The Battle of Gettysburg was fought during the first three days of July in 1863, and in spite of its importance, might have been just another battle site competing in memory with all the rest but for its reframing in just 272 words by Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg that November. Subsequently, an outpouring of words on Gettysburg has described every aspect of the battle, with Allen Guelzo, Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, adding yet another comprehensive blow-by-blow account to the mix.
I know many potential readers have a knee-jerk reaction to books about battles, a reaction that presumes the story will be of little or no interest to them. But really, there is so much fascinating that you find out and that is relevant to your lives! For example, for those of you who can barely manage to come up with meals to feed 2 or 4 or 6 everyday, what if you had to feel thousands every day? Where would the food come from and what receptacles would you use for cooking? How would they be transported between battlefields?
Or did you ever wonder about the perils of not being able to keep hygienic for so long? There are not just the problems about which you might be aware, like disease and discomfort, but how about the fact that you couldn’t really sneak up on another army because they could smell you coming?!!!
I think I first fell in love with finding out details of military life when I read about the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. I loved learning that rum was added to water to disinfect it [note to self: try that at home]; that sawdust kept on board ships to spread out on decks before battles so no one would slip on blood; and how combatants determined how old their bread was by the stages in the life cycles of the weevils and maggots it contained.
In a similar way, Guelzo fleshes out his story of the Battle of Gettysburg with many interesting explanations such as why there wasn’t more cavalry in use at the time, and why the new sharp-shooting rifles didn’t confer as many advantages as had been hoped. It continues to amaze me too, how difficult it was for the generals to get the under-commanders and troops to do what they were supposed to do (and for that matter, for the presidents of the North and South to get their generals to do what they were supposed to do!). I like that Guelzo adds political context to the problems faced by the armies. I also found very interesting the reactions to the commanders and soldiers to the “diversity” of the troops (by which I mean, for example, Virginians versus Georgians).
With respect to the diversity of Gettysburg’s population, i.e., the presence of blacks, both free and slave, Guelzo makes a point of telling their story as well, a story often omitted by chroniclers of the battle. Blacks in southern Pennsylvania (most of whom were free) made a mass exodus from the area, because as the Confederates entered the state, they rounded up as many blacks as they could, including the elderly, the women, and the children, making no distinction between freeborn blacks and runaways. They didn’t care what their status was; they intended to sell them as slaves back in the markets in Richmond.
[While some 200,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and Navy during the war, there is no evidence any black soldiers fought at Gettysburg. According to John Heiser, Gettysburg National Military Park historian, "There were no black 'combatants' on either side at Gettysburg, only 'noncombatants' in support roles: ambulance and supply-wagon drivers, hospital attendants, teamsters."]
The invasion and battle make for a compelling story. Still, unless you are very devoted (and readers of Civil War histories do tend to be a very devoted bunch), you probably don’t need to hear a passage from every surviving letter or memoir to testify to the very same emotion or observation over and over. Nor might you want to know every single detail about just one battle of the Civil War. Nevertheless, there is a need for Guelzo’s book, just as there has been a need for the many other books on the very same subject.
Let me explain by way of example.
Because this year marks the 150 anniversary of the battle, there are many “commemorative” magazines out on Gettysburg. One of them, the summer 2013 issue of “The Civil War Monitor” features “Expert Takes on Gettysburg” posing identical questions about the battle to Allen Guelzo, and to Stephen W. Sears, who came out with his book Gettysburg ten years ago, on the 140th anniversary of the fight. Each author is asked the following:
If you read each author’s answers, you will get an idea about why there can never be enough historical accounts of the same thing. Wait: these two did study the same battle, didn’t they? Only on the subject of Meade do they say anything even resembling agreement. Usually, their answers differ along these lines:
What’s the biggest myth surrounding Gettysburg?
Guelzo: “That Meade won the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee lost it and lost it big!”
Sears: “That Lee lost the Battle of Gettysburg. Au contraire, Meade won Gettysburg.”
And don’t even ask how many casualties there were at Gettysburg; I have never, ever seen two sources come up with the same number (unless one was citing the other!) [But fyi, there were close to 50,000 on both sides in all, which includes of course wounded, captured and missing as well as dead.]
Evaluation: This is a book probably best suited to aficionados, as the hardcover version is over 650 pages and the unabridged book on CD lasts approximately 22 and one-half hours. For those who like knowing every little detail of Civil War battles, this book, whether in hard copy or audio, will prove entertaining. In addition to information specific to the Civil War, Guelzo adds insights from other military campaigns and on tactics in general. I’ve read that there are a few minor factual errors in this book, but nothing affecting the integrity of the book overall. Guelzo is also not innocent of preferences for some generals and not others, but really, can you find anyone who knows anything at all about the Civil War who doesn’t have an opinion on say, McClellan? [Why, yes, that was me who refused to eat at a restaurant on a Civil War Battleground called McClellan’s Cafe!]
I have a couple of complaints specifically about the audio version. Each of the discs ends quite unexpectedly – one of them even stops mid-sentence, or at least, mid-clause. Also, this is a story that really requires maps, and indeed, the hardcover version by Guelzo has plenty of them. Troop positioning was pivotal before, during, and after the battle. It is a bit frustrating not to have the maps on hand while listening. On the positive side, the narrator Robertson Dean performs admirably with respect to most of the very tricky pronunciations of names of officers and places, but he does say “Gett-is-burg” instead of “Gett-ees-burg” which is how the natives pronounce it.
Evaluation: Rating: 3/5
Published unabridged on 18 compact discs by BOT: Books on Tape, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013