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America’s Civil War Book Review: Decisions at Gettysburg

By Ethan S. Rafuse
11/7/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Decisions at Gettysburg: The Nineteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Campaign

by Matt Spruill, University of Tennessee Press, 2011, $24.95

EVEN THOUGH HISTORIANS HAVE already spilled a veritable ocean of ink on the subject, new titles promising fresh approaches to understanding the course and outcome of the Gettysburg Campaign continue to appear. In this relatively slim volume, Matt Spruill has a fairly modest objective: Rather than provide a complete study of Gettysburg, or a particular aspect of the campaign, he offers a consideration of the 19 decisions he contends were the most important in shaping its course and outcome.

Included among these are such familiar sources of controversy as J.E.B. Stuart’s choice to ride around the Union Army of the Potomac in late June, Richard Ewell’s judgment not to attack Cemetery Hill on July 1, Dan Sickles’ decision to occupy the Peach Orchard the following day and Robert E. Lee’s gamble to attack the Federal center on July 3.

Spruill, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former licensed guide at Gettysburg National Military Park, is thoroughly familiar with the events of June–July 1863 and applies the military staff ride method to their study. In the course of analyzing particular decisions, he does a good job of employing conceptual frameworks used by the professional military to structure his analysis. His explanation of the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac’s artillery is especially well done and notable, as is the highly effective and useful guide to the battlefield provided in an appendix.

As noted earlier, this is by no means a comprehensive study of Gettysburg. Readers interested in Francis Barlow’s decision to occupy Blocher’s Knoll on July 1, Joshua Chamberlain and the fight for Little Round Top, the 1st Minnesota Infantry’s ordeal on July 2, or the cavalry actions of July 3, for instance, will come away disappointed. Still, even though there is not enough here in terms of original information or insights to place it on the list of essential works on Gettysburg, serious students of the campaign and general readers alike will find much of interest and appeal in this well-constructed and worthwhile book.

 

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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