A few weeks ago, Brett Schulte over at TOCWOC proposed a joint project in which folks from across the Civil War blogosphere propose their top ten Gettysburg books. Foolishly, I agreed to participate (I say “foolishly” not because I do not think this a worthy idea, but because of the opportunity it offers to cause offense to others while exposing my own ignorance) and, more foolishly, agreed to lead off. I am, though, wimping out of putting them in any order of merit on the grounds that it is just too hard, given the differences that make it hard to strictly compare, say, a battlefield guide with a collection of essays. I will, however, provide some explanation for my choices.
I would naturally have someone begin their studies with one of the single-volume histories. Stephen Sears’s is at the top of the list for the general reader (although for someone who blanches at its heft or needs more pictures, I might substitute Steve Woodworth’s short history or Craig Symonds’s American Heritage history); for the advanced student, Edwin Coddington’s work is still the best full study of the campaign. In addition to being a great read, The Killer Angels is an essential work for understanding, if not the battle (although it is pretty good in that respect), why it is so much easier to find a t-shirt or print of a certain Maine colonel than it is to find one of the commander of the Army of the Potomac, or why there are so many more people visiting Little Round Top than Culp’s Hill.
To fully understand the battle you need to visit the battlefield and have a good guide in hand. Obviously, I am more than a bit prejudiced here, but Mark’s and Brooks’s was the first one I ever actually bought and I have been so satisfied with it that I have seen no need for any other—except for the obviously necessary revised edition they are currently working on. I also have a strong affinity for essay collections. I like the eclecticism of Gabor Boritt’s 1999 collection to go with the military-oriented volumes Gary Gallagher edited in the 1990s. With these works under their belt, the student of Gettysburg will have more than enough to get a really good understanding of what happened.
Now comes the hard part. With only two places left, what of all the specialized studies? Carol Reardon’s book on Pickett’s Charge is a no-brainer, as it is one of the best books on any Civil War topic to appear in the past few decades (as evidenced by the legion of folks–yours truly included–who have jumped on the history and memory bandwagon since it appeared). So many works, but only one spot left. . . . I will fill it with Kent Masterson Brown’s study of the retreat but ask me five minutes later and I may tell you something different.
So, to recap (in alphabetical order by author):
Gabor S. Boritt, ed., The Gettysburg Nobody Knows (1999)
Kent Masterson Brown, Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign (2005)
Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (1968)
Gary W. Gallagher, ed., The First Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership (1992)
Gary W. Gallagher, ed., The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership (1993)
Gary W. Gallagher, ed., The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond (1994)
Mark Grimsley and Brooks D. Simpson, Gettysburg: A Battlefield Guide (1999)
Carol Reardon, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (1997)
Stephen W. Sears, Gettysburg (2003)
Michael Sharra, The Killer Angels (1974)
So much left off here, obviously. My approach has been with an eye on the principle that the first priority is getting the reader an overall understanding of the campaign and battle and an introduction to some of the controversies. Then they can move on to works by Harry Pfanz, Eric Wittenberg, Richard Sauers, Thomas Desjardin, and others who are conspicuous by their absence here.
Let the debate begin! The permanent host page for the overall project is here.