Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 181-187
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The Continuing Battle of Gettysburg
Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg. By Earl J. Hess. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xvii, 497. Cloth $34.95.)
Gettysburg: The First Day. By Harry W. Pfanz. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xv, 472. Cloth $34.95.)
Gettysburg: Day Three. By Jeffry D. Wert. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001. Pp. 448. Cloth $27.50.)
Gettysburg, the most celebrated engagement of the most celebrated American war, has in recent years become a full-fledged industry. It has its own Internet discussion group; its own magazine; a multimedia CD-ROM; a small battalion of licensed battlefield guides (most of whom are astonishingly well informed); a coterie of artists who make their living largely from prints of the battle; and a steady stream of books devoted to virtually everything with a Gettysburg angle—not just generals and soldiers but also civilians, hospitals, monuments, and even ghosts. It's enough to make "serious" historians shake their heads with smug bemusement and green-eyed envy. 1
One must candidly concede that none of this deluge adds fundamentally to our understanding of the battle. The "bible" of the battlefield guides, for example, [End Page 181] continues to be Edwin B. Coddington's The Gettysburg Campaign, published almost thirty-five years ago. 2 What, then, accounts for this fascination that not only continues but also increases? One may as well ask why the Civil War itself continues to exert such a tidal pull on the American imagination, for the two questions are profoundly linked. If the answer to the second is the familiar argument that the war represents the "American Iliad," then the answer to the first is that Gettysburg is the moment in that epic when the dramatic unities of time, place, and action are most fully realized. The hills and farm lots surrounding the town correspond, therefore, to what Alfred Lord Tennyson's Ulysses called "the ringing plains of windy Troy."
The three books under review are among the best in recent years to retell components of the Gettysburg story. And although none has anything startling to say, each has something fresh to contribute. Harry W. Pfanz has written the most detailed and accurate account of the fighting on July 1, which was not only a massive struggle in its own right but established the parameters within which the rest of the battle would be fought. 3 Jeffry D. Wert offers a solid account of the entire third day and in doing so heightens our sense of the contingency that hovered around the battle even at a point where most books collapse the narrative into the fatalistic—and fatal—charge against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. Earl J. Hess, for his part, has composed the finest account of that charge yet published.
Pfanz has already established himself as the foremost historian of the battle thanks to two previous books: one on the second day and the other on action at Culp's and Cemetery hills. 4 The new book on the first day completes his trilogy. Like its predecessors, The First Day is a model of careful, precise scholarship and impressive lucidness. It is also bereft of anything that might surprise a reader even passingly familiar with the basic narrative. For example, although viewers of the film Gettysburg (or readers of Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels, on which the screenplay was based) may have the impression that Brig. Gen. John Buford's Union cavalry division fought a pitched battle with Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's advancing infantry division to preserve the high ground around the town, most students of the battle already know that Buford's cavalry actually fought a delaying action that [End Page 182] involved few casualties on either side. The real collision did not take place until the Union I Corps deployed on McPherson Ridge around 10:30A.M.
Similarly, most students know that the Confederate attacks, though ultimately successful, were actually...