Sun, Jul 27, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Taking two points of view on the Gettysburg war

One book is slight but sweeping and useful, the other is dense but bordering on overkill

By Fritz Lanham  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

But for most readers, I suspect, the real fascination lies in the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of the key generals. On the Confederate side that would be Robert E. Lee and such top commanders as James Longstreet and Richard Ewell. For the Union, George Meade, the testy, colorless, "goggle-eyed old snapping turtle" who took over command of an army riven with officer dissension, and such supporting actors as the flamboyant Major General Daniel Sickles, who as a prewar Tammany Hall congressman shot his wife's lover dead and got a jury to acquit him. And it wasn't even a Texas jury.

McPherson and Sears vindicate Longstreet's judgment. The former writes: "A master of defensive tactics, Longstreet recognized the strength of the Union position. Some Southern officers considered Longstreet ponderous, stubborn, and phlegmatic. But in reality he was reflective and sagacious. He recognized better than some of his colleagues that courage and dash could not overcome determined defenders armed with rifled muskets."

Both authors also defend Meade against critics then and now who have faulted him for not following up his victory with an immediate counterthrust against Lee's wounded army.

But the Army of the Potomac had also suffered huge casualties -- 23,000. Moreover, as Sears notes, Meade was a cautious man. He would engage Lee's forces only if convinced the odds were clearly in his favor, and he didn't see such a situation presenting itself.

Traditionally, the battle of Gettysburg has been viewed as the turning point of the Civil War. Neither of these books takes issue with that assessment. Read McPherson's book first, and then, if you remain curious, turn to Sears'. Both deserve a permanent place in the large and ever-growing library devoted to our great national tragedy.

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