Celebrated Civil War historian McPherson (Fields of Fury, 2002, etc.) holds our hands, points our heads, and evokes awe-ful and sanguinary images of July 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Like many other entries in the Crown Journeys series, the text is brief, lucid, and learned. McPherson (History/Princeton) begins with an allusion to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and ends with its full text. An unabashed champion of the site’s importance—“More than any other place in the United States,” he declares, “this battlefield is indeed hallowed ground”—the author knows this ground intimately and has conducted uncountable tours there. He educates, even inspires with fluid ease. We learn along our vicarious walk that the battlefield comprises some ten square miles, that the town was only 75 miles north of the nation’s capital and had a population of roughly 2,400 in 1863, that some 4,000 acres now comprise the park. We learn as well that the total number of American casualties there over three days (50,000 or so) is tenfold the number on D-day. McPherson devotes a chapter to each of the battle’s three days, beginning with the first shot on July 1 and ending with Lee’s escape. (The author reminds us that nearly two years of fighting remained after Gettysburg.) McPherson’s unsurpassed scholarship enables him to debunk many myths: blue and gray did not share Spangler’s Spring, he states, and there was probably not a huge supply of shoes in town to attract the footsore Confederates. Like other military historians, he is sometimes romantic, honoring rather than analyzing, and he needs to re-check the meaning of Gertrude’s line to Hamlet about a protesting lady. More often, though, he frames his sound insights in perfect sentences, writing about one prevaricating memoirist, for example, “His sword was mightier than his pen—or at least more truthful.”
A leisurely walk through a former inferno with a most eloquent Virgil.