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Book Review Gettysburg - The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz

Discussion in 'Book & Movie Review Tent' started by James N., Sep 13, 2017.

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  1. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    Gettysburg - The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz is another of those recognized Civil War classics that set a standard for how battle accounts should be written. The author served for a decade as the Park Historian at the battlefield, followed by the position of Chief Historian for the National Park Service, so brought to the authorship of this 1981 work an intimate knowledge and understanding of the terrain, essential for anyone attempting to untangle the often overlapping, confused, and confusing participant accounts of the fighting here. Despite the title, Pfanz early on acknowledges the book will concentrate solely on the Confederate assault on the Union left and pay scant attention to the subsequent battles for Culp's and Cemetery Hills which he dealt with in a subsequent volume of what eventually became a Gettysburg trilogy.

    Over a hundred pages of this massive work (600 pp. total) are devoted to getting the forces into place to attack or receive the assault; only around p. 150 of the 439 pages of text does the fighting finally get underway. Along the way to the battle, the reader is treated to full discussions of the subsequent Lee-Longstreet and Meade-Sickles controversies and the maneuvering that brought the troops into contact. In the proceeding, Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet is absolved of any accusation of tardiness, his commander receiving a share of blame for his own slowness in formulating the plan of attack; and Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, while not exactly absolved of blame for disobeying orders, receives full consideration for the predicament he found himself in on the eve of battle, especially when John Buford's cavalry that had been covering his left flank was unexpectedly withdrawn. The roles of subordinates such as Gouvernor Warren, Henry Hunt, E. Porter Alexander, David Birney, Cadmus Wilcox, and many others are explored and described in detail.

    Union commander George Meade is given full credit for the eventual outcome of the day's activities, in contrast to the much weaker showing of Confederate leaders Lee, Longstreet, and especially A. P. Hill. Little is made of the confusion of the approach march of the divisions of John B. Hood and Lafayette McLaws; but a good deal of attention is given to the bizarre deployment of Wilcox's Brigade and the shifting of units of Sickles' Union Third Corps divisions and brigades. I gained a much better understanding of and appreciation for the difficulties and directions of the attacking Confederate units as they entered the battle, though again little was made of any supposed protestations on the part of Hood or his subordinates; instead, Lee's plan for the battle was seen as hopelessly flawed from the beginning due to faulty reconnaissance. I also gained a much fuller appreciation of the moves of Union reinforcing elements entering the contest, including those of the Second, Twelfth, and Sixth Corps at the end of the day along Cemetery Ridge that usually receive little or no coverage in most accounts.

    One problem with a work such as this is the sprawling nature of events as they unfolded, and Pfanz deals with this in a very rational fashion, proceeding from south to north as the successive Confederate brigades made their assaults. Individual chapters each deal with actions in Devil's Den; on the Round Tops; in the Wheatfield and its surrounding woods; the Peach Orchard and Emmitsburg Road line; before the Southern drive finally sputters out on Cemetery Ridge in the face of a successful Union counterattack. The only problem for the reader with this approach is that because the action occurring in each geographical location is described in full, there is necessarily a time overlap with other events occurring simultaneously elsewhere; that translates to many events having to be necessarily recalled or repeated in successive chapters. This means a continual returning to the many maps to locate units previously referred to in the shifting narrative. Pfanz does a superb job of following the succession of events; but as I neared the end I began to wonder if it would ever truly stop!

    This account relies on reports from the Official Records; period letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts; and postwar memoirs and reminiscences, many of which are contradictory, making it necessary for the author to decide, based on his experience, or provide the information for the reader to decide for himself. An interesting aspect of this is found in the differing narratives of the action on Little Round Top as presented in the accounts of Joshua Chamberlain defending it and William Oates attacking it. This was written before the popular version reflected in the novel The Killer Angels or the movie Gettysburg, so it's interesting to have a dispassionate look at events from both sides. The narrative ends with contrasting stories of the wounding and subsequent fates of key players William Barksdale and Dan Sickles, bringing an end to a fascinating in-depth look at what was likely the most important arena of the three-day struggle at Gettysburg.

