Book Review: History Buff’s Guide to Gettysburg, History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War

HistoryBuffThumbby Timothy Lane
These two books are by Thomas R. Flagel (the first is co-written by Ken Allers, Jr.). These reviews appeared in slightly different forms in issues 213 and 217 of my science fiction fanzine, FOSFAX.

The first covers various aspects of the battle of Gettysburg in the form of top-10 lists, such as the top 10 events prior to the battle, the top 10 results of the battle, and the top 10 books about the battle. (This would no doubt have changed by now given the abundance of books about Gettysburg. I had all but #3 of the top 6 HistoryBuffGettysburgBookbooks listed.) Battlefield visitors might appreciate the top 10 monuments, but would no doubt see them all on a full tour anyway.

Some of this is good analytical material. The authors evaluate the top 10 reasons for the outcome each day. For example, #9 on the first day is “The Union Turtle: Henry W. Slocum” (which shows that they like to use a humorous style on occasion).

They list the generals who did best and worst in the battle; not surprisingly, the first list only has a pair of Confederates, both brigade commanders (Barksdale #4 and Kershaw #8), with the top 3 being Hancock, Greene, and Meade in order. The second list is slightly more even, with 7 Confederates and 3 Yankees. The 3 worst are Stuart, Sickles, and Lee; the other two Union officers are Rowley and Barlow, two first-day disasters (note that Slocum isn’t listed despite his poor first-day performance).

Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the war, so naturally there’s a set of lists on the subject of casualties. These include the causes of death (including disease, #7 at 700), the corps suffering the heaviest total casualties, and the states suffering the worst as a percentage of those engaged. (Minnesota was the unsurprising #1 at 59.3%, followed closely by Tennessee at 56.1%; no other state exceeded 50%, but Florida, North Carolina, and New Hampshire all exceeded 40% ).

One interesting list among these is the top 10 bloodiest fields, though I wonder about the accuracy of the last few. Pickett’s charge was naturally #1, but the bloody nature of the fighting on the Union left on the second day is shown by the listings of the Wheatfield (#2), the area leading up to Emmitsburg Road south of Pickett’s charge (#3), the Peach Orchard and Trostle Farm (#5), and for that matter the Devil’s Den (#9) and Little Round Top (#10). Culp’s Hill came in #4, with the remaining areas from the first day’s bloodbath between the Union I and Confederate III Corps.

The book also lists the top 10 controversies and what-ifs (#3 is what would’ve happened if Stonewall Jackson had been there). Interestingly, the first is the question of just how significant the battle really was, particularly what was happening simultaneously at Vicksburg. Militarily, it really wasn’t all that crucial, and the campaign as a whole wasn’t a total failure for Lee; it merely ended a raid into Yankee territory that Lee never intended to occupy permanently (and he hauled a large train of plundered supplies back to Virginia with him). But they argue that it played a major role in demoralizing the Confederacy, which seems reasonable. Readers might also appreciate the top 10 myths about the battle (including the famous story about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball at #10).


HistoryBuffCivilWarBookThe second book was a new edition of a 2003 book, and very similar to the Gettysburg volume: a series of top 10 lists from causes of the war to ways to become involved in commemorating it. These are grouped into antebellum, politics (including similarities between Lincoln and Davis and differences between the two constitutions), military life (including such minutiae as food, personal gear, and medical supplies), the home front (including songs), retrospectives (a catch-all group that includes firsts, significant battles, best and worst commanders, bloodiest battles, deadliest prisons, military blunders, and heroines), and pursuing the war. I’ve only seen one of the top 10 films (Glory at #7), but have visited 7 of the best 10 battlefield sites.

For those who are curious, he lists Jackson as the top commander with Sherman second, followed by Lee, Grant, Longstreet, Stuart, Thomas, Sheridan, Cleburne, and Forrest. The worst (also in order) are Bragg, McClellan, Burnside, Polk, Van Dorn, Fremont, Banks, Hood, Butler, and Joe Johnston. These two lists help explain why the Confederates did so much better in the east than in the west, and also show that Flagel heavily mixes opinion and fact. • (1758 views)

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13 Responses to Book Review: History Buff’s Guide to Gettysburg, History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The top ten list style sounds like an interesting way to do a book. Thanks for the great reviews.

