Crossroads Of Nations
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid looking at a battle as though it is an island unto itself. It’s particularly difficult when you’re standing on the very ground where that battle took place, or you’re engrossed in a well-written, well-researched study of it—especially one that is dense with eyewitness accounts. Nonetheless, no battle, no matter how gripping it is, exists in a vacuum. Losing sight of the big picture of the war, and a particular battle’s effect on it, creates the risk of not fully appreciating why that battle is so important in the first place.
Focusing only on the big picture has significant pitfalls too, though. It is disturbing to hear people label detailed tactical studies of battles as little more than irrelevant antiquarianism. The answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle: Study the battle down to the level of subtlety and intricacy, but never lose sight of its context and importance in the grand scheme. It’s impossible to completely grasp a battle’s impact without considering not only what came before and after, but also what was happening at the same time.
The millions of people who flock to Gettysburg every summer—particularly during July— testify to its status in the American mind. It’s not hard to figure out why Gettysburg has this enduring effect. In addition to its immense strategic importance, it has everything that’s enticing about an epic battle at the tactical level—noble charges, desperate defenses, massive artillery duels and innumerable instances where common men pulled off extraordinary feats. It is a full-scale Napoleonic slugfest right here in the New World—and a classic piece of military nostalgia unfolding on the cusp of a new era in military history.
A thousand miles away in Mississippi, the dawning of this new era was considerably more recognizable. Instead of lines of packed infantry pounding away at each other for three dramatic days, Vicksburg is more often characterized by entrenched soldiers waiting one another out in a drawn-out, laborious affair. Vicksburg saw beachheads and amphibious landings (not to mention a relatively novel level of cooperation between the Army and Navy throughout the campaign), extensive use of a wide variety of fortifications, small- and specialized-unit actions and many other elements that are more closely associated with modern warfare in U.S. military history. On the surface, Vicksburg may seem to be lacking in some of the criteria that make for an epic battle in the classical sense. But digging deeper into its various campaigns and the siege uncovers what a fascinating story it is in its own right.
As different as Gettysburg and Vicksburg may be in form and execution, they are entirely inseparable in the larger context of the war. Certainly both were crucially important—and would have been so even if they had not ended at the same time. But because they did, and because they were two critical victories for the Union at a time when not much else was going right for it—particularly in the Eastern theater—July 4, 1863, has to be considered the crossroads of the war, and to some extent, the crossroads of American history. Both battles are essential to that understanding, and the importance of one cannot be fully appreciated without considering its significance relative to the other.
Not everyone agrees with this, of course. It can be a hard sell convincing some people that Vicksburg is just as important as its high-profile running mate. Magazines are probably as responsible for this as anything else. Go to the history section of the local newsstand during any July and you’re likely to see a lot of Gettysburg covers and not much else. It’s easy to understand why—we like to read about Gettysburg in July too. But we also like to read about Vicksburg, and trust you do as well. With this issue, we’ve tried to give you a taste of both battles and what we hope will be a broader understanding of how these two epic and inseparable events collectively changed the course of American history.
Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.