- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

“Vicksburg 1863” (Alfred A. Knopf, 496 pages, $30), by Winston Groom: Many books have examined the Union siege of Vicksburg, Miss., over the years, but that’s no reason Winston Groom should not lend his unique voice to the subject _ one of the most critical campaigns of the Civil War.

The Alabama author best known for his novel “Forrest Gump,” brought to life by Tom Hanks in the 1994 movie, has considerable experience and expertise in both fiction and nonfiction.

With “Vicksburg 1863,” Groom brings the novelist’s touch to history, personalizing characters such as Union Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, as well as Jefferson Davis and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston of the Confederacy, in an easily relatable way for the average reader.

To the uninitiated, Groom’s version of the long campaign to capture Vicksburg and open up the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to the North’s interior offers fresh insights on the human costs of the war and what it meant to the nation. To Civil War aficionados, it should be like chocolate to the chocaholic: You can’t get too much.

“I want readers to read what I write and enjoy it, to let it read kind of like a novel. But obviously you’ve got to stick to the facts,” Groom said in an interview from his home in Point Clear, Ala., along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

Groom said he had visited the battlefield at Vicksburg before, but on a later visit was struck so by the significance of what occurred there _ both during the six-week siege and in the months leading to it _ that he had his agent free him from a contract to write a different book so that he could concentrate on this one.

After reading everything he could on the subject, including diaries, letters and the writings of figures such as Grant and Sherman, he set about to tell a tale of human conflict and suffering the likes of which this country had never seen before, or has seen since.

“In Vicksburg, in particular, people were living in caves and eating mule meat,” Groom said, describing conditions the Southerners endured during bombardment by sometimes hundreds of Federal artillery shells a day lobbed against the “Gibraltar of the West.”

The story of the Mississippi campaign begins with the start of the war, and Grant’s unlikely return to a military career that led eventually to Union victory and took him to the White House.

Groom explains in great length the vital role the U.S. Navy played, not only along the Mighty Mississippi but in tributaries throughout its basin.

There were eight attempts to capture Vicksburg before the final, bloody success. These included the breach of a levee 150 miles to the north that flooded hundreds of square miles northeast of the city. Ironclads and wooden troop transports steamed south at the level of tree tops before they were turned back by artillery fire from a hastily constructed Confederate fort.

The author noted that Vicksburg fell into Grant’s hands the same day that the North prevailed in the battle of Gettysburg, ending Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s lone invasion of Union territory. He said Gettysburg, though, pales in comparison to Vicksburg.

“In Vicksburg, not only did you lose your whole Army, you also lost the entire Mississippi River valley and half of your territory,” Groom said.

“The South was almost mad to continue the war after that,” he said, adding that President Abraham Lincoln would have provided much more favorable terms had the Confederates ended it then rather then almost two years later.

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