Book Review: The Gettysburg Nobody Knows (edited by Gabor S. Boritt) : ACW

The Gettysburg Nobody Knows, edited by Gabor S. Boritt, Oxford University Press, New York, $27.50.

No battle in American history was more pivotal than Gettysburg. It is, without a doubt, the best-known engagement of the Civil War–and probably of all American history. It is certainly the most studied battle Americans ever fought. And yet, for all its prominence, the Battle of Gettysburg still engenders heated debate. Did J.E.B. Stuart’s absence really leave Robert E. Lee blind? Should Richard Ewell have attacked Cemetery Hill? Was Joshua Chamberlain really the hero of Little Round Top? How close did the Confederates come to winning at Gettysburg? And if they had won, how would Civil War history have been affected?

In his latest work, The Gettysburg Nobody Knows, Gabor Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, has invited nine leading Civil War authorities to shed new light on the greatest battle in American history. Following the example of Richard Nelson Current’s acclaimed history The Lincoln Nobody Knows, the contributors focus on the unknown and the controversial. Emory Thomas, a biographer of both Stuart and Lee, finds that although Stuart’s cavalry provided no Intelligence to the Confederate army for several key days, Lee knew from other sources the location of the Army of the Potomac and thus was able to concentrate his army before Union General George Gordon Meade arrived in strength on the battlefield. Readers are also treated to a fresh account by Carol Reardon of the most celebrated 40 minutes in American military history–Pickett’s Charge–watching the encounter from the rarely considered perspective of the Union soldiers being attacked.

The Gettysburg Nobody Knows also contains careful analyses of Ewell’s actions–or inactions–in failing to attack Cemetery Hill, a failure that many blame for the Confederates’ loss of the battle, and Union General Daniel Sickles’ error in repositioning his troops in a vulnerable salient on the second day of the battle. Ewell is exonerated by author Harry P. Pfanz, while Sickles is blamed by Kent Gramm for causing more Union casualties than were necessary. Included is a stirring account by Gramm of the moment when Union General Winfield Scott Hancock ordered the 1st Minnesota Regiment to “take those colors,” sending the Minne-sotans into a desperate struggle that would help save the day for the Union.

Well over a century has gone by since the guns fell silent at Gettysburg. Yet millions of tourists still make the pilgrimage to Gettysburg each year to see for themselves the places where thousands of young Americans, Northern and Southern, died on three furious summer days. The essays contained in The Gettysburg Nobody Knows help to explain why the battle still has such an ineffable hold on the nation’s hearts and minds.

Cowan Brew

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