A Turning Point in the Civil War ; Two of America's Finest Historians Reconsider the Battle of Gettysburg That Saved the Union

By Tom O'Brien | The Christian Science Monitor, June 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Turning Point in the Civil War ; Two of America's Finest Historians Reconsider the Battle of Gettysburg That Saved the Union


Tom O'Brien, The Christian Science Monitor


July will bring the 140th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. Across Pennsylvania fields baking under the hot summer sun, reenactors will be out in force - most from the South, eager to replay, or imaginatively reverse, the whole encounter.

Reenactments began in 1913, a time closer to the battle than to us. But Gettysburg is a place that history embalmed as a special shrine long ago. What new could there be to say about it?

In the hands of two master historians, Stephen Sears and James McPherson, plenty, it turns out - though their books serve quite different purposes. McPherson's "Hallowed Ground" focuses on the battlefield today. Sears, whose "Gettysburg" will be published later this month, focuses on the battle, providing the best single-volume study in 30 years of what happened at Gettysburg from July 1 to 3, 1863.

"Hallowed Ground" is part of a series by Crown in which famous writers guide readers across their favorite landscapes. McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Battle Cry of Freedom," fulfills the task with a crisp but informative tour of key spots at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Using appropriate monuments as "stops," McPherson provides apt, moving commentary about personalities, controversies, and oddities connected with the battle. Among the last, he says, a body was found as late as 1997 with the skull shattered, just one of close to 8,000 fatal wounds suffered during the battle.

Sears and McPherson agree on a major point of controversy: The Southern strategy of attack, not defense, was commander Robert E. Lee's decision; the failure of several days of attacks was Lee's fault. In their view, that does not decrease his stature as the greatest general in American history. But both authors also explain that his greatness was his undoing: Lee began to believe in his army's invincibility.

Both writers put the illusion in context. Two months earlier, Lee had staged daring, high-risk attacks at Chancellorsville, which made him think his men could work miracles.

Sears quotes liberally from the diaries of many soldiers and the accounts of the foreign observers around Lee. (The Union had none; its only friend was Russia, which later sent naval squadrons as token support.) The English colonel, Arthur Fremantle, summed up the emotional situation best in noting that all the Confederates held their enemy in complete contempt.

Sears shows nothing was wrong with the Union army that a competent general couldn't cure. But it had been plagued with overzealous or overcautious commanders. A week before the battle, Lincoln found in George Meade someone who could keep his balance. …

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