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I've seen some complaints about the author's perspective or personal feelings about various leaders in the battle and campaign, but find them basically uninteresting. This was a superb and detailed account of the battle and it's consequences and aftermath. It's astonishing how many mistakes, miscues and missed opportunities there were in this battle - inlcuding the somewhat accidental initiation of general battle at a site not to Lee's liking.
Keeping it brief - I give it 4 stars as a book I would listen to again, but may not find the time for. It did keep me listening and I did not want to turn the book off - but it didn't drive me mad with the desire to continue the way some books do. I don't fault the book for this - it's tougher to pull off that kind of engagement with historical non-fiction (even though I love the genre).
Highly recommended - especially for those with interest in the battle and it's main leaders or those with a general notion of the battle looking for details.
Thanks - hope this review helps!
17 of 17 people found this review helpful
I’ve read accounts of the Gettysburg Campaign from Catton and Coddington. I’ve read Foote and Freeman and Pfanz. But no one is quite like Stephen Sears.
Catton, Foote and Freeman are gifted narrative-makers. Coddington is a conscientious historian but an indifferent writer. Pfanz’s work is so detailed—down to the movements of platoons—that all semblance of a coherent story is easily lost.
Stephen Sears manages to combine the narrator’s craft and the scholar’s care. He chronicles every march, order, command fumble or inspired decision. Yet because he seldom goes below the regimental or battery level, his narrative sweeps along effortlessly. When he mentions a particular company or battery section, it’s for the sake of a telling or poignant anecdote that just makes his narrative that much richer.
Sears also excels at gently correcting misunderstandings, whether fostered by veterans’ faulty memoirs or movie scripts. In his Chancellorsville, for example, he proves that Joe Hooker’s oft-quoted confession that he “just lost faith in Joe Hooker” couldn’t have been made to the man who claims to have heard it in the place he claims to have heard it.
Likewise, in Gettysburg the Pulitzer-Prize-winning-novel-and-epic-movie version of events on Little Round Top is set right. When Joshua Chamberlain ordered his desperate bayonet charge he thought the 15th Alabama was gathering for another assault; he couldn’t know their colonel had just decided to call retreat. That doesn’t make the charge any less heroic; Sears isn’t out to debunk. He’s showing us that the bare facts of what happened at Gettysburg don’t need airbrushing to inspire awe. So he includes Colonel Oats’ admission that even if his Alabamians had taken the hill they “couldn’t have held it for 10 minutes”. Even more helpfully, Sears reminds us that a lot of Yankees from other states had a hand in keeping Little Round Top in the Union.
Another aspect of the book of which I thoroughly approve is Sears’ defense of George Gordon Meade. Thrust into command on the morning of June 28th with no knowledge of the whereabouts of the scattered corps of the Army of the Potomac, that army was engaged in desperate battle a mere three days later. As another historian has noted, few Americans have had such terrible responsibility thrown on their shoulders so suddenly—or performed so well under the weight of that responsibility.
And, though Sears doesn’t say as much, I think his book reveales the root of Lee’s error at Gettysburg. (I know, me and a few million other Americans have discovered that root in the last 150 or so years.) Pickett said he thought the Union army had something to do with it and no doubt he was right. But I think Lee’s insistence to Longstreet that “the enemy is here and here I will strike him” has everything to do with J. E. B. Stuart’s absence. If he disengaged and swung around the Union flank, how would Lee relocate his foe without Stuart’s horsemen?
Sears brings home the magnitude of the crisis, the desperate effort of the battle, the cost in lives and suffering, the horrible job of cleaning up after the armies had passed on and, finally, the significance of Lincoln’s words—words that were mocked at the time but now (and for thinking people then) set the fighting and suffering in context. In August 1863, as the nation looked at two armies facing off in Virginia much as they had been back in June before all those casualties, those words that were desperately needed.
Since this is an audiobook, you can’t do better than the maps at Wikipedia. Look up First Day, Second Day, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, the cavalry fights; every section of the field is detailed. They’re all admirably clear, and though they don’t follow every attack and retreat mentioned by Sears—and sometimes disagree slightly with his narrative—they make an invaluable supplement to your listen.
At first I thought our narrator, Ed Sala, erred on the folksy side. As things proceeded I came to appreciate his approach. There are a lot of details here, a lot of confused fighting and a lot of names (places, people, roads, hills, regiments, batteries). Sala’s unhurried manner makes it all much easier to follow. And he usually gives a slight pause after an especially touching anecdote or insightful comment, giving us time to let it sink in a little.
14 of 14 people found this review helpful