Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Review: Vicksburg: The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi by Michael Ballard

This book was another find at the Borders sellout sale. Not my usual history book, but I find military history fascinating and would love to learn more about it. I also took a Civil War class last year and that time period ranks a close second behind my specialty (Early American history). Since I was on vacation this week, I also figured I'd have lots of concentrated time on my flights and on the beach to focus on the complex details. I know it's not a typical beach read, but I rarely do things in a typical manner.

I really enjoyed reading this book and found it far easier to read than I expected. Even though it is heavy on military details such as troop movements, battle locations and formations, and numbers- those details are rarely overwhelming. There were only a few moments where I had to take a step back and refocus because I was getting bogged down in details and having trouble seeing the big picture. The author also does a fantastic job of exploring various aspects of life during the war.  He discusses the impact on the countryside, homes, civilians, guerrilla warfare, the impressions of every day soldiers and the personalities and relationships between commanders. Those details were really crucial to the development of the story. It helped the book read like a story, rather than a recitation of numerous battles.

There were some aspects of the book that I would have changed. There were far too few maps included. When the author was describing troops movements, the positioning of defensive works, cavalry, etc., I often struggled to understand or picture what he was describing. I ended up flipping back and forth between where I was reading and the closest map, which was neither practical nor efficient. I needed pictures, even small, basic images, to fully comprehend the movements and positions. Just as importantly, the maps that were included, were often confusing and not very helpful. I understand that the author didn't draw most of the maps, but if he was responsible for selecting the images, he did so poorly. Often times, a less sophisticated map with fewer streams, roads, etc. is actually far more helpful. I struggled to decipher what was a road, stream, line of troops or hill ridge when studying the map. Granted, I'm no professional when it comes to that kind of thing, but I'm a smart girl and usually can figure maps out. 

Despite these few shortcomings, the book is an extraordinary scholarly work. It clearly required tremendous research, dedication, time and devotion to complete. It does a wonderful job of demonstrating the long term importance of the Vicksburg campaign and the impact the Union victory had on the outcome of the Civil War.  I also felt that the author appropriately covered the battles and maneuvering leading up the the Vicksburg campaign and the fighting that continued after the Confederate surrender. The author made a very convincing argument for why Vicksburg and the Western Theater of war influenced the direction of the Civil and why it deserves more recognition and attention for its role. Perhaps most importantly, it piqued my interest in the subject and made me want to learn and read more about that time.

This book is definitely one I would recommend to others interested in the Civil War. If you had no interest, then maybe not so much.

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