What I've been reading
I'm not a huge Civil War guy like my father and my brother-in-law are, but I'm also not adverse to it either. I especially like the Battle of Gettysburg because it's the only Civil War battlefield I've visited, so I can actually visualize the place, even though it's been twenty years since I've been there. I also find the battle interesting because of the horrible inevitability of the South's defeat, which before this battle wasn't etched in stone but afterward was assured. I've never read an account of the battle itself, however, so I was looking forward to this book. And Trudeau doesn't disappoint.
It's an exhaustive book, as Trudeau begins in May 1863, with the Union and Confederate armies watching each other across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. Trudeau uses a huge list of sources, from diaries and letters of the soldiers to dispatches by the generals, and it adds a wonderful sense of the reality on the ground during the campaign. Lee comes up with the idea of invading Pennsylvania, and Trudeau tracks his movements north, including the rather foolish diversion taken by J. E. B. Stuart well out of his way, which took him out of action for the first day of the battle. He also does a nice job going over Joe Hooker's removal as commander of the Army of the Potomac and the installation of George Meade, an action that angered many of Hooker's subordinates and caused Meade no small amount of trouble, not only during the battle, but for months afterward when he tried to explain why he did what he did. Politics was a huge part of the war, and although Trudeau doesn't go into that as much, it's still sprinkled throughout the book, especially when he writes about Abner Doubleday, who was removed from command by Meade, and Daniel Sickles, who disobeyed orders on 2 July and got lucky and who for years afterward claimed he won the battle by himself.
His account of the battle itself is done very well, as he manages to shift easily from front to front without overwhelming the reader. That's no small task, as the scope of the battle was so huge, but Trudeau manages it. He writes in short sections that focus on one small part of the action, then shifts to a different part. It's occasionally difficult to keep track of every person in the book, but it's a minor thing (and probably my problem more than anything) and Trudeau does a good job reminding us every once in a while who everyone is. He also brings in the civilians in the town, which does a good job of reminding us that this battle was fought in a settled area, not a wilderness, and affected a great many people. Only one civilian was killed in the fighting, which is somewhat surprising. Trudeau breaks the battle down by day and then by discrete sections of time during each day. He uses a copious amount of maps to depict the action, which helps a great deal. He moves easily from the North side to the South, from the individual regiments to the headquarters of Lee and Meade. It's a fast read, too, despite its length.
A few things come through that, although Trudeau largely avoids sweeping statements about the participants (he makes minor points about the ineptitude of one general or the bravery of another, but not generally about the larger figures in the battle). Lee, who is usually regarded as one of the greatest generals in history, doesn't come off particularly well. It's not that he's portrayed as a buffoon, but we see how the things that made him successful also helped hasten his downfall in this battle particularly. Many historians have made a great deal of the death of "Stonewall" Jackson earlier in the year 1863, because in him Lee lost a confidant who usually knew what his boss wanted without being ordered to do so. The men who replaced Jackson weren't as close to Lee, and Lee, we see throughout this book, didn't adjust to a more forceful rule of the Army of Northern Virginia, leaving actions up to subordinates who were far lesser leaders than Jackson had been. That seems to be a fault of Lee's, even though Trudeau never explicitly says so. The battle itself was a failure of Lee's subordinates to take his "suggestions" as direct orders. Henry Heth, whose soldiers began the action west of town, was not supposed to engage the enemy to the extent that he did because Lee didn't want an apocalyptic battle unless it was on his terms. By the time the rest of the Army moved in, Lee decided to commit to battle, another decision he could have reversed. And "Pickett's Charge," as it's known, was a disaster not because Lee planned it poorly, but because he seemed to lack the determination to force his subordinates to coordinate their movements well enough. Lee's reputation isn't exactly tarnished by the book, but it's certainly not enhanced. James Longstreet, who commanded the First Army Corps for Lee, comes across as an indecisive general but a much more reflective man than most, as he understood quickly the bad decisions his subordinates made on 2 July, when the Confederates had chances to sweep the Federals from the field, and the slaughter that was imminent once Pickett's Charge went off. Longstreet might not have been the best general in the Rebel army, but he does seem to be more thoughtful than even Lee.
George Meade is somewhat of an enigma throughout, as Trudeau spends even less time with him than he does with Lee. This is a story of the people who fought in the battle, after all, so the commanders are not as important once their plans are put into action. Meade was the first general to really check Lee, but Trudeau gives him no credit (which I guess is because he doesn't really deserve much). Meade certainly doesn't come across as a military genius (nor should he), but it seems to me that he should get some kudos for what he accomplished at Gettysburg. If nothing else, his officers actually staked out the high ground south of the town and held throughout the devastating attacks of 2 July, and although Meade might not get credit for fighting what is essentially a defensive battle, perhaps he should. Joe Hooker, the man he replaced, had a reputation for pugnacity, and perhaps he would have been drawn out from the hills and gotten his army slaughtered. Trudeau never really gets into whether Meade understood that fighting a defensive war against Lee was perhaps the smartest way to go.
This is a very interesting book, because it puts us right in the middle of the most important battle of the most important war in American history. Trudeau writes with the confidence of someone who has researched this topic to death, and it comes across on the pages. If you're at all interested in the Civil War of even American history, this is a great book to read. Trust me!