    So, Bragg was worse than McClellan. I guess these guys would know. But I didn’t think that worse than McClellan was possible. 😀

    • Kung Fu Zu says:

      Actually Lee, considered McClellan to be a good general. So did some other Southern generals.

      McClellan fought Lee to a stand still at Sharpsburg/2nd Antietam, which was the bloodiest day in US military history. What lost him his job, was he didn’t pursue Lee after the battle. I believe he had been fired by Lincoln for similar conduct in the Peninsular Campaign.

      But, it was in fact McClellan who took the Union army from a small group of men with out of date equipment and built it into a huge efficient organization. That is the organization which Grant inherited when he became Commander of the Union Army.(The first major general since George Washington.)

      While not wishing to belittle Grant some Southern generals believed had Grant been in command of the Union Army at the beginning of the war, his attacking tactics would have worked to the advantage of the Confederacy.

      As to the books in question, I would like to know how they calculate that Lee was one of the generals who did worst in battle.

      And “what if, Albert Sidney Johnston had not been killed at Shiloh?”

      • Timothy Lane says:

        McClellan was very able in many ways, and probably would have been a good staff officer dealing with planning, training, and/or logistics. He was also a very popular commander (his closest rival on the Union side may have been his one-time subordinate, Rosecrans). But he was a poor commander because of his emotional reluctance to act. Bragg was actually very similar, a good planner but with severe flaws (but at least McClellan got along well with most of his subordinates).
        Their criticism of Lee as a commander was specifically about the battle of Gettysburg, where he did indeed perform poorly. Note that in the other book, he was ranked #3 overall, and it would have been his performance in other battles that led to that ranking.
        I’d have to hunt up the book (no easy task when there are many stacks of books scattered about), but the possibility of Albert Sidney Johnston escaping the fluke wound that killed him at Shiloh is an interesting possibility. Even better, however, might be Beauregard taking sick leave after he got to Corinth (as he did a few months later). This would have caused Johnston to go with his initial inclination to appoint Bragg as his chief of staff, for which he was superbly suited. It might have been a combo to match Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

        • Kung Fu Zu says:

          I think you are right about McClellan as a staff officer. He did indeed run a railroad when not in the military.

          Perhaps McClellan was one of those commanders who cared too much for his soldiers. I have always thought so. I also get the sense that he loved having this immense toy that he didn’t want to get dirty or broken.

          Thanks for clarification on the Lee point. If I recall correctly, Lee had started having terrible back pains around the time of Gettysburg (maybe somewhat before) and these flared up during the campaign. It wouldn’t be the first time something as simple as the temporary indisposition of the commander effected a major battle. I also believe he felt Jackson’s death added further burden to his already enormous load. Jackson could improvise and act on his own when things broke down. Old Blue Light. By the way, Lee’s back problems turned out to be the early signs of the heart disease which eventually killed him.

          True enough about Beauregard. A real little peacock.

          One think which is interesting about Johnston’s death is that he sent doctors to treat wounded Union soldiers before treating him. Apparently, he didn’t think the wound serious.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I read what I thought was a pretty good biography of Lincoln by Ronald C. White, as well as the one by Doris Goodwin, “Team of Rivals.”

            But I think it was White’s book that had much information on the struggle between Lincoln and McClellan. My general impression is that McClellan was certainly a good organizer. As to whether or not he was a good general, I don’t think anyone knows because there was a major problem about McClellan in this regard: He did not want to fight.

            McClellan hated Lincoln and looked down on him. McClellan was an arrogant dandy with delusions of grandeur. But time after time he sabotaged Lincoln’s direct orders to him, always coming up with a lame-ass excuse for what he could’t follow Lincoln’s orders.

            It’s probably unknown if McClellan’s inaction was due to his hatred of Lincoln (and thus a hatred of “Lincoln’s war”) or his affection for the South. The way McClellan acted, you couldn’t have had a better Southern spy placed in the North.

            But had he not hated Lincoln, and perhaps had he actually wanted to fight the South, who knows? He might have been better than Grant (who often used men badly, but actually did fight the enemy).

            As for Lee, it’s obvious that the man had skills in terms of war. But who the fark’s brainchild was Pickett’s Charge? Did Lee think that bravado could overcome cannon and guns? And I don’t know about the importance of Gettysburg to the South. But it was hugely important to the North from a political standpoint. The country was getting sick of war. If the North couldn’t even defend its own territory, I can see the entire war effort quickly falling apart.

