These books take a closer look at the Battle of Gettsyburg

Milwaukee Journal SentinelJuly 7, 2013 

The world "can never forget what they did here," President Abraham Lincoln declared in his memorable 1863 address at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg.

One hundred and fifty years later, as the Gettysburg National Military Park and its Pennsylvania neighbors meet an influx of visitors, Lincoln's words ring true.

According to U.S. Army estimates, more than 51,000 soldiers died during the three-day battle, which took place from July 1 through 3, 1863. "Almost as many Soldiers were killed, wounded or declared missing from the Battle of Gettysburg than during the entire Vietnam Conflict," the Army declares on its "The Battle of Gettysburg" website.

Even casual historians know Gettysburg was considered a turning point in the Civil War, with the Union army thwarting a Confederate incursion into Pennsylvania in the hope of persuading Northern politicians to give up the war. Following Gettysburg, "Lincoln knew that he could still lose the war, but now he knew that he could win it," Wayne Vansant writes in "The Graphic History of Gettysburg."

A spate of new books published in advance of the 150th anniversary examines the details of the battle, evaluates the leaders' decisions and reminds us that Americans are still processing the legacy of this bloody conflict.

A visual approach

Vansant, a Vietnam vet and Marvel Comics artist who specializes in military stories, breaks down the battle from early planning through Lincoln's famous address in "The Graphic History of Gettysburg: America's Most Famous Battle and the Turning Point of the Civil War" (Zenith Press, $19.99).

While Vansant's graphic history contains fewer than 100 pages of artwork and words, it packs an astonishing density of information into those pages. (Vansant also got a workout in male facial topiary with the many, variously styled beards he had to draw for this book.)

From the first shot fired by Union Lt. Marcellus E. Jones, through the Battle of Little Round Top and Pickett's Charge, Vansant draws and annotates battle scenes as well as in-camp strategizing and also stops periodically to provide maps of the engagements.

Wisconsin soldiers fought at Gettysburg as part of the famed Iron Brigade. Vansant's compact visual history gives them their moment in a scene where they hold off a Confederate charge:

"Although taking heavy casualties, the 6th Wisconsin surrounded the cut, causing 250 rebels to surrender and capturing the colors of the 2nd Mississippi."

Eyewitness accounts

A pair of new books take a primary-source approach to the battle, offering documents and on-the-scene accounts.

Rod Gragg's "The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader: An Eyewitness History of The Civil War's Greatest Battle" (Regnery History, $29.95) offers a chronological account of the battle through letters, other primary sources and period photos, with historian Gragg providing annotation and narrative connective tissue. For example, his book includes an account of a folk hero of the war, 69-year-old Gettysburg cobbler John Burns, who grabbed his musket and joined the fighting on the first day. Burns was wounded in the fray and captured, but was released by the Confederate forces before they left the area. In his appendices, Gragg gives us the generals' paperwork: both George Meade and Robert E. Lee's after-action reports on the battle to their bosses.

"The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It" (Library of America) is third in a planned four-volume series that collects writing by participants in the Civil War. This volume covers January 1863 through March 1864. Its Gettysburg section includes excerpts from the diaries of Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, a British officer who had temporarily joined the Confederate forces, and Samuel Pickens, a Confederate private; a narrative by Capt. Francis Adams Donaldson, a Union commander; letters by Elizabeth Blair Lee to her husband, a Union naval officer commanding the blockade of the North Carolina coast; and other texts and letters. Cornelia Hancock, a nurse, arrived in Gettysburg on July 6 after the battle to work in a field hospital. She wrote to a cousin: "There are no words in the English language to express the sufferings I witnessed today. The men lie on the ground; their clothes have been cut off them to dress their wounds; they are half naked, have nothing but hard-tack to eat only as Sanitary Commissions, Christian Associations, and so forth give them."

Brand-name reflections

Both Time's "Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War" ($29.95) and "The New York Times: Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider The Civil War from Lincoln's Election to the Emancipation Proclamation" ($27.95) provide reflections and essays from eminent scholars and writers on the war and Gettysburg in particular. Time's well-designed volume, with photos, illustrations and sidebars, includes Civil War historian James M. McPherson on "Why Gettysburg Matters" and Time editor David Von Drehle on Lincoln's search for a general who could really lead his army. Surprisingly, the New York Times collection has little to say directly about Gettysburg, but offers strong points of view on political and cultural aspects of the war.

A detailed narrative

In "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" (Knopf, $35), historian Allen C. Guelzo has written a volume that considers how 19th century wars were fought as well as the decisions of military and political leaders. He probes some of the enduring questions of the conflict, such as the role J.E.B. Stuart might have played in the Confederate defeat "by galloping off on a senseless joyride with the Confederate cavalry, and thus (depriving) the Confederates of intelligence-gathering capacity."

One thing at a time

"The Civil War in 50 Objects" (Viking, $36) uses objects from the New York Historical Society to explore aspects of the war. Gettysburg-related items include a letter from Emily J. Semmes to her husband Paul Jones Semmes, a Confederate brigadier general wounded at Gettysburg, who died from an infection shortly thereafter. Other objects fill in the background of a war that consumed much of American life, such as a hand-cranked wooden draft wheel, for plucking out the names of new conscripts, and a French-style Zouave uniform, worn by the "Red-Legged Devils" of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry.

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