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New presentation, same old story
on September 8, 2010
Most battle histories have a very narrow focus, and tend to be a bit myopic. Inevitably, a military campaign is affected by events beyond the reach of the commanders in the field. Receding Tide takes a unique view of the Vicksburg Campaign by covering not only the material previously published in Bearss' Vicksburg trilogy, but also the events in Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington that were shaping or being shaped by the Vicksburg Campaign. For those that have never seen these three theaters juxtaposed in this way, this book can represent an epiphany. After all, the Gettysburg Campaign can be viewed as an extension of the Vicksburg Campaign, as Lee was trying to relieve pressure on Johnston and Pemberton by threatening Washington. The text reads like a battlefield tour, and holds one's interest well.
If the name Ed Bearss means nothing to you, then you're probably unfamiliar with Civil War history. He is a commanding presence, a legend in the world of history, a battlefield tour guide with a growl of a voice whose lectures have been likened to Homeric monologues. This book represents the splicing together of recorded tours given by Ed Bearss at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Unfortunately, Ed's popularity lends itself to hagiography. As such, subsequent historians have been loath to alter Ed's story in substantial ways.
As a result, I cannot recommend this book to serious students of the Vicksburg Campaign. Ed Bearss original work leans heavily on the Vicksburg National Military Park collection (an assortment of verbal history collected 50 years after the war) and on the O.R. Both of these sources have major gaps in the material, gaps which Ed is quick to fill with supposition. The Vicksburg Campaign begs for a fresh assessment, a polished analysis that builds on Ed's Vicksburg trilogy by incorporating new sources and correcting some of the errors. This is not that book.
The most egregious error occurs in the narrative on the opening shots at the Battle of Raymond, where Bearss claims the 68th Ohio turned and ran. There are several sources which verify that this assertion is false: in reality, Smith's brigade ran out of room deploying in the field and the 68th Ohio was ordered to move by the left flank to the extreme left of the federal line before the fighting started, where it sat unengaged for the duration of the battle.
What makes this assertion stand out is that the 68th Ohio was a somewhat veteran unit that experienced almost no casaulties, and nobody ever reported seeing them run from the battle. Osborn Oldroyd was the only source originally used in Bearss trilogy, but there are two problems with this source: Oldroyd was face-down in a ten-foot ditch fighting for his life at the time, and he never actually mentioned the 68th Ohio (the 20th Illinois was the unit he was actually referring to, but they didn't run either). It takes a stark incuriosity to swallow this assertion, and yet the assertion has stood unchallenged since the publication of Bearss' trilogy 25 years ago.
Sadly, I have mentioned this to co-author Paker Hills previously, and was surprised to see the assertion uncorrected in Receding Tide.
With no footnotes and no bibliography, this book appears to be aimed at casual Civil War enthusiasts. With those readers, I believe the book has hit its mark. For serious students of history, Bearss' three-volume set would be a better read, if for no other reason than to use his footnotes to separate those assertions supported by the source material from those assertions fabricated from whole cloth.