From Civil War historian Wert (A Brotherhood of Valor, 1999, etc.), an astute mixture of strategic analysis and common soldiers’ narratives detailing the 24 climactic hours on which the Union hinged.
Out of 51,000 casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg, approximately one-third fell on July 3, 1863. Since then, debates on responsibility for success and failure have raged almost as heatedly as bullets on that final day. Wert’s reconsideration won’t resolve all controversies, but he sees with admirable clarity through the fog of postwar mythmaking. The historian argues that longtime Confederate scapegoat Gen. James Longstreet performed his duty (except for one momentary lapse), even though he vigorously disagreed with Robert E. Lee’s order to assault the center of the Federal line at Cemetery Ridge. Wert further points out that Lee’s vague orders and passive supervision produced poorly coordinated attacks. With clear analyses of tactics and vivid miniature portraits, he demonstrates that equally important in deciding the outcome was the skill of Union commander George Meade and such subordinates as Winfield Scott Hancock, Henry Hunt, Alexander Hays, and John Gibbon, who anticipated Confederate tactics and steadied their men amid unbelievable confusion and carnage. Although Pickett’s charge of course gets its due here, so do other crucial actions, including the daybreak fighting at Culp’s Hill, which secured the Federal position; the Confederate cannonade preceding Pickett’s charge, whose failure to damage the Union batteries doomed the infantry assault before it started; and a late-afternoon cavalry clash, which served notice on the Confederates that their Northern counterparts would match them in future engagements. Ordinary soldiers’ accounts in letters and diaries illuminate the extraordinary heroism needed to survive the bloodletting throughout the day (e.g., at one Union field hospital, surgeons had 18 amputating tables simultaneously in use).
A noteworthy addition to the groaning shelves of Gettysburg books: superb narrative enriched in equal measure by careful tactical judgment and vigorous storytelling.