Gettysburg, by Stephen Sears *****

gettysburgThis is the most thorough and brilliant account of the Battle of Gettysburg (all three days, plus the approach and the departure) I have ever read.

I have to laugh at the reviews that claim there is too much detail here. Hey, folks, look at the title, and look at the number of pages. If you aren’t ready to have the complete, detailed account, you should know before you buy it or check it out from your library that this isn’t for you.

I used to teach about the American Civil War, and it continues to be a strong area of interest for me. I wouldn’t have wanted this to be my first, second, or third book about this war; actually, for the serious reader who is just getting started, McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (which won the Pulitzer) is the best starting point. For those not interested in as thorough an account, it may be easier to start with historical fiction, and then move to nonfictional accounts of the war to help you straighten out the facts from the frills.

For me though, I was ready to get down and resolve some conflicting ideas I had read. Some who specialize in the Confederate angle blame JEB Stuart for not coming in when Lee expected him with the intelligence that was needed. Some blame Longstreet for not enthusiastically embracing and supporting Lee’s plan of attack. And still others say the buck stopped with Lee, who after all was in charge and made the call.

Sears says this was overall (from the Confederate side) a case of great overconfidence. Earlier in the war,Stuart had ridden all the way around Union commander McClellan’s forces twice to upset him and cut off his communications. This was intended to be trip #3, and it was expected to net similar results, apart from the foraging. The rebels were looking forward to gaining food and other supplies from the well-fed Pennsylvanians. Indeed, when Stuart did finally return–too late to do any real good regarding Gettysburg–he had an enormous trainload of wagons filled with the things Lee had sent him to get. But the Union’s forces had cut Stuart off, had come between him and Lee, and he and his cavalry had the very devil of a time safely making their way around the Union and back to Lee. Overconfidence; Sears makes a convincing case.

Another blunder attributable to overconfidence was in waiting an extra day to attack, if they were going to attack without further intelligence from Stuart. Sears makes an excellent case that if they were going to attack Union forces, it should have been later (once Stuart was there to fill them in) or right away, because there were a lot of Union forces making their way toward Gettysburg (and the Confederates knew this much) that would be there the following day–when the battle actually began–who were not yet there. And Ewell, in general a strong commander, makes a terrible, terrible blunder in telling Lee that the Yankees who occupy Cemetery Ridge will be rendered harmless because Jubal Early is occupying the hill that is east of them, and higher. He reasoned that if the rebels had Seminary Ridge to the west and Culp’s Hill, the Union would be wedged in between opposing forces and rendered harmless. But the critical mistake is in giving Jubal Early “discretionary” orders to occupy this hill, and not telling Lee this. Early waits, deciding to send another force under him, headed by Johnson, to occupy Culp’s Hill, and in the time wasted, the Union takes the ground, changing things dramatically.

Shifting to the Union perspective, we see that the forces are led overall by Meade, who has led the Army of the Potomac for exactly four days. Through intrigue among the generals below him, Hooker, a good general whose rank and file loved him but whose immediate inferiors found abrasive, was robbed of the glory of taking the field after he had made the plans and set them in motion.

On the second day of battle, Sickles, a political general (meaning that he was given command because of his high governmental office, rather than military leadership or experience) refused Meade’s orders repeatedly. And this is one thing I greatly appreciate about Sears: some writers will tread softly when criticizing a commander who later becomes a casualty, as though printing word of the officer’s stubbornness or stupidity and its consequences for the men beneath him might be a breach of etiquette.

But the fact is, a lot of men there got dead because of the stupidity or wrong-headedness of those who exercised authority over them, and in the case of this battle, both sides have let their own men know that flight or failure to fight will result in their summary shooting, so it isn’t as though a man could just duck behind a log and wander away from battle, as happened in some other really poorly conceived fights. The truth should be told exactly as it occurred, and in a thorough, well-documented, linear way, Sears lays the story, the exact truth unvarnished, before us.

As things unfold, the carnage for which this three day battle is known takes many of the bravest and best down right away. John Reynolds, one of Meade’s ablest generals who was offered overall command and refused it,was shot through the throat and died within the first hour of battle. John Bell Hood was injured and incapacitated, but recovered to fight again, but not at Gettysburg.

The most notable action on the second day is the Union’s Chamberlain’s decision not to retreat or surrender when faced with the fact that they are surrounded and completely out of ammunition. Looking down at the desperate rebs trying to climb that hill, he shouts, “Fix bayonets!” and with this, the rebels surrender. A heroic moment!

On the second day, Union efforts are hampered by the “continued obtuseness of Slocum” and Sickles’ failure to occupy the ground assigned. By the time Meade gets to Sickles in person after Sickles has refused orders sent to him multiple times, it is too late for Sickles to move, and the damage is done. When Sickles loses his leg,an officer in the Second Corps remarks, “The loss of his leg is a great gain to us, whatever it may be to him.” Hancock, a far more capable commander, is placed in command, and he does the job right.

The statistics, both regarding loss of able leaders on both sides as well as the rank and file, particularly for the rebels on the third and most gruesome day, are appalling. Many times Sears refers to this as “Fredericksburg in reverse”, and indeed, Union soldiers can be heard crying out, “Fredericksburg!”

The aftermath is controversial. Initially, Lincoln was gravely disappointed to hear that Meade had let Lee and the rebels that still lived “escape”. Yet I cannot help but wonder, if he had stood in the pouring rain that came down on a sea of bodies, one acre of which was completely covered with corpses, some three days dead, and more than one body thick in places; if he had seen that there were only four of the original ten commanders still alive and fit to serve; if he had watched the 17-mile long hospital train of wounded Confederates that groaned away toward the Mason-Dixon line; if in viewing all of this, Lincoln himself would not have said, “Enough. Enough for now. Let’s bury our dead and treat our wounded, and get in out of the rain.”

I hope I have conveyed the level of detail you can expect from this tome. If my review is a mite lengthy, you may not want to read five hundred pages plus notes on the topic. Sears writes better than I do, of course, but this is a study only for those who can already tell Sickles, Slocum, Sykes and Sedgwick apart. If you are still getting to know the players, this ballgame may be too long for you. But it is the ultimate detailed account for those who know some, but don’t feel they know enough.

I often am forced to give books away because of the finite amount of space in the home library my family has collected, but this particular volume will retain a place of pride as long as I am here.

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