      deserved a court-martial, and Joe Johnston was his usual timid self at
      the time of decision. It didn't help that the inexperienced Stevenson
      was in charge of the Division hit first and holding the most important
      terrain of the entire battle. These rather small points aside, I
      thought Dr. Smith's battle history of the Battle of Champion Hill to
      be well told and excellently explained book which went down to the
      regimental level. Since I am almost as much of a wargamer as am
      amateur historian and Civil War buff, I thoroughly enjoyed the
      attention to detail. As I mentioned in the introduction, Smith
      differs in some cases with Bearss, and does not hesitate to say so.
      He backs this up with good explanations, and I appreciate the fact
      that he was not simply rewriting Bearss' chapters on Champion Hill.

      I must also take a moment here to mention the maps done by Ted Savas,
      who also happens to be the publisher. Anyone who has read any books
      published by Savas, whether under his old name of Savas Publishing or
      now Savas Beatie, knows that Mr. Savas has more appreciation for
      numerous good maps than any other publisher I have ever seen. This
      book is no exception. Fully 41 maps cover the action in regimental
      level detail and accompany Smith's words in perfect harmony. They
      allowed me to fully appreciate just what went on and gave me an
      insight into the battle I haven't had up to this point. I did have
      one minor quibble, and this coincides with the observation of Tony
      Gunter, who posts on the "civilwarwest" Yahoo Group. Mr. Gunter has
      pointed out in the past that the maps use various shades for
      elevation, and this makes it a little harder to determine elevations
      than if topographical lines of elevation had been used. This is, like
      my minor disagreements with some of Dr. Smith's conclusions, a minor
      quibble. No one does maps like Mr. Savas, and I mean NO ONE.

      As anyone who reads my reviews on a regular basis knows, I tend to
      recommend a book as long it is of reasonable quality if it is the only
      one to cover a given battle. In this case, although Dr. Smith's book
      is the only one to concentrate on Champion Hill to date, it is an
      almost perfect model of everything a tactical battle study should be.
      Smith delivers on his promise in the Preface, and delivers in a big
      way. This book was well-written, both in terms of being able to
      explain the often confusing action, and also in being able to keep me
      entertained at the same time. Dr. Smith has obviously done his
      homework, as the numerous manuscript collections in the bibliography
      suggest. His "Thereafter" section detailing the later life of the
      participants was also a fresh idea, as were the modern photographs of
      the battlefield. And the maps, as usual in a Savas-published book,
      were obviously seen as a major part of the book and not thrown in as
      afterthoughts like some books published today (Donnybrook comes to
      mind). Every serious student of the Civil War, and especially of the
      war in the Western Theater, should own a copy of this book. I eagerly
      look forward to more work from Dr. Smith in the future.

      502 pp., 41 maps.

      © Copyright Brett Schulte 2005. All rights reserved.

      Brett S.

      My Books: http://www.brettschulte.net/BrettsBooks/index.html
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