Book Review: Gettysburg

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In 1982, Dr. Richard Sauers compiled a bibliography of works written about the Battle of Gettysburg that listed over 2,800 titles. Since that date several hundred additional titles have been published on that pivotal battle. Rather unabashedly, Professor Richard Holmes, editor of Cassell’s Fields of Battle series, terms Bicheno’s Gettysburg (which happens to be a part of this series), “the best thing written on the subject to date.” With so many works written on Gettysburg, this certainly is a boastful claim.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, Hugh Bicheno’s Gettysburg is simultaneously the best of books and the worst of books. In approximately two hundred-plus pages the author succinctly and perceptively analyzes the commanders, strategies, and troop movements and clashes at Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863. His writing style is terse and insightful with provocative observations and conclusions. Bicheno, instead of offering a Lost Cause approach as to why the South lost the battle, uses a positive approach that explains why the North won. He concludes Meade has never truly received praise for his successful leadership during the Gettysburg Campaign. This was due to Lincoln placing the mantle of defeat on Meade for his perceived failure to pursue Lee and destroy his army. Much of the shadow cast on Meade is the result of the after the battle influence of the Hooker cabal that included politicos Dan Butterfield and Dan Sickles.

Bicheno, a Cuban-born intelligence officer, and ransom negotiator who now lives in England presents observant commentary with astute conclusions accompanied by detailed multi-colored maps. The Order of Battle and Casualties of Union and Confederate Armies in the Appendix, not only provides strengths and losses at Gettysburg but at the previous action at Chancellorsville. Also included is a Dramatis Personal to the brigade level.

Some of the author’s conclusions and observations are bound to create controversy. For example, Lincoln admirers will gasp at his characterization as a “necessarily devious and compromised politician.” Since III Corps commander Dan Sickles has undergone a revision lately, his apologists will be startled by Bicheno’s suggestion that Sickles “willfully disobeyed orders and deserved to be court-martialled.” Bicheno credits Abner Doubleday with successfully filling Reynold’s shoes while faulting Francis Barlow and IX Corps commander O. O. Howard for the failings of the Union right on July 1st.

Contrasting command styles, Bicheno felt Lee, lacking a well-developed staff, perhaps relied too much on discretionary orders rather than direct orders. Meade, on the other hand, new to army command, chose to rely upon a cadre of competent subordinates—Reynolds, Slocum, and Hancock. Critical of those who fault Meade for not destroying Lee’s army at Williamsport, Bicheno concluded that Meade and the Army of the Potomac performed well and won the Battle of Gettysburg by their superior performance there.

Unfortunately, innumerable factual errors and poor editing mar Gettysburg. Captain James Hall’s Battery was positioned on McPherson’s Ridge, not Daniel Hall, who was a member of Howard’s staff. Colonel Chapman Biddle, not Champman Biddle, was an I Corps brigade commander. While numerous detailed maps accompany the text, nonetheless there are inconsistencies in the keys. For example, the key on page 45 has O’Neal’s attack preceding Iverson’s; on page 57, “3 regiments of Coster and Wilkeson’s battery sacrificed themselves” when it was Heckman’s Ohio Battery engaged, not Wilkeson’s. Heckman was not wounded in the action, much less killed as stated on page 61.

The page 77 map keynotes, “Sickles advances nearly two miles without authority…” True, he was insubordinate, yet he only advanced forward approximately a mile. Page 136 stated that five of six brigades of the XII Corps shifted to the Union left when actually only three under Williams made the march. Whitworths on Oak Ridge did not signal the July 3rd Confederate bombardment; it was two pieces of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans. There are numerous additional errors. In addition, Gettysburg lacks footnoting; thus the origin of certain facts is unsubstantiated. Bicheno suggests the 40th New York was “a recent amalgamation of remnant regiments chewed up at Chancellorsville” and it was “made up of hardbitten mercenaries.” The 40th New York was formed in 1861 and received members of three regiments on May 30th when those regiments were mustered out of service upon their expiration of service. They certainly were not mercenaries, nor liberally supplied with alcohol prior to battle as reported later by the author.

A curious revelation, that neither appears anywhere else in Gettysburg literature nor is documented by the author, is that “an enigmatic squad of Swiss equipped with telescopic sights on their rifles and special tripods made a brief appearance at the crest of East [Cemetery] Hill…” Tripods appear never to have been used by Civil War sharpshooters, nor is there evidence of enigmatic Swiss marksmen.

The chapter describing the action of East Cemetery Hill precedes that on Culp’s Hill when in actual chronological order, the events occurred in reverse order. Interestingly, Bicheno interprets Lee’s July 2nd attack plan as a three-pronged, simultaneous attack —Longstreet on the Union left, Ewell against East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, while Anderson, under Longstreet’s command, was to hit the Union center. This certainly runs contrary to any other interpretation of Lee’s strategy for that day. Without documentation, it remains the author’s conjecture.

Gettysburg, written in a very readable style, is a perceptive account of that decisive battle. However, it falls short of being “the best thing written on the subject to date.” It is regrettable that faulty research and careless editing detract the text. The work has informative maps and thoughtful commentary, yet it must be read judiciously since there are so many errors. It is unfortunate that the text was not proofread more closely. Gettysburg is an insightful, challenging, and fresh approach to the study of the battle, yet simultaneously it is regrettable that faulty research and careless editing impair the text.

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