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Book Review:Gettysburg 1863: High Tide of the Confederacy (Carl Smith): CWT

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Gettysburg 1863: High Tide of the Confederacy, by Carl Smith, Osprey Military, London, England, (212) 685-5560, 128 pages, softcover, $16.95.

Although a mountain of books have been written about the Battle of Gettysburg over the last 130 years, the logistical enormity of the campaign ensures that new publications will continue to appear. Among the latest is Gettysburg 1863: High Tide of the Confederacy, volume 52 in the Osprey Military Campaign Series. The book is more a concise ledger of the military aspects of the battle than a comprehensive study. Though it often tries to accomplish too much, it generally works well as an introduction to the campaign.

Gettysburg 1863 opens with a brief discussion of the campaign's origins and a calendar of events that ends at June 30. A comparison of opposing commanders includes standard descriptions of Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Dan Sickles, and other prominent officers. An impressive, comprehensive order of battle introduces the three-day struggle.

Author Carl Smith describes in surprising detail the maneuvering of units and the fighting. He is correct to praise Brigadier General John Buford–whose work is sometimes forgotten–for his judgment in directing his cavalry in the crucial delaying action of July 1. Smith also comments on the difficult position in which Army of the Potomac commander George Meade found himself. The gruff major general from Pennsylvania had scarcely 48 hours to adjust to his new job and prepare for the showdown against Lee. Despite his cautious nature, Meade adapted quickly.

The author is generous in his assessment of Meade. "Very few men could do what Meade accomplished at Gettysburg," he writes, "and one of those few happened to be in command of the other side." Smith dismisses Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer and Major General J.E.B. Stuart as "impulsive and vainglorious," while he speaks well of Major General George Pickett, whom he calls "the most tragic figure at Gettysburg." Considering all the fathers, husbands, and brothers who died on the battlefield, this is a bit of a stretch.

The book is well researched, but the writing is sometimes awkward and difficult to follow. One photograph shows "[Major General Ambrose] Burnside and his staff before Hooker relieved him of command of the Army of the Potomac." President Abraham Lincoln relieved Burnside. Hooker replaced him. Smith's description of the fighting, particularly on the second day, is dull and often confusing. More quotes would have enlivened it. Another shortcoming is Smith's tendency to mention every unit on the field. The reader can easily lose track of the bigger picture.

Union Major General Oliver Otis Howard, whose reputation was in shambles after the Battle of Chancellorsville, receives considerably more credit here than he has traditionally received. Smith calls him one of the Union's "men of vision" and praises him for having "organized the withdrawal to, and defense of, Culp's Hill." On July 1, Howard relocated to Cemetery–not Culp's–Hill, and Major General Winfield Scott Hancock deserves at least as much credit for solidifying that position and boosting the confidence of the troops. Little is said of Hancock other than that he was "a soldier's soldier" who always managed to have on a clean white shirt. Yet, by 1863, Hancock's "superb" reputation had spread through the army, and Meade ordered him to take command of the field from Howard.

The book contains a few minor errors and misleading generalities that probably are the result of trying to condense so much information into so small a space. The suicidal Union cavalry charge on the Confederate right flank on July 3–the attack that left promising Union Brigadier General Elon J. Farnsworth dead–was ordered specifically by Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, not Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton. Also, Smith writes that on the night of July 2, "Culp's Hill was held by Greene's brigade, XII Corps, and Robinson's men (I Corps)." While some of the approximately 755 men sent to bolster Brigadier General George S. Greene's small New York brigade that night were from the I Corps, none were from Brigadier General John C. Robinson's Second Division, which had no role in the fight for the hill.

The book is nicely illustrated with battle-scene plates, dozens of photographs, charts, and maps that simulate three dimensions. Like all the books in the Osprey Campaign Series, this one closes with a guide to the modern-day scene of the battle and notes for war-gamers. An index would have been nice, but it is not crucial, due to the book's brevity.

Smith seems to have been caught between writing a serious military history and a book for a general readership. Thus Gettysburg 1863 is not a broad history, nor is it an exploration of the more human aspects of the battle. It is, however, 128 pages packed with strategic, battle-related information. Despite a few glitches, it is an enjoyable and useful guide.

Eric Ethier
Hummelstown, Pennsylvania

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