History of the Battle of Gettysburg, by Craig Symonds *****

historyofbattleofgettysburg Ordinarily I have little patience for anyone who picks up a book on US military history and just wants to look at the pictures.

But I read the text. In most places it’s fine, but once you start reading McPherson and Sears on Gettysburg, there isn’t much that Symond’s text will tell you that’s new. Symonds sticks to the basics, and he gives you the brass tacks, if you want to cut to the chase. He is the retired chair of the US Naval Academy. His background speaks for itself, and he is highly lauded as a Civil War scholar.

And look at the pictures!

The American Civil War was the first US war that had photography available. No, they couldn’t take action shots yet; the subject had to remain stationary for too long at a time for that to work. But there are a lot of primary documents here, photographs of leaders, of letters and memos as they were originally written (with the text beneath them if illegible; spelling was pretty much a discretionary practice back then). There are photos of battlefields with men still lying on them. (It is now considered a breach of national security for the press to go to Afghanistan and shoot photographs of US troops, whether in action or in closed coffins, for the American public to see.) There are photographs of the weapons available at the time, and of landscapes you can visit today that look nothing like they did then.

Look at the pictures!

My favorite is a full page photograph of Lincoln. His bow tie is dusty, faded, and crooked. His hair cut is terrible. His face is creased, and it bears the hardship of many sleepless nights, and perhaps also of the death of his son and the illness of his wife. It is a picture of a real person, long before the era when presidents became packaged goods to be marketed to the American public.

I have sometimes felt bad about the fact that I will likely never visit the Smithsonian. It is the dream of all serious students of American history. But my legs won’t let me get far now, and an airport is accessible only if I use the wheelchair service, which makes me feel quite conspicuous. It’s far easier to stay home and read.

This book, which I purchased some time ago in hard cover, will hold a place of pride on my bookshelves for many years to come. Primary sources aren’t that easily come by. Along with Sherman’s and Grant’s memoirs, this is an important addition to my Civil War library.

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