An Interview with Champion Hill Author Timothy B. Smith
Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg is the first full-length account of the important Civil War battle that took place on May 16, 1863, during the Vicksburg Campaign. The results of the battle altered the course of the campaign and spun the war in an entirely new direction. Champion Hill author Timothy Smith recently discussed the research behind his book and the implications of this important battle with Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC.
: Most historians believe the Vicksburg Campaign was one of the most decisive of the entire Civil War. How did you come to write an entire book about one battle in the campaign?
TBS: The Vicksburg Campaign has already been well-documented by many historians. Most people consider Edwin Bearss' The Vicksburg Campaign (three volumes) an amazingly detailed and definitive study, which it certainly is. However, the important battles that comprised the campaign have not received the recognition they deserve. Without an appreciation for the events that took place at specific battles like Champion Hill, I think it is impossible to fully understand the Vicksburg Campaign.
: And so you decided to write a book about Champion Hill...
TBS: Yes, but I did not reach that decision entirely on my own. I had a passion for the Civil War and an interest in the combat at Champion Hill. However, I must thank one of my mentors and former history professors, Dr. David Sansing, for the idea of writing a book about Champion Hill. He had contemplated writing about the battle himself, but was tied up with other projects. Dr. Sansing suggested I research and write about the battle, and I jumped at the chance. I knew it would be a popular topic because no one had written about the battle in any detail.
: Why do you think, for so long, Western Theater battles were not as widely covered in book-length form as Eastern Theater actions?
TBS: I think there is a bias in favor of the Eastern Theater. It dates all the way back to Douglas Southall Freeman's work, when Richmond was the journalistic capital of the Lost Cause and old Confederacy after the war. Many of those writings about the Civil War came from Virginia, and thus had a definite Virginia and Eastern Theater slant.
: But that is changing of late.
TBS: Yes, without doubt that is true. While there is still much to learn about the Eastern Theater fighting, readers have discovered the vast Western Theater (and other places outside Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania) and the fascinating events that unfolded there. I hope Champion Hill helps in this effort. I believe the war was won and lost in the West. I think it's high time these battles were treated as completely as events in the East have been.
: Can you provide a general overview of the battle?
TBS: Sure. Essentially, at the end of April 1863, Union General Grant landed an army below the stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and began marching it inland in an effort to capture Vicksburg and destroy, if possible, the army defending it. General John Pemberton was the commander of the Confederate forces there. General Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Western Theater, was sent to the state capital at Jackson to help organize reinforcements pouring in there from other parts of the South. Grant quickly moved inland and took the state's capital at Jackson. Based upon a message from Johnston, Pemberton moved his army east of the Big Black River toward Grant, who was moving west on a broad front to find Pemberton. Their armies met at Champion Hill on May 16.
: That helps explain the general situation. How did the size of the armies compare?
TBS: Generally speaking, Grant managed to get about 30,000 men to the field that day, and Pemberton about 23,000.
: What did you enjoy about researching the battle of Champion Hill?
TBS: The research was the highlight of the experience for me. I enjoyed traveling to the many museums and archival holdings around the country-especially to study old letters and diaries in their repositories. Whether I was reading a letter from a private or sifting through information written by a general, I felt a special connection to that soldier. When I sat down and read his writing, I had a small glimpse into his personal world.
: Champion Hill has been described as "a classic battle book," meaning its focus is primarily tactical, with enough information provided about the strategic movements to set the stage and enough context to understand what was happening at the micro-level, and why. Is that an accurate description?
TBS: I think it is, yes. The first chapter introduces the early months of the war, how Mississippi and Vicksburg came to be the focal point of U.S. Grant's efforts, and explains, necessarily in overview fashion, his many failed attempts to capture Vicksburg from the fall of 1862 to the spring of 1863. After that, I dedicated an entire chapter to each of the battles leading up to Champion Hill-Port Gibson, Raymond, and Jackson-so that readers could understand, step by step, how it all unfolded up to Champion Hill.
: Was it hard to bring together all of your research and analyze the situation from both the Union and Confederate viewpoints at both the strategic and tactical levels?
TBS: Explaining the strategic situation was much easier. Making sense of the tactical movements was very difficult, but I strove to be as balanced as I could be, given the sources I had and what I could make of them. The most challenging part was reconciling contradictory events and then putting them in a cohesive and understandable storyline for both sides. It is not that difficult to reconstruct what happened on the Federal side, and what happened on the Confederate side. However, figuring out what each side was doing to the other at the same time was tough.
: Can you provide an example?
TBS: I could provide dozens of examples! (laughing). One that immediately comes to mind is the counterattack launched by Seth Barton's Georgia Brigade on the Confederate left flank late on the morning of May 16. We know generally where he went in and what happened-he attacked, was nearly encircled, and was badly broken and routed. Now, what is less obvious is what Union forces he struck, when he struck them, how long they battled at the tip of the thrust, so to speak, and what Stephen D. Lee's Brigade on Barton's right flank was doing at that time.
: You used evidence from both sides to solve a small mystery about who killed a particular Union colonel?
TBS: Well that was really a joint effort with Ted Savas, the publisher and also editor of this book. He questioned this and that, and we spoke almost daily for weeks about everything having to do with the manuscript. One day, we were discussing several sources about the fight near Champion Hill itself. It became obvious that Union eyewitness accounts about the death of a Federal Missouri regimental commander and the immediate aftermath of his fall dovetailed strikingly with Confederate accounts on the same part of the field at the same time of day. After carefully piecing them together, we reached the conclusion about how the colonel was killed, and specifically who had killed him.
