The Generals at Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle, by Larry R. Tagg, avas Publishing Co., Mason City, Iowa, 1998, $29.95.
After 136 years, the gallons of ink devoted to Gettysburg probably surpass the amount of blood spilled on those fields in July 1863. This fact alone should be enough to cause an author to think twice before choosing Gettysburg as a subject–it is a daunting task to provide the reader with a new and refreshing slant on a subject that has been studied in such minute detail. Yet every year, writers and publishers take up the challenge, producing on average 10 new titles annually about the engagements.
In some ways, the glut of Gettysburg literature is positive. Not only does it serve to introduce the battle to the thousands of beginning Civil War enthusiasts but also, more important, some of the best scholarship on Gettysburg has been published in the past 10 years. Unfortunately, some poor works have also been published in the same time period. As a result, readers no longer snatch up anything that has “Gettysburg” in the title but question the worth of the volume and the nature of its contents.
At first glance, Larry Tagg’s The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle seems to be a work whose value a reader would question. After all, the details of the lives of the generals who commanded at Gettysburg have been documented many times in many sources, and there seems to be neither room nor reason for a new book about the generals.
But appearances can be deceiving. A more apt title for Tagg’s book, though admittedly not as eye-catching, would be The Commanders at Gettysburg: The Generals and Their Subordinates. Tagg has not limited the scope of his book to those who held the rank of general. Instead, he provides a thumbnail sketch biography of each of the infantry commanders who took part in the battle, from the brigade level up.
It should be noted that the book’s focus is one-dimensional. While some attention is devoted to each individual’s life and career prior to Gettysburg, it is the battle and what happened there that is the meat of the book. For most of the biographies, no more than a couple of lines or a short paragraph is devoted to the person’s post-Gettysburg life.
For the true Gettysburg aficionado, there are no startling new revelations. The Generals of Gettysburg is similar to Richard Rollins’ Pickett’s Charge: Eyewitness Accounts, in that Tagg has assembled information that readers previously had to pore through numerous books and documents to find.
Unfortunately, there are a few problems to be found with the book. There are numerous typographical errors throughout the text and no index. Inexplicably, not all of the battle’s cavalry commanders are included, and only the three men who held the rank of general in the artillery branch of the two armies are covered. While not to suggest that Tagg should have included every battery commander, certainly for the average reader and fans of the big guns alike, biographies of the artillery battalion commanders would have added greatly to the compilation.
These minor flaws notwithstanding, and while the book is not for everyone, The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle should find a home on the bookshelves of those readers whose special interest is Gettysburg.
B. Keith Toney