            But I do get sick and tired of hearing praise heaped on Lee or any other of the Southern generals (not that you guys have, I mean just in general). It was one of the worst causes that men ever went to battle over. There was no honor in it, if honor is a word that is to have any meaning.

            The honorable thing to do would have to quit insisting that their wretched institution of slavery be spread to the rest of the country. Instead, they should have come up with a plan to at the very least phase it out. They could have easily transition the slaves to some kind of sharecropper arrangement, letting them work to acquire property. I’m not saying that’s the only way or the best way, but wisdom did not prevail in the South. There was nothing honorable about their war, as much as even some Paulbots and libertarians try to couch the issue in “states’s rights.”

            • Kurt NY says:

              When you mention Pickett’s charge as an abortion (which it was), you should keep in mind the actions of Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chattanooga a few months later, where, after a limited clearing operation, his troops got out of hand and simply charged a superior Confederate position on the high ground and routed them when logic said they had no chance. Lee thought he had the Federals shaken and thought one hard push would do it.

              How much of military history would read completely differently had some unknown factor caused an action to transpire completely differently. In retrospect it all looks like a foregone conclusion to us, but to the men on the ground making the decision, everything was a lot hazier and iffy (the fog of war).

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I think your view of McClellan there is accurate; he loved his soldiers too much to want to seem them come to harm (which said well for him as a person, but not as a general). Lee’s health probably did give him some problems; I think it was Glenn Tucker who also mentioned diarrhea as a possibility. Johnston did have his doctor help treat the wounded, but it probably wasn’t because he considered his own wound minor; he may not have realized he had a significant wound at all (he was in fact hit several times, but most of the bullets didn’t penetrate the skin).

        • Kurt NY says:

          Interesting story about Braxton Bragg, who had a reputation for being difficult and borderline bizarre. Pre-war he served as post commander at some fort and, due to short staffing common at that time, also served as camp quartermaster. There is a record of him requisitioning supplies in writing from himself as quartermaster, which, as QM, he denied. So he didn’t just argue with everybody else, but he argued with himself as well.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I’m not sure if there actually is a record, but it was an anecdote reported by Grant in his memoirs, and very believable given Bragg’s personality. When Grady McWhiney started a 2-volume biography of Bragg, he gave it up after one volume because he couldn’t stand his subject and turned it over to one of his graduate students, Judith Hallock.

      • Kurt NY says:

        For McClellan to fight Lee to a standstill at Antietam is actually one of the worst acts of underperformance of the war. Outnumbering him by more than 2-1, he dithered, threw his units in one at a time allowing them each to be defeated in turn and never did get around to committing Fitzjohn Porter’s V Corp, even when AP Hill’s division turned the tide at day’s end. Which also ignores the fact that McClellan had Lee’s order of battle and location of all his units (which were out of supporting position from each other and could have been defeated in detail) from finding his lost orders wrapped around a cigar where some rebels had camped.

        Lee said McClellan was the most capable of the generals he faced, but I think that was a bit of sour grapes (and Burnside and Hooker were really no competition for anything). Little Mac was a superb organizer and troops loved him but, from the Peninsula to Antietam, he consistently underperformed, completely lacking self confidence or the killer instinct, and, by so doing, extended the life of the rebellion.

  2. Kurt NY says:

    Dan Sickles, commander of III Corps at Gettysburg is one of my favorite stories in history. Before the war, he was a congressman from NY and he found his wife having an affair with the son of Francis Scott Key, writer of the Star Spangled Banner, and killed him (or maybe it was his wife, I forget). At the trial, he was defended by the distinguished lawyer Edwin Stanton who got him off not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, the first such verdict in America.

    The Civil War came, Stanton became Secretary of War and Sickles got promoted to Major General. After bungling at Chancellorsville, leaving O O Howard’s XI Corps in the lurch against Stonewall Jackson, he botched his orders at Gettysburg, placing his corps in an untenable position, almost costing the Union the battle (second battle in a row almost losing it singlehandedly), and getting his leg shot off (either at the Peach Orchard or the Wheat Field), getting carried off the field calmly smoking a cigar. His amputated leg subsequently wound up in the Surgeon General’s Museum (or some such thing), and there’s a picture of Sickles visiting his leg there sometime after the war. Just can’t make this stuff up.

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