The Battle of Gettysburg, historian Edward Lilenthal once wrote, is “the symbolic center of American history.” If so, rejoins Creighton (History/Bates College), then the center needs to be expanded to embrace other actors apart from the warriors of July 1863.
Before Abraham Lincoln took the stage to deliver the Gettysburg Address in the fall of that year, a politician named Edward Everett orated for a full two hours about the gallantry of the Union soldiers who had died. But he also took pains to speak of civilians, particularly the women and free people of color of the town who had cared for the wounded, fed the soldiers, and buried the dead during the fight. Creighton expands on Everett’s words, reconstructing the lives of many such figures. One is Abraham Brian, an African American whose 12-acre farm below Cemetery Ridge saw fierce fighting throughout the three-day battle; he escaped, but Confederates took dozens of Gettysburg’s blacks into captivity and marched them south into slavery. (Creighton adds that one nameless African-American, a member of a Pennsylvania militia unit, was the third Union soldier to die in the battle.) Then there’s Harriet Bayly, a Gettysburg woman who fed Confederates until the food gave out; when Bayly and her family slaughtered every chicken in their yard, Creighton writes, “they did so not only because they felt they had to, but because they hoped to encourage desertion from the Confederate ranks and to silence as many guns as possible.” Still another of the forgotten or obscure figures Creighton resurrects is Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who rose to the rank of general; though many such Germans, like Schurz, fought bravely at Gettysburg and other battles, they collectively were thought of as cowards, and only in the early 20th century did “immigrant and native-born soldiers [begin] to stand side by side in monuments at the military park.”
Creighton draws on an impressive range of contemporary documents to tell their many stories: altogether, a lively work of Civil War scholarship.