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‘Stand to It and Give Them Hell’: Gettysburg as the Soldiers Experienced It From Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top, July 2, 1863

 By John Michael Priest Savas Beatie, 2014, $32.95

Many say the three-day Battle of Gettysburg was decided on July 2, 1863, even though the fighting didn’t end until the following  evening. Rather than provide another chronological account of the events of July 2, John Michael Priest has opted to create an array of battlefield snapshots taken at specific times and places  and involving individual units and men of the contending armies. This unconventional narrative strategy of jumping from one location to another makes the flow of the overall engagement hard to  follow, but it brings the fighting down  to the level of regiment against regiment, company against company, man against man.

Priest has done prodigious research, drawing from the numerous letters, diaries and reminiscences of the combatants on both sides. Although most of the language is Priest’s, his reinterpretation of the fighting man’s experiences  gives the face of combat an individual identity. The quotes he does use reflect  the immediate sensations experienced by the common soldier when faced with uncommon stress, suffering and sheer terror on the dark and bloody ground over which he fought under a sweltering summer sun.

While the book brings to life the overall experience of men against fire,  it does present some organizational difficulties for anyone wishing to use it  for reference. The publisher has seen fit, unfortunately, to place footnotes  only at the end of paragraphs. This growing trend in scholarly publishing routinely includes multiple sources under a single footnote, making it difficult to identify which quote or piece of information was obtained from which source. Priest sometimes uses secondary sources when citing a quote uttered in the heat of battle, thus indicating via the footnote that he has relied on the previous scholar to provide an accurate rendition of the actual words.

There are numerous excellent maps throughout the book that help the reader grasp a spatial understanding of this massive engagement. A second-day order of battle and casualty count provides somber statistical support to the brutal experiences recounted throughout the book. Those familiar with the battle will undoubtedly find  nuggets of interesting occurrences that normally do not make their way into most scholarly accounts. A newcomer to the Battle of Gettysburg will quickly grasp the magnitude and destructiveness of the largest engagement ever to be fought on the North American continent.


Originally published in the May 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.