In the fall of 1985, when I learned that Harry had a big manuscript devoted to part of the Battle of Gettysburg, I discussed soliciting it with Matthew Hodgson, who served as director of the press and had spoken with me about publishing studies of Civil War military campaigns. Impressed that Harry, then chief historian of the National Park Service, had spent many years at Gettysburg National Military Park early in his career, Matt asked him for a sample chapter. Harry sent him one. “I have read your chapter with considerable interest,” Matt wrote Harry in December 1985, “and would very much like to read your manuscript in its entirety.”
Harry soon delivered a narrative of more than 1,000 manuscript pages that examined fighting on the southern end of the battlefield on July 2. I told Matt it was a model of the genre and predicted that it “should take its place among the classic Civil War tactical studies”— a prediction I later made to Harry. He responded with his usual quiet modesty, expressing the hope that his manuscript would please Matt and UNC Press. “It covers wellknown ground that has been scratched but not plowed,” he observed, adding with typical understatement: “The subject ought to have considerable appeal.”
Gettysburg: The Second Day was published in December 1987 and became an instant success. It met a standard for tactical studies that few other books, before or after, have equaled. The History Book Club made it a selection in March 1988, and reviewers praised the quality of Harry’s research, the clarity of his prose and the soundness of his judgment. “Pfanz was relentless in tracking down every conceivable… document,” wrote one reviewer, and another described the book as “a dynamic yet beautifully disciplined piece of work.” Gettysburg: The Second Day—which Harry called “the orange covered book” in reference to its original dust jacket—quickly went through five printings, a remarkable achievement for a 600-page study that assesses the performances of scores of officers and tracks the movements of a huge number of regiments, batteries and larger units. I still have a note Harry sent me in early 1987, which I laid in my copy of the book’s first edition. “I’ve been thinking of the help that you gave me in making contact with the University of North Carolina Press,” he wrote graciously, “and continue to be grateful for it.”
UNC Press was equally grateful to Harry, as was I, for sending his impressive work to Chapel Hill. That gratitude grew over the next several years, when Harry delivered two more splendid manuscripts. Gettysburg—Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill and Gettysburg—The First Day appeared in January 1994 and July 2001, respectively. The three titles total 1,642 pages and remain foundational for anyone interested in the war’s most famous battle. No one else approaches Harry in terms of contributions to our understanding of the tactical story of Gettysburg. As one prominent historian put it, Harry’s volumes on Gettysburg “comprise a great classic, and the best Gettysburg material ever published.”
On a personal note, I grew to treasure my friendship with Harry and learned an immense amount from him. In our extensive walks around the Gettysburg battlefield in the 1980s and early 1990s, he helped me understand many complicated episodes of the fighting. His amazing command of the battle’s ebb and flow allowed me, for example, to grasp the incredibly complex action in the Wheatfield, the often-slighted struggles along the slopes of Culp’s Hill, Jubal Early’s two-brigade assault against East Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Hill on the evening of July 2, and James Longstreet’s convoluted flank march on July 2. Those walks and my other time with Harry convinced me that, without question, Ed Bearss had it right in his blurb for Gettysburg—The First Day: “No one knows and understands the battle of Gettysburg better than Harry W. Pfanz.”
One golden afternoon when Harry and I had the Wheatfield all to ourselves stands out especially vividly. As we traversed every part of what had been brutally contested ground on July 2, he explained successive phases of the fighting that brought units from the Union III, V and II corps into action against Confederates from John Bell Hood’s and Lafayette McLaws’ divisions. We finished our walk by following the advance of Union Col. John R. Brooke’s brigade through the field and up to the ridge opposite the Rose Farm, stopping for a few minutes just south of the knoll where Captain George B. Winslow deployed his Battery D of the 1st New York Light Artillery. Harry urged me to take in the array of Union regimental monuments visible from that spot, and how the sculptors incorporated into their designs the different Union corps badges—the diamond of the Third, the Maltese Cross of the Fifth and the trefoil of the Second. Contemplating how all those units went into action within 200–300 yards of our position underscored just how effectively the Federals had exploited their advantage of interior lines. Ever since my walk with Harry that day, I have used the monuments, with their corps symbols, to make that point about interior lines with groups I take to the Wheatfield.
I always was struck by how lightly Harry carried his knowledge, how his service as a combat soldier in World War II informed his analysis of the Civil War, and how he almost never claimed to have definitive answers to historical questions. I consider myself very lucky, as an editor and a historian, to have worked with Harry. More than that, I am fortunate to have known such a fine and generous man.
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.