The Gettysburg Campaign, by Edwin Coddington. 1997. 10/10

Excellent in every way. This is military history at its best. The author takes us on an epic sweep of the campaign, and, in lucid detail, recounts the culminating battle. He has a knack for shifting seamlessly between the tactical and the strategic aspects of this pivotal campaign of the Civil War. Also, in equally nuanced fashion, we get the impacts of leadership and morale, as well as the logistical, topographical, and political perspectives.

The book is long, but hardly seems excessive. The ample notes testify to Coddington’s thorough and scholarly research. And, something that often gets short-shrift in such a work, the maps are highly readable and numerous. He manages to switch in a very balanced fashion between the Union and Confederate sides. Both Lee and Meade, not to mention Davis and Lincoln, were well aware of what was at stake when Lee sidled up the Shenandoah and Cumberland valleys to take on the Federals on their own turf.

It’s fascinating to see how and why generals on both sides were second-guessed after the war, not only by the media, but especially by their peers, and even by themselves. This was one of the last wars in which commanders literally led from the front, often with tragic results. The common soldier had therefore a clearer picture of just what kind of person was in charge when he fought. At the same time, the limits of personal leadership, especially when isolated by the tenuous links of railways and telegraph lines from a distant headquarters, meant that officers (as well as their men) were often left in the dark fog of war.

The reader can certainly marvel at the skill with which Lee got tens of thousands of men, with very little loss, as far North as he did, pretty much baiting Hooker (then Meade) into battle. On the other hand, Lee seemed to run out of ideas as the climactic battle developed around Gettysburg. Meade, temperamentally Lee’s opposite, was more flexible, perhaps explaining his greater overall success in the campaign.

Strangely, just as Lee suddenly emerged suddenly in force in Pennsylvania, after the battle, he just about as quickly, and fairly successfully, made his way home with a very weakened, but still intact army. The Army of the Potomac was in a reactive mode throughout the campaign. As it happened, this became a winning strategy. But Meade’s (and Lincoln’s) essentially conservative approach to the invasion shows the difference, at this point in the war, between what the North and South had to achieve.

Meade could afford to just not lose a major battle, whereas Lee had to win convincingly on the battlefield to secure a political victory (i.e., affect the 1864 election in the North, influence foreign recognition) for the South. It’s fair to say, after Gettysburg, along with the near-simultaneous defeat at Vicksburg, the Confederacy was doomed.

The Gettysburg Campaign is not necessarily an easy read. If you’re not flipping between the various maps and your spot in the text with some regularity, you’re probably going to miss a quite a bit. The thing is, this is so well-written, that you want to check back to see what Hood or Buford was up to that day or that hour. You get the hardtack and horseshoe info, along with the plans and decision-making that set all the men, horses, and wagons down those dusty roads in June and July of 1863.

This and McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom are two of the best books on the American Civil War.

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