April 2004 Read

March 28th, 2007

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In late June 1863, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were both on the move. Robert E. Lee had successfully convinced Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, that the best chance for their hopes for victory (or at least intervention by a foreign power such as Great Britain) was to take the battle to “those people.” On July 1st, his scouts unexpectedly encountered some Union cavalry on the outskirts of a small Pennsylvania village. What followed over the course of the next three days changed, or perhaps sealed, the course of American history. This event is expertly portrayed in Shelby Foote’s classic, Stars in their Courses. From the fields of rural Pennsylvania, here is this month’s read.

There are many books on the subject of Gettysburg. James McPherson and other experts have written masterful accounts of those three days in July, 1863. For me, however, Shelby Foote’s Stars in their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1963 is the most enjoyable. I say that because Foote’s account does not read like a history book. It is not a dry, minute-by-minute account of the battle, nor does it go overboard on the chest-beating. Foote is a good writer, having written fiction as well as being one of the foremost Civil War historians in the world. In my opinion, Stars in their Courses is a masterpiece.The book itself is actually taken from Foote’s 3 volume “The Civil War: A Narrative”, combining one complete chapter (titled “Stars in their Courses”) and pieces from other parts of the trilogy. Fresh off his decided yet costly victory at Chancellorsville (“Stonewall” Jackson was wounded during that battle and died shortly thereafter), Robert E. Lee moved his Confederate army into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Lee had convinced Jefferson Davis that the best chance of success lay in taking the war to the Union in order to “force the issue”. Lee reasoned that ordinary citizens in the North would not stand for substantial losses in their home states, and would grow increasingly fearful if Lee could offer a few smashing blows to the federal troops on northern ground. In his mind (as well as other Southerners), Lee believed that outside intervention and aid, by way of England and/or France, would end the war more quickly. This was desirable as the North had virtually strangled the Confederacy by way of a massive naval blockade of the Southern states, thereby cutting off badly needed commerce.

On June 30, Confederate troops left their camps at Cashtown, Pennsylvania and marched toward Gettysburg in search of supplies. Nearing the edge of Gettysburg, Confederate scouts spied a column of Union cavalry south of town. This came as somewhat a surprise to Lee. He eventually sent two divisions toward Gettysburg the next day to investigate the arrival of the mystery cavalrymen. A very strong and decisive battle ensued as the Union troops tried to secure the high ground over the area. In the process they lost one of their most promising officers, John Reynolds, who was well known to and respected by many of the Confederate high command.

The opening battle occurred on July 1st, 1863. Located 50 miles northwest of Baltimore, Gettysburg was an unlikely spot for the largest battle of the war. Foote masterfully recounts and provides context for the dozens of battlefield decisions which were made during the course of the battle, providing background on most of the decision-makers. One truly comes away from this account with a sense of not only the strategic and tactical influences and judgments (right and wrong), but also the fears, ambitions, prejudices, and bravery of the men who made them.

Gettysburg ended two days later with the historic and fatal “Pickett’s Charge” which decimated General George Pickett’s entire division of confederate troops. It resulted in a Union victory for the Army of the Potomac and successfully turned back the second and final invasion of the North by Lee. Over 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, making it the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Although most historians agree that the Union lost a major opportunity by failing to immediately follow Pickett’s Charge with a counter-attack of their own, it was a major turning point in the war. Historians have referred to the Battle of Gettysburg as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” Lee’s army never crossed into Northern territory again.

There is plenty of drama and characters within the historical basis, and Foote does a masterful job of storytelling that is gripping and respectful at the same time. All of the battle’s many nuances and subplots are woven together in a wonderful narrative. These include Union officer Joshua Chamberlain, his men under heavy fire and running very short on ammunition, leading a textbook battlefield maneuver to save the Union’s left flank. George Pickett’s famous and tragic charge across a mile of open ground, directly under fire from Union riflemen and heavy artillery. The attempts by Pete Longstreet, Lee’s most trusted General, to call off the attack by Pickett, and Lee’s subsequent answer- “I will fight the enemy here.” And Lee himself, meeting the retreating soldiers atop his white charger, announcing softly to his men “It’s my fault”. This is a great piece of history, and a wonderful read. If you have ever had an interest in the Civil War, or Gettysburg in particular, this is a perfect introduction to this subject.

Entry Filed under: Book Reviews

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