John Reeves is the author of A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.
Major General John Reynolds found Brigadier General John Buford about a half mile west of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, around 10:00 a.m. on July 1, 1863. After considering the strength of the Union position, Reynolds decided to fight the larger Confederate force right there.
Just as the most important battle in American history began, Reynolds was struck and killed by a Minie ball behind the right ear, while leading his men on the battlefield. His final words were, “Forward men, forward for God’s sake and drive those fellows out of those woods…” One veteran would later write of Reynolds, he “was one of the soldier Generals of the army, a man whose soul was in his country’s work, which he did with a soldier’s high honor and fidelity.”
The decision of Reynolds to fight outside of Gettysburg may have ultimately led to a Union victory in a battle that was crucial for the survival of the Republic in 1863. The heroic death of John Reynolds is just one of many unforgettable episodes from the Battle of Gettysburg. There are also numerous controversies surrounding the battle. Who was responsible for the failure of Pickett’s Charge? Why did Major General George Gordon Meade fail to pursue Robert E. Lee after the Union victory? Was Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet a hero or a villain?
An understanding of American history is incomplete without a solid grasp of what happened at Gettysburg. There have been thousands of books written on the subject. Here are five excellent ones to consider.
1. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command by Edwin Coddington
This is one of the best books I’ve read on the Civil War. Coddington examines the battle from the perspective of the various commanders on both sides. For example, he shows us what Major General George Meade was facing, when he took over the command of the Army of the Potomac just days before one of the greatest battles in American history. Two chapters later, Coddington explores the mystery of how Confederate Major General Henry Heth “stumbled” into bringing on the engagement at Gettysburg.
I found this book difficult to put down. The events themselves are gripping and Coddington is a reliable narrator, who demonstrates a mastery of the primary sources. The chapter “The Whole Union Line Ablaze” — about the pivotal day two of the battle — is especially thrilling. Here’s his assessment of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who may have singlehandedly saved the day for the Union, “Hancock loomed magnificently above the smoke of battle as he rode up and down, quickly improvising to form a new line and close the gap at the lower end of the ridge. He seemed to be everywhere at once, and nothing escaped his notice.” If I had to recommend one book on Gettysburg, this one would be it.
2. The Killer Angels: the Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara
This novel is a perfect example of a fictional account that is able to illustrate profound truths about an historical event. In the case of Gettysburg, Shaara shows us why Robert E. Lee lost the battle, which perhaps led to the doom of the Confederate States of America. He also depicts the heroism of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment at Little Round Top. Their stalwart defense of the Union left has become more widely known as a result of this novel and the subsequent film.
The novel is not perfect. It’s clear that it’s highly influenced by Confederate General James Longstreet’s rather controversial account of the second and third days of the battle. And Shaara doesn’t even mention Gouverneur Warren, who played a key role in defending Little Round Top. Inexplicably, the name of Major General John Sedgwick is misspelled throughout the best-selling novel. Despite its flaws, this is an engaging work of historical fiction. The movie is pretty good as well.
3. Gettysburg by Stephen Sears
This narrative account of the battle was written by one of our finest military historians of the Civil War. Sears is an extremely clear writer, who offers sound judgments with plentiful evidence to back them up. He’s also written one of the best accounts of the Battle of Chancellorsville, which was the Confederate victory that made the invasion of Pennsylvania possible. In addition, he has written the definitive biography of Major General George McClellan. Anyone who is interested in a serious study of the Battle of Gettysburg will want to read this work by Sears.
4. Gettysburg: A Meditation on War and Values by Kent Gramm
I love everything about this book. It’s a thoughtful combination of both military history and moral philosophy. Gramm provides insights on why the men fought and how they died. Here he is on why the North fought, “The American national character, though prone to plunges and black holes, has always tried to be decent. We have been simultaneously just and sinning, as Luther might put it, freeing the slaves while overrunning the West, and the like — but we have believed in the decent side, and this has been a source of American morale — not victories over puny powers, or cynical parades.”
Gramm’s description of the death of John Reynolds is beautiful. An aide found a gold ring with the words “Dear Kate” engraved on it around the neck of Reynolds. Apparently, he had been in love with a woman named Katherine Hewitt. Gramm wonders, “Where did she go? She does not seek our company; to us she is forever alone with her thoughts.”
5. Pickett’s Charge in History & Memory by Carol Reardon
In Carol Reardon’s important book, she includes a quote from a chronicler of Pickett’s Charge, “If we grant — as many would be ready to do — that the Civil War furnishes the great dramatic episode of the United States, and that Gettysburg provides the climax of the war, then the climax of the climax, the central moment of American history, must be Pickett’s Charge.” Few Americans would disagree that Pickett’s Charge was an epic moment in our shared history.
Of that moment, Reardon argues, “Myth and history intertwine freely on these fields, and some of their tendrils always defy untangling.” This book does an excellent job of trying to untangle the myths from the history. For many Southerners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the debate over Pickett’s Charge became an obsession. Because the myth of Robert E. Lee depended on the infallibility of his decision making on the battlefield, someone else had to be blamed for the failure of Pickett’s Charge. Many of Lee’s old lieutenants decided to blame James Longstreet. This fine work explores that debate and many others related to this monumental event. Reardon writes, “The endurance in the nation’s historical consciousness of Pickett’s Charge suggests that it inspired — and it still inspires — reflections and emotions that spring from a source far removed from respect for historical “truth.”