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Book Reviews

These are some reviews from a recent issue of The Civil War News:

 


Gettysburg

by Stephen W. Sears.

Illustrated, maps, notes, bibliography, 623 pp., 2003. Houghton-Mifflin Co., 215 Park Ave., New York, NY 10003, $30 plus shipping.



In the past three years, Gettysburg has been the subject of 50 books, not including ghost stories, second editions, fiction and juvenile literature. Readers interested in the battle have a magazine dedicated to the battle (Morningside’s The Gettysburg Magazine), numerous websites on which the battle is constantly scrutinized and refought, a host of magazine and journal articles that dissect various pieces of the fight, and the continued reprinting of regimental histories and personal narratives of the men who fought in that epic battle.

Faced with this avalanche of published material about America’s favorite battle, the reader has to decide what to read and how much to spend on it. The forthcoming second edition of this reviewer’s Gettysburg Bibliography will more than double the size of the 1982 edition, much of it new material published in the past 20 years. Having remained active in gathering and sorting all of this, I am constantly scrutinizing new publications to see if the author has found some new material that will unlock some of the mysteries or perhaps settle some of the battle’s many controversies.

Where does Stephen Sears’s new volume fit in among all these new publications? It is certainly well-written in Sears’s engaging style reminiscent of his earlier books on the war in the East. The chapter that describes the finale of Pickett’s Charge is perhaps the best part of the book. The writing is vivid and totally immerses the reader in the action. You can feel for the valiant Virginians as they struggle forward against musketry and artillery, outflanked as they near the wall on Cemetery Ridge.

Sears’s research is adequate, but the Bibliography appended to the book only lists major published material on the campaign and battle. Readers interested in learning more about Sears’s sources must delve through the endnotes to locate manuscripts and the more specialized works he consulted during the writing of Gettysburg. The endnotes may cause many readers more problems because not every paragraph is footnoted, an aggravating publishing trend that groups footnotes every third paragraph or so that makes it difficult to decipher specific sources on occasion. It appears to this reviewer that Sears has used the “usual” Gettysburg sources in compiling this history of the battle.

There are a number of factual errors that mar Gettysburg. Cpl. William Rihl, the first Union casualty north of the Mason-Dixon Line, was not a member of a scouting Union militia company, rather he was a member of Capt. William Boyd’s Philadelphia company of the 1st New York Cavalry, a veteran outfit that sparred with the Confederate advance. Col. Roy Stone of the First Corps was not wounded and captured on July 1. The 61st Pennsylvania was not a Second Corps unit, the 145th New York was not part of Caldwell’s division, and the top photograph on page 509 is not one showing Union dead on the Rose farm.

Sears also brushes aside without much comment the Berdan-Wilcox skirmish in Pitzer’s Woods that was an influential event in the life of Dan Sickles that day, and includes the story of the Texas scouts discovering the unguarded Union left and rear behind Little Round Top, a tale that originated after the war and is simply too absurd to be believed. How could a group of enemy soldiers, in unfamiliar territory, push their way past the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, locate the Yankee rear, then get back in time for Hood to protest the attack, all in less than half an hour or so?

All this said, Sears’s study is an OK book about Gettysburg, neither outstanding nor bad. He forcefully defends Meade’s record at Gettysburg better than many previous students of the battle have, and just as forcefully dissects the problems in Lee’s army on the battlefield. But his comments have been stated before by previous scholars and there is little that Sears adds to the cumulative material on Gettysburg. I enjoyed reading this book, but Edwin Coddington’s 1969 volume is still perhaps the best single volume on the campaign and battle of Gettysburg.


Letter to the Editor from Stephen Sears published in the December 2003 issue:

In his review of my book Gettysburg (Civil War News November), Richard A. Sauers can bring himself to rate it only "an OK book about Gettysburg," apparently at least in part because of a number of factual errors that "mar" the book. I respectfully request a hearing on that judgment.

First, errors that are errors. I was wrong to label Cpl. William Rihl, the first Pennsylvanian to die defending his state against invasion, a militiaman. He was indeed a member of Company C (recruited in Philadelphia) of the 1st New York Cavalry. Then, in identifying two soldier quotes, I inadvertently transposed the 61st New York into the 61st Pennsylvania and the 145th Pennsylvania into the 145th New York.

Finally, there is an error here worse even than Mr. Sauers imagined. As he points out, I miscaptioned the top picture on page 509 as Union dead; in fact I also miscaptioned the bottom picture on that page as Confederate dead. It is, of course, the other way around. As an admirer of William Frassanito's work with the Gettysburg photographs, I offer no excuse for this.

Mr. Sauers claims I am in error saying that Col. Roy Stone, of the First Corps, was wounded and captured on July 1. From several reports in the Official Records, there is no doubt Stone was wounded, and severely. Carried to the McPherson barn, he and his fellow wounded were soon overrun by the advancing Confederates. Like other badly hurt Union soldiers, Stone was paroled instead of being borne off to Virginia by the retreating Rebels. So it is fair to say that on July 1 Stone was wounded and captured, but to list him in the Order of Battle as (w).

Mr. Sauers also finds me delinquent in my coverage of the Berdan-Wilcox skirmish in Pitzer's Woods on July 2, and its effect on Gen. Sickles. Well, a paragraph and a half on this skirmish, concluding with the sentence, "Dan Sickles took this to mean that the Peach Orchard line he coveted was about to be occupied by the enemy," in 514 pages of text covering the entire Gettysburg campaign, seems about right to me.

Mr. Sauers goes on to characterize my saying that Hood ordered scouting of the Union left before Longstreet's offensive on July 2 "simply too absurd to be believed." By his line of reasoning then, Hood was untruthful in recounting his three-times repeated effort to realign Longstreet's assault. (Be it noted that no one guarded the Union left flank after Pleasonton pulled out Buford's cavalry that morning, leaving the flank quite "scoutable.")

In accepting Hood's account as truthful I'm in pretty good company, in the persons of Richard McMurry, Hood's biographer, and Harry W. Pfanz, author of the standard account of Gettysburg's second day.

In sum then, despite three minor slips and one major boner in miscaptioning two pictures, I think the verb "mar" is a bit too strong to apply to Gettysburg. It may be that Mr. Sauers is so benumbed by the sheer volume of titles involved in updating his very useful Gettysburg Bibliography that he has forgotten how few up-to-date, A-to-Z, one-volume Gettysburg campaign histories are actually out there.

He is of course entitled to his opinion favoring one of the oldest, but among us less privileged perhaps there is an awareness that there is something really new to be said about Gettysburg.

Stephen Sears
Norwalk, Conn.


Richard A. Sauers

Richard A. Sauers is the author of numerous Civil War books, including Advance the Colors!


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