Book Review: A Field Guide to Gettysburg | HistoryNet MENU

Book Review: A Field Guide to Gettysburg

By Ethan S. Rafuse
2/24/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield Through Its History, Places, and People

 Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler, UNC Press

Union Lieutenant Frank Haskell was certain that a “comprehensive, complete” history of Gettysburg—a battle he called “greater than Waterloo”—would never be written. “A full account of the battle as it was,” he wrote, “will never, can never be made.”

But Haskell was fully confident that efforts to produce such accounts would be made, and he also predicted that “out of the chaos of trash and falsehood, that newspapers hold, out of the disjointed mass of reports, out of the traditions and tales that come down from the field… some pen will write what will be named the history. With that the world will be, and if we are alive we must be, content.”

The past 150 years have, of course, seen many attempts to produce the sort of history that Haskell was pessimistic could ever be written. That Gettysburg has attracted such a large body of scholarship is testimony not only to the importance of the three-day struggle but also to the Pennsylvania battle’s scale and tremendous complexity. All this can make Gettysburg a daunting topic for study. One of the most important resources in that effort is a good battlefield guide.  

Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler have devoted decades of study to Gettysburg and led hundreds of tours and military staff rides there. Few battle field experiences can be more  profitable or enjoyable than  following these two around the area. Their experience and skill are on display throughout their Field Guide to Gettysburg, which effectively leads the reader around the battlefield in  a 35-stop tour that starts and ends on Cemetery Hill.

Each stop begins with a brief orientation, to help readers understand where they are in terms of the fighting, then continues with a thorough account of what happened and which particular units were engaged, biographical sketches of commanders, profiles of individual  soldiers who gave “the last full measure” in the fighting, information on residents on whose property specific engagements  took place, and also analysis of controversies that have arisen about the battle and its aftermath. Perhaps most important, the guide provides excellent maps to help readers make sure they are standing in the right place, and then enable them to visualize troop movements and  understand how they fit into the  overall engagement.

Note that the maps included in this guide do not indicate the modern road network in and around Gettysburg. But given the impressive clarity of the driving directions provided, this shouldn’t be a problem for the average reader. Nevertheless, this is reflective of the fact that,  while any reader can benefit  from reading this guide, it will be the truly dedicated student of Gettysburg who gets the most out of it.

It’s hard to see how anyone interested in the Battle of Gettysburg could make a better addition to his or her library— or that Lieutenant Haskell could have found greater contentment—than with this outstanding new guide.

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