Gettysburg 1863, by Richard Wheeler, Plume, 302 pages, $15.95.
Every reader who has any interest at all in the Battle of Gettysburg will find Gettysburg 1863 a joy to read. Author Richard Wheeler’s pleasant writing style is enhanced by 12 good maps and more than 100 poignant and well-placed illustrations chosen from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated History of the Civil War, Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, and several other early postwar publications. The book is so captivating it can be consumed in a single day.
Wheeler begins his account with the early spring of 1863, giving an overview of the war and using the May 1-4 Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, as a springboard. There are many amusing but quite apt and instructive turns of phrase. For example, Phil Sheridan “had the heart of a gamecock, but he looked more like a bantam rooster.” Wheeler instructs the reader well concerning General Robert E. Lee’s tenuous state of physical health: “Five weeks before Chancellorsville, he suffered a debilitating illness that wasn’t fully diagnosed but was almost certainly a mild heart attack.” Lee would never fully regain his former vigor, and there would be further debilities as well that hampered his capacity at Gettysburg; he suffered from sciatica and also from diarrhea during the campaign.
The work is sprinkled with great quotes and anecdotes. Many pertain to President Abraham Lincoln, and he generally emerges sparkling. One of these amusements begins with a Northerner posing a snide question to a Southerner: “How come you Johnny Rebs never have any decent clothes?” The Rebel’s sharp response: “We-uns don’t put on our best to kill hogs in!” When Lincoln was told about this repartee, he replied, “There’s a good deal of mother-wit in some of those fellows.” In another droll exchange, Major General George Meade issued a congratulatory order after the defeated Rebels withdrew from Pennsylvania that included the line, “The commanding general looks to the army for greater effort to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader” [emphasis added]. “My God!” Lincoln exclaimed. “Is that all?” Lincoln would screech that all the soil belonged to the Union.
The narration of the great cavalry battle at Brandy Station is especially well done. You can almost smell the horses, hear the sabers swishing through the air, and feel the raging excitement of the day-long struggle. “Men on both sides rose up in their stirrups as the crash came,” Wheeler writes. “Sabers clanged, carbines and pistols rattled, artillery pieces boomed on the flanks. Men shouted in defiance, in fear, in pain. There were demands for surrender, appeals for mercy. Horses went down kicking. Others ran wild with empty saddles, some of which were bloodstained. Fallen men were trampled.”
Wheeler’s work is popular history, and therefore is not footnoted. That seems reasonable enough. The bibliography includes all the appropriate underpinning sources. Actually, a budding scholar could use this list of sources for the beginning of a serious intellectual investigation.
All the vignettes that Wheeler uses to delineate the various characters are apt and appealingly instructive. It is strange, however, that although we are told that Major General Dan Sickles, who lost a leg at Gettysburg, “lived for another fifty years,” we are not told that his leg wound up in a medical museum, and he much enjoyed numerous visits there to view it.
Wheeler plausibly presents the story that in the end, amazing as it seems, no one really fully realized that Lee had been defeated at Gettysburg until after the Confederate army had disengaged and started on its way back to Virginia. There was a close call in the retreat, because recent rains had made the Potomac River too high to cross. Meade prepared for an attack, but just in the nick of time for Lee, the waters receded enough for the Rebels to cross. Wheeler’s book says: “‘We move upon the enemy’s works,’ one of the bluecoats wrote later. ‘Works are ours. Enemy sitting on the other side of the river performing various gyrations with his fingers–thumb on his nose.'”
University of Missouri–Kansas City