One Continuous Fight: The Retreat From Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863
by Eric Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi and Michael F. Nugent, Savas Beatie, 2008, $34.95
There is absolutely no shortage of book-length treatments of Gettys burg, nor is there ever likely to be one. But few serious efforts have been made to document Robert E. Lee’s retreat following the epic three-day battle in July 1863, and the Army of Northern Virginia’s subsequent recrossing of the Potomac River 10 days later. One Continuous Fight, by Eric Wittenberg, J.D. Petruzzi and Michael Nugent, claims to rectify that situation and finally give the reader “the full story of the retreat.”
In telling the “full” story, the authors arrange the text chronologically, starting on July 4 and running through July 14, even though the they rightfully point out that the campaign truly ended closer to the end of July when the opposing armies were once again facing each other across the Rappahannock. (Official reports at the time also treated this as the close of the campaign.) Nevertheless, the authors proceed to treat the last two weeks (July 15 onward) in a short epilogue, which unfortunately is one of the book’s shortcomings.
The book’s most obvious strength is the richness of its primary source material. The authors have gathered an extensive bibliography that includes many previously unknown or little used sources. Keep in mind, however, that the text primarily relates the Union side of the story. It also is sometimes overly critical of Union Maj. Gen. George Meade and too often relies on well-worn sources already familiar to most Gettysburg historians (e.g., John Imboden’s account, Elisha Hunt Rhodes’ diary, and so forth). The personal soldiers’ letters here that are new to most readers do indeed add richness, but they do not ultimately inform the strategic analysis. The reader is still left with many unanswered questions, including how responsible Meade was for Lee being able to “escape.”
The authors must be commended, though, for creating a work that takes advantage of technology and living history. They include more detailed maps of the retreat than have been previously available, as well as GPS coordinates, a complete order of battle and a guide for contemporary exploration of the sites. The text also is sprinkled with photos and illustrations throughout, and the notes in the travel and GPS section are extremely helpful and interesting.
Nevertheless, this important manuscript escaped to press with many glaring typo graphical errors. There are dozens of them, in fact, and regardless of the veracity of the research, the reader cannot help but be distracted by this flaw. When so many are so patently apparent, it is hard to escape a feeling of carelessness that the authors surely don’t want associated with their months and years of serious research.
Overall, One Continuous Fight is a fresh and detailed retreat account, but it is still far from complete.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.