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A turning point in the Civil War

Two of America's finest historians reconsider the battle of Gettysburg that saved the Union

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July will bring the 140th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. Across Pennsylvania fields baking under the hot summer sun, reenactors will be out in force - most from the South, eager to replay, or imaginatively reverse, the whole encounter.

Reenactments began in 1913, a time closer to the battle than to us. But Gettysburg is a place that history embalmed as a special shrine long ago. What new could there be to say about it?

In the hands of two master historians, Stephen Sears and James McPherson, plenty, it turns out - though their books serve quite different purposes. McPherson's "Hallowed Ground" focuses on the battlefield today. Sears, whose "Gettysburg" will be published later this month, focuses on the battle, providing the best single-volume study in 30 years of what happened at Gettysburg from July 1 to 3, 1863.

"Hallowed Ground" is part of a series by Crown in which famous writers guide readers across their favorite landscapes. McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Battle Cry of Freedom," fulfills the task with a crisp but informative tour of key spots at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Using appropriate monuments as "stops," McPherson provides apt, moving commentary about personalities, controversies, and oddities connected with the battle. Among the last, he says, a body was found as late as 1997 with the skull shattered, just one of close to 8,000 fatal wounds suffered during the battle.

Sears and McPherson agree on a major point of controversy: The Southern strategy of attack, not defense, was commander Robert E. Lee's decision; the failure of several days of attacks was Lee's fault. In their view, that does not decrease his stature as the greatest general in American history. But both authors also explain that his greatness was his undoing: Lee began to believe in his army's invincibility.

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