Gabor S. Boritt (ed.),The Gettysburg Nobody Knows (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Pp. xvii + 270. $27.50. ISBN 0-19-510223-1
Gabor S. Boritt (ed.), Jefferson Davis’s Generals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Pp. xvii + 217. $27.50. ISBN 0-19-512062-0
The Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College has assumed a status that all institutes crave–it has become an institution. Each year a number of notable scholars give lectures that are published in a handsome format with a wide, popular appeal. The chapters in these books, shorn of their original lecture form, make for pleasant, undemanding reading.
The more recent book on Confederate generals is the slighter of the two. Historians who have already published distinguished works on their subjects reflect on their relationship with the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Craig Symonds and Emory Thomas contribute elegant summaries of their biographies of Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. Lee. Steven E. Woodworth defends Braxton Bragg, concluding that he had ‘considerable talent as a general – far more than his critics...have given him credit for’. T. Michael Parrish provides a stimulating reassessment of P. G. T. Beauregard, pointing out that no matter how much he hated Davis, he always obeyed his orders. Parrish’s essay is one of the best things in this book.
Curiously, there is no chapter on Davis as Commander in Chief, although Harold Holzer presents an entertaining account of his wartime image. He shows how in 1861-62 Confederate civil-military relations became very muddled. Davis was depicted in prints wearing a uniform and was represented as a symbol of battlefield glory. Holzer might have considered the degree to which this antagonised some of his generals, especially Beauegard, who must have been greatly irritated by the print that awarded Davis the credit for winning the First Battle of Manassas. It is left to James M. McPherson to reflect generally on command relationships and strategy.
In a bravura performance, he criticises two views in particular that have gained popularity among historians. First, that Davis had a consistent defensive outlook; and secondly, that if such a strategy had been adhered to, the South might have won. He retorts that Union strategy had much to do, if not more, with the way Confederate strategy evolved rather than any inconsistency in the practice of confederate generals in the field.
The Gettysburg Nobody Knows is a more substantial contribution to scholarship, and is the best of the Civil War Institute books so far published. Most of its chapters are based on original research or offer stimulating perspectives. On the strictly military themes, Harry W. Pfanz contributes to the re-evaluation of Richard S. Ewell’s performance on 1 July 1863. He believes that Ewell’s decisions not to take Cemetery Hill that day were made for sound military reasons, and he criticises Douglas Southall Freeman for relying too heavily on unreliable post-war memoirs, like John B. Gordon’s Reminiscences (1904).
Emory Thomas attributes J. E. B. Stuart’s lacklustre performance throughout the campaign to accumulated stress (a view first advanced in his 1986 biography, but developed here).
Richard M. McMurphy provides a masterly dissection of the strategic dilemmas facing the Confederacy in 1863. He concludes that, given the weakness of Southern railroads, even if Lee had remained on the defensive and sent troops west to Vicksburg, they would not have arrived in time to save the city; nor could they have been sustained logistically. Nevertheless, despite the many cogent points McMurphy makes in defence of Lee’s decision to launch the campaign, he tends to downgrade the overall significance of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Perhaps the most interesting contributions discuss the symbolic aspects of the battle. Glenn LaFantasie’s essay on Johsua L. Chamberlain examines his hazy recollection of what actually happened on 2 July and his vanity in promoting his own version. He concludes (while never questioning Chamberlain’s courage and worth as a soldier) that his greatest achievement was that ‘he had lived his dreams and made them come true’.
Carol Reardon’s essay on Pickett’s Charge contains a warning ‘against accepting as conclusive much of what was allegedly “known” about July 3 at Gettysburg’ which bears repeating.
Amy J. Kinsel concludes the book with an instructive account of how commemoration of the battle has changed, investing it ‘with a complex set of meanings that went far beyond its strictly military ramifications.’ Altogether, then, these two books offer a real feast of Civil War scholarship, but their value as works of reference would be enhanced by the addition of indexes.
Brian Holden Reid
King’s College London