Review: Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg

by James Durney on June 24, 2009 · 4 comments

Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg
by Timothy B. Smith

championhilldecisivebattleforvicksburgtimsmithProduct Details

  • Paperback: 520 pages
  • Publisher: Savas Beatie (January 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1932714197
  • ISBN-13: 978-1932714197

[This review is for the hardback version]

The reading Civil War battle histories can be very enjoyable or an exercise in frustration depending on the author’s ability to explain the battle.  Many times the reader’s prior knowledge of the battle becomes critical to the enjoyment of the book.  Noah Andre Trudeau once apologized for writing another book on Gettysburg.  His point was with so many Gettysburg books on the market reading a book on Gettysburg is like visiting a childhood friend.  Only a few words are necessary to recall shared experiences from a long acquaintance.  Other battles are strangers we may have heard about but lack knowledge of.  This lack of shared experiences and the common ground of an old friend can make an introduction awkward and difficult.  Becoming “lost” on the battlefield is a common problem as the action moves past but leaves us clueless to the importance or location of the event.  The “little picture” takes full control leaving the reader with only the vaguest idea of how we arrived on the field, why we are fighting the battle or where we will go afterwards.  The less prior knowledge you have of the battle, the more likely you are to encounter problem understanding the battle.  This book will often end up on eBay or sitting in the bookcase with a scrap of paper marking where you gave up.  We all have bought this book and each time we wonder, “What is it that makes a good battle history?”  What do we need when being introduced to a battle to make a pleasant and informative beginning?  What will keep our interest and make us want to finish reading the book?  “Champion Hill Decisive Battle for Vicksburg” by Timothy B. Smith from Savas Beatie LLC is a battle book that can answer these questions.

Civil War buffs are familiar with Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign; some of us can even name most of the battles.  We know that the battle of Champion Hill located between Jackson and Vicksburg is the critical battle of the campaign.  Grant’s defeat of Pemberton caused the latter be trapped in Vicksburg and forced to surrender on July 4, 1863.  Good start, now how much do we really know about this battle?  Champion Hill, as most western battles, suffers from a lack of available books making a new book something of an event.  Sam Elliott, the actor and Civil War author, has characterized Tim Smith as “a fine young Civil War scholar”.  This book shows why he can say that.  The writing is sure, swift moving and compelling.  The opening chapter outlines the frustration of the Vicksburg Campaign while introducing the main characters.  This gives us an understanding of how few options Grant had and why he chose what many considered the most dangerous one.

This is a battle history.  The promise is a battle and a battle is what they deliver!  In the package is a clear concise, descriptive account of the campaign that ends in the siege of Vicksburg.  Not one battle, but Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill and Big Black occur during the nineteen days of May between crossing the Mississippi River and arriving at Vicksburg.  Thirty-eight maps ensure we don’t get lost or have to go searching for a map.  The map you need is always on the page or only a couple of pages away.  I never had to bookmark a map or try to figure where the action is with a map that did not fit.  Theodore P. Savas did the maps.  As the editor, he makes sure the maps are informative, timely, detailed and easy to read.  Photographs of the people involved, while never required add a nice touch.  They help the reader see the characters as flesh and blood people, giving them a face in a way that words alone will not do.  The book gives us seventy-eight photographs of the characters and puts them where we encounter this person.  I find this nicer than a section of photographs in the middle of the text.  Something else I like is the 16 page “Modern Photographic Gallery” of the battlefield with a map showing the location and angle of view of the photographs.  No matter where I was in the book, I always had access to a map, pictures of the participants and in the back a view of the terrain.  This made for a very smooth and enjoyable introduction to the battle of Champion Hill.  The chapter on the aftermath details how the loss at Champion Hill drives Pemberton into Vicksburg, the impact on his men and the sever loss of materials is very well done.  Equally informative is how victory lifted the spirits of Grant’s men, built confidence in them selves and in their leaders.  This explains the collapse of Pemberton’s army and the hasty retreat into the Vicksburg fortifications.  “Thereafter” gives us a short what happened to of many of the people involved, who survived the war, what they did and where the others died.  Notes, index and Order of Battle complete the book.

Of more than passing interest, Tim Smith takes the side of General John A. McClernand, something very few historians do.  More than one Net ACW group has had an extended debate on this.  I expect the subject that will only heat up as more people read the book.  His treatment of McClernand is very evenhanded, reporting when he did well at Port Gibson and badly at Champion Hill.  However, it is clear that Mr. Smith does not share the standard historical view of the man.  This is an interesting development and it remains to be seen where it will go.  Are we seeing the start of another rethinking of ACW history or this is an idea that will go nowhere?  Using the author’s support of McClernand to dismiss the book is a very bad idea and those this do will be the poorer for it.

What we have is an exceptionally good battle history, complete with maps and photographs.  This may not be the best battle history ever written but it is one that should be in your library and sets a standard that other’s should try to reach.

Editor’s Note: Jim is a Top 500 Amazon.com reviewer.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Naim Peress June 27, 2009 at 12:25 am

You might want to check out Vicksburg 1863. It gives a good account of the campaign in Winston Groom’s novelistic style.

Naim Peress

Reply

admin June 27, 2009 at 8:10 am

Naim,

I cannot speak for Jim, but I’m going to pass on Groom’s approach to Vicksburg. I already have Bearss, Grabau, Ballard, Smith on Champion Hill, etc. Groom, with his lack of footnotes is unappealing to me.

Brett

Reply

James Durney June 27, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Two very different books and two different approaches to “history”. This book is a serious battle/campaign history, Groom is telling a story. Each has a place and each can be enjoyed for what they are.

Unlike many Groom is not trying to sell his Vicksburg book as serious histry.

Reply

Kevin Dally January 2, 2010 at 8:22 am

The best book on a specific battle I have!

I had ancestors in the 39th GA, and the 31st Miss, at this battle. I would never have understood the time line, and movements of this battle as it see-sawed back & forth, without Smith’s book.

Publisher Ted Savas is dead on about including maps to help understaning a battle.
I have toured much of the Champion Hill battle site, with Smith’s book in hand, it was a tremendous help.

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