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There are a ton of books on the battle of Gettysburg. I own ten books that are solely about the battle and numerous others that cover the whole war, devote significant pages to the battle of Gettysburg.

My favorite is Gettysburg: A Battlefield Guide by Mark Grimsley and Brooks D. Simpson. This book, part of the This Hallowed Ground: Guides to Civil War Battlefields has made two trips to Gettysburg and is, in my opinion, the best practical book on the battle. One comes away with a definitive understanding of that crucial battle.

The battle is crucial because it turned the tide—that phrase has almost been worn out by its overuse, but is nonetheless true. When July 4, 1863 dawned the Army of Northern Virginia had suffered a rare defeat and the Union forces had captured Vicksburg on the Mississippi River; Lincoln would quip, when told of the victory in Vicksburg, that “the father of waters flows unvexed to the sea.” The effect of these two events was devastating on the morale of the South. Like a boxer taking an uppercut to the jaw, they were reeling and would never really recover.

They Met at Gettysburg by Edward J. Stackpole, is probably my second favorite book on the battle (though in close competition with Beneath a Northern Sky by Steven Woodworth). The former was written in 1956 and does not have the benefit of later scholarship that the Woodworth book has.

Nevertheless, Stackpole does a good job of filling in details that others have neglected in their accounts. Chapters like How the Confederates Behaved to Lee versus Meade—a study in leadership gave me new insights into the battle. Stackpole also gives considerable pages to the events that preceded the battle, not getting to the opening salvos until page 119 of a 327 page book.

Stackpole’s writing is crisp and opinionated, but fair. I gained more insight into “[James] Longstreet’s recalcitrant dragging of his feet all through the campaign.” 1 Robert E. Lee does not get a bye when it comes to critical analysis by Stackpole. The author, while mentioning Lee’s failure to use the cavalry he had at his disposal in the absence of J.E.B. Stuart, and Lee’s lack of clarity in his orders, goes back before the battle to find perhaps one of the more interesting factors in Lee’s inept handling of the battle—”Lee’s selection of Ewell and A.P. Hill, inexperienced and untried as leaders of large bodies of troops, for two of his three principal commanders, when he reorganized his army after the battle of Chancellorsville.” 2 That bit of criticism begs the questions—how would this battle have been different with “Stonewall” Jackson at the helm of the Corps lead instead by Richard Ewell and, perhaps more interesting, whom could Lee have chosen instead? Lee’s “pool” for capable Corps commanders was shallow.

On the Union side, there is George Gordon Meade; the first Federal general of the Army of Potomac to hand Lee his hat and tell him to go home. And Lee did just that, with very little pursuit by Meade who seemed content to bask in his victory, actually snatching defeat from the jaws of victory—meaning, he had the opportunity to decisively beat the Army of Northern Virginia and let it slip away.

Then, also on the Federal side, there’s Dan Sickles’ debacle on July 2nd and the futile cavalry charge on July 3rd lead by Elon Farnsworth, that cost the general his life.

The point is that there was plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the conflict. Personally, I think Lee should have listened to Longstreet and swung his army around, placing it between the Army of the Potomac and Washington, D.C. Such a move would have forced Meade to take the offensive and what we call Pickett’s charge today might well have been Gibbons’ charge on a different field of battle that produced a Confederate victory.

For a fast (though it took me longer than it should have) thorough and entertaining read on the Battle of Gettysburg, it’s hard to beat They Met at Gettysburg; I give it 📙 📙 📙 📙 out of five—missing getting that last book because there are books that are better researched on the battle, even from this time period. Give Mr. Stackpole a read—you won’t be sorry.

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1 They Met at Gettysburg, p. 326
2 Ibid, p. 325

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