: That's amazing. Let's talk for a moment about the style of writing employed in Champion Hill. First, unlike so many tactical studies, it is not just "this regiment moved here, and this one shifted there" sort of thing. Instead, you introduce readers to the soldiers and civilians involved in the Vicksburg Campaign while examining the movements of the armies, and together the mix makes for an entertaining read.
TBS: Thanks. I firmly believe a tactical study of this nature must have a lot of background material. Character development is vital to understanding how events play out. After all, battles are fought by people who affect the outcome based on their personalities, traits, and audacity. Why did Pemberton conduct the battle as he did? What explains Hovey's aggressiveness? Lee's expertise in handling men? Carter Stevenson's failures? Grant's dogged determination when things looked like they were falling apart? Their experience up to that time, combined with their personalities, makes much of what each man did understandable-at least I hope!
: You also include detailed information about the terrain of the field, and dozens of battlefield maps, both of which help the reader better understand the battle...
TBS: Well, again, I hope so! I don't think you can study a battle without understanding the battlefield on which it was fought. You must have a firm knowledge of the terrain. I wanted readers to appreciate the environment these soldiers fought in. The land was heavily wooded and full of ravines. It is easy to sit at home and say, "Such and such a general should have just done this or that, deployed here and attacked more quickly, or moved there and defended." It is not that easy-ever. And the terrain upon which these men fought was, by and large, terrible. Think of the Wilderness, and then make it more rugged with even worse roads and you have Champion Hill. As for the maps, I wanted as many as possible; otherwise, readers can't possibly visualize what is going on. Frankly, most publishers don't want to go to the expense or trouble. Savas insisted on providing maps, and on occasion, he actually drafts them. He got wrapped up in this project and volunteered a deal I could not refuse. Readers of Savas-published books know how much he values good cartography, and I sure do too.
: Let's turn to some of the people who participated in the battle. You discuss General McClernand, a political general from Illinois, and the role he played at the battle. Was McClernand really as bad as history has made him out to be?
TBS: Well, not really. When he fought at Champion Hill, he fought well. But he was late in getting started. It was not his best battle, but you have to keep in mind that there were mitigating circumstances. Grant ordered McClernand to move cautiously, and he did. And the terrain on his flanks was terrible, the road narrow, and his left and center looked to be threatened by a large Confederate counterattack. In retrospect, he should have moved faster and harder to effectively end the campaign that day. Some readers have taken me to task on this point. But, I have studied the battle for a long time, walked the field, and thought long and hard about this. In the end, it is just an opinion. Everything looks easier in hindsight.
: Speaking of Federal generals, there has been some question about what role General McPherson played at Champion Hill.
TBS: (laughing). You are hitting the hot points and the ones I get email on! It's hard to say what his specific role was. Certainly McPherson was on the field and fought bravely, but he and others left very little evidence of what he actually did. We do know, however, that Grant was at Jackson Road and extremely active in directing the battle, no doubt overshadowing McPherson. McPherson did not stand out at Champion Hill as a corps leader, but neither can we say he failed or performed poorly. We just are unsure what he did there. His effort, tactically speaking, at Raymond on May 12 was not one that inspired confidence. He faced a single brigade, though a large one, and took hours to finally develop the enemy and win the field. When he did, he did not have a pursuit organized to exploit his victory. Some have compared McPherson's effort there with McClernand's effort at Port Gibson, but the former had better and more maneuverable terrain, while the latter had choking terrible terrain to deal with.
: What about Confederate generals and their action at Champion Hill?
TBS: Oh, they did even worse. Joe Johnston and even President Jeff Davis... at times they were their own worst enemies. They did not agree on a course of action, Johnston provided Pemberton with suggestions that did not conform to reality, he was not nearly as aggressive at Jackson as the circumstances demanded-it was a mess strategically for the Southerners. Regarding the battle itself, William Loring and John Pemberton were at loggerheads and Loring despised Pemberton and frankly was not very responsive to his commands. Carter Stevenson led Pemberton's largest division, and it was in the most important part of the line on the morning of the battle. But Stevenson had never led men in a pitched action. He flailed about, had little idea what to do, and in a most curious decision, ordered another division commander's ammunition wagons off the field at a critical time in the battle. There was a real vacuum of leadership that day, and the loss of the battle was the result.
: What would the consequences have been for Grant if he had not succeeded at Champion Hill?
TBS: Well, I am assuming you mean if he was decisively beaten, rather than just fought to a draw. Obviously this is pure speculation, but I think the consequences of a defeat would have been enormous. Retreat would have been difficult, his supply line was tenuous, and given his many failed attempts to take Vicksburg, I think his career might well have ended in 1863. Sherman's too, for that matter. Chances are both Grant and Sherman would not have left Mississippi with their careers intact.
: And how would the war have played out differently?
TBS: Well, again it is speculative for we can never know for certain. However, would not many of the major events that occurred have been different? No surrender at Vicksburg would mean no Atlanta Campaign, no March to the Sea. No Grant against Lee in the Overland Campaign, no Appomattox, no Grant presidency . . . it really gets you thinking. Would the South have still lost? Who knows? But the course of the balance of the war would have been very different.
: Yes, definitely something for readers to ponder. Besides looking at the long term consequences of Champion Hill, what else do you hope readers will gain from your book?
TBS: I hope readers take away that it was a hard-fought battle on both sides and the men did the best they could with what they had. And, although it is a little-known battle, it was a fascinating one, and a potentially very important engagement. Most of all, I hope my work does justice and honor to all the men who fought that spring day.
: I believe it does. Thank you for your time, and good luck with the book.
TBS: Thank you.
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