Note: This is for an optional part of the Challenge. I may not do this for every book, but I felt like for this one, I want to write out a more historical and analytical review for it. If you are not interested in a more in depth look at the writer's historical work, feel free to ignore.
**Analysis Questions for Stephen Sears’ Gettysburg**
Who is this story about?
Sear’s Gettysburg relates the events of the three day battle as well as the events leading up to and caused by its conclusion on multiple levels. Of course he deals with the two forces that clashed on the Pennsylvania fields. The North/Federals/USA forces have been fighting a largely losing war for two and half years, though events in the West at Vicksburg, overseen by General Grant, are going rather well. Closer to the capitol, however, none of their generals have been able to gain a decisive win against General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. They are fighting to protect the union and bring the seceded states back and once again become the United States of America. The South/Secessionists/Confederacy have been fighting in order for recognition of a separate nation based on state’s rights and various other rationalizations. They have also been in the position of protecting their homelands, as most of the battles have taken place in the South, bringing great devastation and privation. Lee, though there were others, wanted to take the fight to the North. Not only because the South was hurting in its attempts at upkeep of the army, but he believed that if the ugliness of war came on the doorstep of the people of the North, they would push their government to sue for peace. With the rather vocal groups of Federalists pushing for just that action, he was probably not wrong. However, it was also hoped that striking the North would either draw off the siege of Vicksburg or the gains in the North would offset the loss of that last holdout on the Mississippi. Sears takes a rather unbiased look at the two sides, though he of course points out the strengths and weaknesses both militarily and supply-wise of the two nations.
However, he also tells the story from both the armies’ perspectives, as well as from the viewpoints of several commanders on the battlefield and civilians caught between the two armies. Both sides of the conflict get their individuals. The Southern side, obviously, is shown through men like Lee, Longstreet, Ewell, Alexander, etc. However, Sears also adds to the accounts of the battles with quotes from regular soldiers who fought the strategies laid out by these well known men. His treatment of the Federal side was the same. Here, Gettysburg was seen through the eyes of Meade, Hancock, Sickles, Chamberlain, etc. Likewise, he also gave the common soldier his say with quotes of what they experienced and witnessed. This both ‘top and bottom-down’ history worked well, as not only did the reader get the sense of the overarching strategies going on, but also got to see the terrible price paid for both the good and bad ones.
What challenge did this hero/ine (from above question) face?
For the South, the challenge was three fold: the North’s prosperity, their vastly superior numbers of manpower and industry, and the fact that almost all the devastation had taken place in the South not to mention the blockade. For the North: poor morale, steady turnover of commanders, near superstitious fear of Lee’s generalship, and less skilled commanders in many ranks.
At Gettysburg, Lee’s challenge was to win a decisive victory on Northern soil and put pressure on the Federal Capitol. Meade’s challenge was to stop him and at least force his army to return to the South if not attempt to utterly destroy them.
Who or what causes this challenge?
Sears did an excellent job of chronicling each of these numerous challenges and explaining how they were met as well as reasons why they did not/did succeed.
What does it mean to be human?
While the author does deal with individuals, the focus of the book is on the armies as a whole. Probably the one overarching element of what it means to be human that was touched on and epitomized the most by the various individuals was the fallibility of human kind. There were so many blunders, both large and small, that took place on that battlefield. Some were done by commanders that had a near perfect track record, such as Lee. Too, the Confederate army went into the battle with an almost cocky attitude, as if they were assured of victory. As Proverbs says, pride goeth before a fall.
However, there was also a theme of humankind rising above what they and other believed themselves capable of. Meade literally out generaled Lee, even though he was overly cautious by nature. Hancock all but seemed to fight the battle himself, though his rank was not as high as his duties would suppose. Several women of Gettysburg rose above their horror and aversion to the conditions of the wounded and strove to bring healing for both Northern and Southern soldiers. This battle brought out the best and worse in people, as most battles do in the end.
Why do things go wrong?
If you want to understand the overarching reasons why the split between the North and South happened, this is not the book you’re looking for. Sear’s goal here, rather, was to focus solely on this one pivotal battle and try to explain not only what took place but the consequences of what occurred for both sides.
He does however, delve into reasons people have given over the years for why Lee and the South lost this battle which was in many ways, the beginning of the end for the Civil War. Through evidence and quotes, he puts to rest the blame laid at Longstreet’s feet as well as a few others. Instead he focuses on Lee’s actions and the consequences that came out of them, as well as Ewell’s inability to lead and on the positive actions of the North. For the Federals, he tackles the idea that Meade’s conduct was less than ideal, going so far as to point out that his actions may well have saved his men from slaughter. He also points to Hancock who several times shored up near faltering lines. Anything that went wrong for the North was laid at the feet of a few commanders such as Sickles and others.
What is the end of the history?
Sears chronicles the end of Lee’s aggressive stance against the North. From Gettysburg on, he largely fought a defensive war; a war he could not hope to win in the end from sheer attrition. Likewise the day after the battle, Vicksburg surrendered and the South lost all control of the Mississippi. It was completely fenced in. For the North, Gettysburg showed the army and the nation that the Army of the Republic could win decisively against Lee and Meade stayed in his position; though Grant would eventually be placed in a position over all the Federal army.
His goal in this book seems to be to not only give a clear and concise narrative of the battle and the events surrounding it, but also to take on some of the blame that has, according to him and the facts he gives (and I tend to agree given this and other things I have read) been unjustly visited upon men who fought their hardest during this battle with the plans and field they were given.