Gettysburg. By Stephen W. Sears. Houghton Mifflin, 2003. 544 pages. $30.00. Reviewed by Colonel Len Fullenkamp, USA Ret., Professor of Military History and Strategy, US Army War College.
When the subject of Gettysburg is discussed, the question often arises, why did Lee lose? The more interesting questions is, why did Meade win? On this subject, as with so many others in this book, Stephen Sears is direct and to the point, "The fact of the matter is that George G. Meade, unexpectedly and against all odds, thoroughly outgeneraled Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg." It is this willingness to cut through the fog of war and state his views clearly that will endear Sears to many readers, and infuriate just as many others.
Battles are complicated affairs. Too often the complexity of the story tends to mask simple truths and plain facts. Sears' contribution to the extensive body of literature on the Civil War in general, and Gettysburg in particular, is the skill with which he narrates a story. His writing is crisp yet crammed with essential detail, as one would expect of a former editor of American Heritage and the author of six award-winning books on the Civil War. Any mention of Sears' name brings to mind Landscape Turned Red, his excellent book on the Antietam campaign, but as an introduction to Gettysburg let me recommend readers seek out his most recent book, Chancellorsville. Key to understanding Lee's decisions on the Pennsylvania battlefield in July 1863 are the events of his stunning victory over Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac two months earlier in what most scholars readily identify as Lee's greatest victory.
Sears' book follows a predictable yet reliable format. He begins by setting the strategic and operational context for the campaign. Why did Lee argue for an invasion of Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863? He did so to recapture "the strategic initiative he had surrendered at Sharpsburg [Antietam]... to take the war right into the Yankee heartland.... [A] success in Pennsylvania would offset any failure at Vicksburg," and" a great victory on enemy soil might put peace within Richmond's reach." Having established the strategic premise for Lee's campaign, Sears marches the reader through the details of the reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia in the days and weeks following Chancellorsville (1-3 May, 1863), a reorganization in part driven by the loss of his key subordinate, the great Stonewall Jackson, who succumbed to wounds received at Chancellorsville. In an equally informative and fact-filled chapter, Sears chronicles the tribulations of Lincoln as commander in chief, his decision to sack Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac (the fourth general to suffer that fate--McClellan being counted twice), and the elevation of George Gordon Meade to army command.
Sears skillfully narrates the operational movements that carried both armies into Pennsylvania for their rendezvous at Gettysburg, with a particularly interesting summary of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry action of the war along the way. How and why Lee's cavalry commander, James Ewell Brown Stuart, comes to be out of communications with his army commander during seven crucial days of the Gettysburg campaign is examined, with blame apportioned equally among Lee, Stuart, and James Longstreet, the senior corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia. In this portion of the book, Sears gives equal time to the generals of the Army of the Potomac. Meade's subordinates are graded and measured: corps commanders John Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock are the most talented and capable; John Sedgwick and George Sykes, reliable; Oliver Howard and William Slocum, men of modest talent; and Daniel Sickles, the New York Tammany Hall politician, found a scoundrel of the first order. Those with an interest in the subject of leadership will find much worthy of their time in Sears' discussions of Meade and his handling of subordinates, a task for which he earns uniformly high marks. …