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My Correct Opinion About Gettysburg Books

Actually, this list makes no pretense of being authoritative, in the sense of representing some sort of objective appraisal of the most important works on the battle. They’re simply the ones that have most strongly influenced my understanding of Gettysburg.  I offer them roughly in the order that I encountered them.

1. Bruce Catton, The Battle of Gettysburg (1963).  Checked it out from my junior high school library at age 13.  It was so vivid and I read it so closely that for years thereafter it formed my basic template for understanding the battle.  Last autumn I ran across a first edition — for four dollars! — at The Horse Soldier in Gettysburg.  I was thrilled.

2.  Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign:  A Study in Command (1968).  Purchased a copy at the Gettysburg NMP Visitor Center on June 9, 1973.  The first book on the battle I ever owned.  I paid $15.00 for it, which for a 13-year old was a lot of money — and as it turns out, would have been a lot of money for a 50-year old professor.  Adjusting for inflation,  fifteen bucks in 1973 dollars comes to almost 72 bucks in 2008 dollars.  It was and remains the best single-volume study of the campaign.

3.  William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg:  A Journey in Time (1975).  Not sure when I came across this, but surely it was during my salad days.  An extraordinary study of the Gettysburg photographic evidence base.  I never again saw historical photos as mere illustrations, but rather as documents.  Plus it was wicked cool to learn how photographers dragged around corpses to compose the images they sought.

4.  Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (1974).  Encountered the novel at age 15.  Totally captivating.  Would have devoured it in a single sitting were it not for school, chores, etc.  Even then I could see some historical inaccuracies (the presence of a slave recently imported from Africa — WTF? — and the idea that “there is no good ground south of here” — there’s loads of good ground south of Gettysburg), but The Killer Angels formed my introduction to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and challenged my pre-conceptions about James Longstreet.  And Shaara’s taut prose style taught me a lot about good writing.  Still a very good introduction to the battle — the Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership assigns it as preparatory reading for strategic leadership staff rides.  But one should also read the antidote, D. Scott Hartwig’s excellent A Killer Angel’s Companion (1996).

5.  The Haskell Letter (1863).  Highly influential first-person account of the battle that really supplies a “you are there” feel.  Available in numerous places, perhaps most authoritatively in Frank L. Byrne and Andrew T. Weaver, eds. Haskell of Gettysburg:  His Life and Civil War Papers (1989).

6.  Jay Luvaas and Harold W. Nelson, eds.  The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg (1986).  When I first saw this in a book store I just didn’t get it — it looked like a very thin tissue of commentary connecting excerpts from the Official Records.  But in December 1993 I took it out on the battlefield and it absolutely changed my life.  Hitherto I had been at best semi-literate in my understanding of battlefields.  I could connect the terrain and events only in very rough terms and was in most respects what Ed Bearss derisively calls “a plaque reader.”  The genius of the guide is not the text but the locations to which Luvaas and Nelson direct the reader.  When you read the book from those carefully selected spots, you see the battlefield through new eyes and with a depth of understanding you’ll never get from conventional books.  I saw ways to improve on the concept.  This eventuated in the battlefield guide series that Brooks, Steve Woodworth and I co-edit, and frankly I think our Gettysburg guide is better.  But without the Luvaas / Nelson guide our series would surely not exist.  Very much a case of standing on the shoulders of giants.

7. Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg:  The Second Day (1987).  This appeared in book stores at the same time I began my PhD studies, so naturally I regarded it with the complete contempt of a typical graduate student.  A 600-page book on one day of the battle?  Get the hell out!  I literally didn’t touch it until the Luvaas / Nelson guide whetted my appetite to understand the details of the battle.  When I did, I found it to be an incredibly detailed yet lucid and accessible guide to the most complex and important aspect of Gettysburg:  Longstreet’s assault.  Pfanz went on to publish Gettysburg:  Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill (1993) and Gettysburg:  The First Day (2001). Both are good, but The Second Day is a real keeper.  PS – I had a similar change of heart about Gary W. Gallagher’s wonderful series of edited volumes on Gettysburg, which as a grad student I also sniffed at as being too narrow and too redolent of “drums and trumpets” history (more true of the earlier than later volumes).  They are now collected in two books:  Three Days at Gettysburg:  Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership (1999) and The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond (1994).  They’re indispensable for serious students of the battle, but I doubt I would have read them had I not first read Pfanz.

8. Earl J. Hess, Pickett’s Charge:  The Last Attack at Gettysburg (2001).  The best study of the engagement by one of the best Civil War military historians.  Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (1997) is excellent, as Ethan rightly notes, but deals only in part with the attack itself, and had less impact on me than it might have done otherwise because I had elsewhere received my introduction to public memory.

9.  Jim Weeks, Gettysburg:  Memory, Market, and American Shrine (2003).  For years I visited the battlefield but paid scant attention to the town and had disdain for the souvenir shops, etc.  But gradually I’ve come to love the town, the sub-culture, and all the schlock.  In time I may even buy a ticket to one of those ghost tours.  To understand Gettysburg as a slice of Americana, there’s no better guide than this scholarly but compulsively readable study.

10.  Margaret S. Creighton, The Colors of Courage:  Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle (2005).  Just when you think you know pretty much everything about Gettysburg, Creighton comes along and adds an unexpected and fresh dimension.  Full disclosure:  I’ve not yet finished reading it.

Comments (4) to “My Correct Opinion About Gettysburg Books”

  1. Mark,

    Nice list! I have 6 of your top 10 in my own list. You also came up with something more obscure like the Haskell letter. I’ve added a link to your post on the permanent page. Thanks for agreeing to do this!

  2. I like the inclusion of the Haskell letter.

  3. Growing up in a small town in south Louisiana, my eyes were opened when I first got a copy of “A Journey in Time” in the mid eighties. I’m glad to see others love it too. My original copy is so tattered it can’t be held together with glue, tape, anything.

  4. Nice List! I have Eight out of the Ten books that are in your list. Glad to see the ‘Killer Angels’ as it is one of my favorite war novels and good to see Hess as his book is just excellent.