- The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle
For some time, historians have been wrestling with the question of how to integrate the social and cultural dimensions of the Civil War into the more familiar political and military account. Margaret Creighton's retelling of the battle of Gettysburg represents a valuable and impressive contribution to that undertaking. This deeply researched, thoughtful, well-structured, and smoothly written volume offers readers an account of that epochal struggle in which "diverse Americans—people of color, women civilians, and immigrant soldiers—play leading parts, and in which struggles over freedom and contests over respect and recognition provide as much dynamic action as attacks, repulse, and retreats" (vii). Creighton tells much of her story through the medium of the meticulously reconstructed experiences of fifteen individuals, few of whose names will be familiar [End Page 212] to avid students of the Gettysburg battle, but all of whose lives were deeply marked by it in different ways. To piece together those experiences, the author has worked through army records, letters, diaries, memoirs, interview transcripts, church and pension records, and newspaper reports. The book's final section addresses the changing ways in which those experiences were recalled during the years and decades that followed. That discussion draws effectively upon recent studies of the Civil War's place in popular memory, especially David Blight's.
The book's strengths are many. As noted, it rests upon prodigious research. The author displays an intimate familiarity with both the physical and cultural landscape of Gettysburg and its environs. She employs an eminently accessible, novelistic writing style. A fine selection of contemporaneous photos (including of some of her dramatis personae) lends even more specificity and immediacy to a text already rich in those qualities.
Margaret Creighton is especially good at conveying the texture of women's lives and how the demands of war and occupation both invoked and strained accepted female gender roles. Cooking, sewing, cleaning, and nursing for Union soldiers (and sometimes for Confederates, too), white Pennsylvania women hoped to aid the former and occasionally to win concessions from the latter. Some, in contrast, pointedly withheld their services from gray-clad troops to assert their own Union loyalties. Creighton's discussion of German American troops in the Army of the Potomac's Eleventh Corps focuses principally on the accusation aimed at them of cowardice under fire during earlier battles. The sting of that charge, challenging the immigrant soldiers' manhood, made it all the more urgent for those men to redeem their honor and their reputations at Gettysburg.
Contrary to the book's subtitle, Gettysburg was not the defining battle of the Civil War. It was neither militarily decisive nor characteristic of the war as a whole. Lee's defeat there did significantly limit his army's future options, but his Army of Northern Virginia continued to fight effectively for another twenty months, for much of that time keeping the war's outcome in doubt. And because this battle atypically occurred in a free state and did not feature the participation of black Union troops, Gettysburg is not the best setting in which to illustrate the wartime experiences of African Americans. I think, nevertheless, that the most coherent and powerful sections of this book are those that depict the ordeal of the black civilians who lived in and around Gettysburg as Lee's army hunted them down in order afterward to drag them into the South and into slavery.
The Colors of Courage does not—and does not claim to—concern itself very much with the military history of the battle. It does seek to synthesize its social and cultural findings with the politics of the war. It sometimes accomplishes this goal quite effectively, as in its sensitive depiction of the lot of Gettysburg's black residents. But elsewhere the reader craves considerably more political [End Page 213] (and sometimes military) information than the...