Book Review: Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage by Noah Andre Trudeau

10083850My most recent read was Noah Andre Trudeau’s Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage. Many books have been written about the battle at Gettysburg, so you’re easily forgiven if you ask – why bother reading another one? The answer is that I previously read Trudeau’s book Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea and enjoyed it tremendously. Southern Storm was compelling and detailed, including the perspectives of not only the northern invaders and southern defenders but the population they were fighting among as well. Trudeau also took the time to explore the generals’ decisions and thought processes. If Gettysburg was written like Southern Storm was, I thought that it too would be a great read.

The book is divided into sections. Trudeau begins with a section on the prelude to the battle, examining Lee’s reasoning for the invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania as well as the Army of Northern Virginia’s move northward and the Army of the Potomac’s response to it. As the armies gather around Gettysburg and the battle begins, each day becomes a section of the book. Finally, as the Army of Northern Virginia begins to fall back southward a section covers their retreat and the fallout of the battle.

Trudeau’s account of Gettysburg is very detailed. He doesn’t stop at the Corps or Division level when examining the fighting; instead he gets right down to the regiment and company level. Using individual officers’ and soldiers’accounts of the battle, the story is at times told from their perspective. When writing about an entire war or a theater of a war, this much detail is problematic, but when narrowing the focus down to a single battle, it sheds light on not just how things happened, but why things happened the way they did. Furthermore, he doesn’t focus on just specific parts of the battle, he focuses on it as a whole. Day by day, hour by hour, his account demonstrates how successes and failures on one part of the field influenced what happened on other parts of the field. He also looks at how Lee and Meade managed their armies, why decisions and orders were made, and how those orders were interpreted. He considers how the personalities of the commanders and their interpersonal relationships effected the battle. Furthermore, he includes not only the accounts of the military participants, but accounts from newspaper reporters and citizens of Gettysburg. The citizen’s perspectives are particularly useful; you not only get an understanding about how they were effected by the battle, you get a non-military look at how the battle unfolded.

One of Trudeau’s missions in writing Gettysburg was to dispel some myths about the battle. Overall, one of the myths Trudeau examines is the one that lays a great deal of fault for the Confederate loss at Stuart’s absence; instead of blaming Stuart, he shows how Stuart was delayed and why he as late as well as showing that Lee did in fact have some cavalry available to him. On the first day, he looks at whether it was Heth’s decisions that brought about the battle, coming to the conclusion that it was not Heth’s but Ewell’s actions that brought about the battle. On the third day after, he holds that Lee had nothing to apologize for; instead that he considered what had happened on the previous days and made a “well-considered plan.” You may or may not agree with his conclusions, but Trudeau does make solid arguments for all but the last. He argues that “If all the parts had worked as they were designed to do, the grand attack might very well have succeeded” yet throughout the book there are criticisms of his command style, exposures of fissures in the command structure, and evidence that Lee overestimated the damage done to the Army of the Potomac that weakens his argument that Lee didn’t have anything to apologize for.

I only have one other complaint about the book, the final section on the Army of Northern Virginia’s withdrawal and the battle’s fallout. The first four sections of the book are incredibly detailed accounts of movement and fighting but the last section lacks that same detail. It would have made the book longer than its already considerable length but I still felt somewhat shortchanged at the end.

Despite that reservation, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Gettysburg, finding that it indeed was written similarly to Southern Storm. It’s easily the best book I’ve read about the battle and one that I’d easily recommend to anyone who wants to learn about the battle. It could be easy to get lost in the details of the command structure, but Trudeau’s writing style generally prevents it and there is an order of battle for both armies at the back of the book if you forget which brigade, division, or corps a unit belongs to. He also makes frequent use of maps which allow the reader to visualize the relationships of units on the field and their movements. As usual I read the Kindle version of the book and unusually, these maps were of excellent quality and placed with the relevant text. Rating this book took a lot of consideration; I really wanted to give it 5 stars but the lack of detail in that last section compared to the previous four just nagged on me. The result is a four star rating, but don’t let that deter you from reading this book; it truly is a must read on one of our nation’s most famous battles.

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