The battle of Gettysburg was probably not the most important of the American Civil War. Most historians would accord that honor to a fight that was going on at the same time more than 1,000 miles away in which Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant cut off and captured the Mississippi River port city of Vicksburg. Whichever engagement deserves the honor of being called most important, though, Gettysburg wins hands-down as a symbol. As the bloodiest battle of the war and the one followed most closely by the Eastern U.S. press (and thus the worldwide press), Gettysburg was the battle that Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and the men who fought there thought was most decisive, and perhaps their thinking so made it so.
I don’t know what motivated Noah Andre Trudeau to write a nearly 700-page book on the prelude, the battle and its aftermath. Offhand, I’d guess he had always been fascinated by the battle and simply just got tired of everyone saying “What could there possibly be left to say about Gettysburg when there’s already a library of books on the subject?” What Trudeau has produced in “Gettsyburg: A Testing of Courage” is a textbook reply to those who ask such questions. And the answer is: What’s new is the author’s perspective.
For the most part, Trudeau has pored through the same diaries, journals, letters and papers as Bruce Catton, James McPherson and Shelby Foote (whose “Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign,” a 290-page Modern Library excerpt from his book “The Civil War, A Narrative History,” is probably the most popular current account of the battle). What’s different for the most part is what Trudeau has chosen to emphasize, and in almost all key passages that is the point of view of the soldier doing the fighting.
For instance, as the men of Gen. George Meade’s Army of The Potomac race to converge on the town of Gettysburg, “Moving along parallel roads to the west of these two corps were the columns of the Twelfth and Third, which also had an excess of twenty miles to cover. The Twelfth was joined on its march by reinforcements sent out from Baltimore. The sight of the army in motion was unforgettable for these soldiers; most of them had never seen any force larger than their regiment.” This is followed with a detailed description by an awed infantryman of the enormous military train winding down the roads.
This is indeed a new perspective. Most historians would have taken the omniscient third-person voice to describe the incredible flow of 90,000 men through wooded hills. Trudeau gets the same effect, but tops it by showing us the scene through the eyes of soldiers who are themselves experiencing the power of their army for the first time. As the sight opens their eyes, it opens our own.
Trudeau is adept at arranging and rearranging the chess pieces of corps, divisions and regiments, but he follows each move on one side with an account of the corresponding move on the other, an arrangement which makes the battle much easier to follow than most previous narratives. Every maneuver is illustrated by a map that illuminates the strategy and highlights the tactics that, on paper at least, seem like a geometry of death. But, as Trudeau is always quick to point out, war only seems like science when studied from a distance.
When the focus moves up close, to the men fighting in the agonizing heat, dust and gun smoke of Devil’s Den or screaming their souls to heaven as they move across the blood-soaked field at Pickett’s Charge, war seems more like elaborately staged chaos. “Nowhere,” says Trudeau, “was it written in stone that the two sides would fight at Gettsyburg nor was the slow escalation inevitable once the combat began. The actions of this first day occurred because no one in a position to end the fighting ever saw the whole picture.”
Trudeau has an uncanny knack for keeping one eye on the commanders’ strategies while keeping the other on the variables, usually of human origin, that changed the course of battle. Many historians regard Joshua Chamberlain’s heroic counterattack down the slope of Little Round Top as the key moment in the battle, and there have been endless discussions and analyses of Chamberlain’s tactics and how he carried them out. Chamberlain’s actions, writes Trudeau, “have been filtered through the gauze of popular history into a single action executed in smooth unison. But what actually transpired was the result of a complicated combination of elements that left even its architect somewhat confused.”
The style of “Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage” is deliberately confrontational. Clearly one of Trudeau’s reasons for writing the book is to dispel numerous popular myths that have built up around the battle. Until someone comes up with better evidence, history must now absolve Lee’s cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, of letting Gen. Lee ride “blind” into the battle. Stuart’s path north was blocked by endless columns of Union troops, and in any event the lead Confederate infantry units did have a cavalry screen.
Combat at Gettysburg, insists Trudeau, was not initiated by Gen. Henry Heth but by Gen. Richard Ewell, who then found himself caught up in an escalating conflict that he could not control. As for Lee himself, Trudeau comes down squarely against the myths (best popularized by Michael Shaara’s best-selling novel, “The Killer Angels”) that have Lee apologizing to his soldiers after the mass slaughter and failure of Pickett’s Charge. Lee “had nothing to apologize for, as he had fully discharged his duties by crafting a well-considered plan and carefully weighing the odds. Nothing in life was certain, and unfortunate as the events of this day were, and however much it pained him to see his men suffer, he had no cause for self-recrimination.”
As to the larger question of why Gettysburg continues to hold a central place in our historical imagination, Trudeau answers by letting the men who fought the battle explain it in their own words. When a Union general confronted a captured Confederate major after the battle, he ventured the opinion that with a few more men, “‘You would have gained your independence right here.’ The captured officer thought for a moment, ‘Yes, General,’ he responded at last, ‘and right here we have lost it.’” Historians may not agree with the major’s assessment, but that he and his comrades and foes believed it there can be no doubt. And thus their actions will always be above our poor power to add or detract.