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The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg's Forgotten History (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Susan Hamburger
By Margaret S. Creighton
Basic Books, 321 pages

When the typical reader thinks of Gettysburg, the paramount image is of the fighting and the strategic placement of troops during those three broiling days in July 1863. We often fail to notice a battle's effects on local folks before, during and after the fighting.

Historian Margaret Creighton reminds us of that impact on three neglected groups of people–German immigrants living in Gettysburg as well as fighting on the battlefront, local women who were left with the aged and children to care for as well as fending for themselves, and resident African Americans who feared for their lives and freedom as the Confederate army approached the area. Creighton's book focuses on how these groups coped with the bloody battle in their backyards and reveals the strengths each brought to their situation.

Each group was a victim of discrimination or contempt. The Germans were called cowards and sought to redeem themselves in battle; women were considered weak and helpless but were expected to maintain their households; and African Americans' fear of enslavement and subsequent flight to safety annoyed their employers, who expected them to conduct business as usual.

Using five individuals from each group as representative spokespersons, Creighton allows them to flesh out the human story behind the carnage. Through letters, diaries, oral histories and newspaper accounts, the participants share their stories, while Creighton provides the backdrop of events leading up to the battle and the aftermath, when the troops moved on.

Creighton places the immigrants, women and blacks in the context of how they were seen, and not seen, by the Anglo-Saxon male majority. Overcoming barriers of language, culture, race and gender, Gettysburg's forgotten residents finally gain their voice in this book.

The Colors of Courage includes some conjecture in the absence of documented facts, but overall, Creighton's assumptions and conclusions are credible. She offers a refreshing look at three heretofore unrepresented participant groups in the Battle of Gettysburg. This book is a welcome departure from military tactics and battlefield strategies, and deals with the real people who had to contend with war on their doorstep.

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