    James N.
     
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2017

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  3. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Thanks for the review. I read the three volumes many years ago, and found them engrossing.
     
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  4. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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  5. Malingerer

    Malingerer Sergeant Major

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    I'm rereading my very worn out copy even as we speak - he was a tremendous writer and historian.
     
  6. Jimklag

    Jimklag Captain Forum Host Silver Patron Trivia Game Winner

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    I've read Pfanz's books on Gettysburg and found all three to be excellent reads. I actually found the book covering the fighting on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill the best of them, though the book reviewed here is very good too.
     
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2017
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  7. bdtex

    bdtex Brigadier General Moderator

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    Great review James. Kinda hard to do with lengthy books like that.
     
  8. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    James, you may want to add this thread to the Book Review thread of Mike's so that he can feature it.
     
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  9. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    I read this and my previously reviewed Gettysburg - July 1 https://civilwartalk.com/threads/gettysburg-july-1-by-david-g-martin.136673/ in anticipation of returning this month for our next September to Remember gathering. Both have made me more aware of some less-visited areas of the battlefield I hope to get to explore at least a little.

    I've owned this copy for probably thirty years at least but had always been put off by its considerable bulk; however, after just reading the equally massive and detailed Gettysburg - July 1 mentioned above, I decided I wanted to continue the Gettysburg story and this was the time to do so!

    I've just done so, along with an earlier review of another short book on McPherson's Ridge at Gettysburg.
     
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  10. dlavin

    dlavin First Sergeant

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    I am reading this now, and on page 120 - so doesnt look like i have much more to read through to get to battle.
     
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  11. E_just_E

    E_just_E Captain Forum Host

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    The one thing I really really like about Pfanz's writing is that he is trying to present and discuss events and present opposing and conflicting opinions instead of making judgments about and calling out people or giving them nicknames (like "the one legged general" or "Kilcavalry", which gets really tired really quickly. Sears for one is horrible with that) Pretty rare to find in writings dealing with Gettysburg.

    All his books are stellar on this respect. He relies a bit too much on Bachelder's fantasies for my liking, but that's another story...
     
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  12. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    The best single volume on July 2nd out there, hands down.

    Ryan
     
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  13. JPK Huson 1863

    JPK Huson 1863 Colonel Forum Host

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    Was directed to this book after telling someone how muck I liked Sear's- who said ' pfffft '- you must read Pfantz. I'd still recommend Sears, as a kind of ( sorry ) introduction? There's just no comparison, with any, other book. Have all 3 on audio.
     
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  14. Pat Young

    Pat Young Brev. Brig. Gen'l Forum Host Featured Book Reviewer

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    Good. I know CWT wants more featured book reviews. Also, when my reviews have been featured, they usually get an extra 200+ hits.
     
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  15. infomanpa

    infomanpa Sergeant

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    But didn't Pfantz sometimes make statements that provided some "synchronization?" I seem to remember him cross-referencing the timing of one action at another part of the battlefield while discussing another action. For example, he described what was going on in the Wheatfield when discussing Little Round Top. I found that helpful and wished he had done more of that.

    In the last year I have read both the Second Day and Culps Hill/Cemetery Hill and loved them. I am now going to read the First Day.
     
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  16. chucksr

    chucksr Corporal

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    I probably don't need to add to the positive reviews above, but I will. Pfanz has done superb work with this three volume set of books on Gettysburg. About every five years I find myself revisiting his work just for the pure pleasure of reading a rational discussion of this battle. No CW library is complete until it contains these fine histories.
     
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  17. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    He absolutely does, but that's also another case of the reader having to "re-visit" an already discussed action for yet another time. I don't know any better way to do it, but nearing the end I was about ready to pull out what little hair I have left!
     
  18. mofederal

    mofederal 2nd Lieutenant Member of the Month

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    I've read two of the three Gettysburg books by Pfantz. I know the book was long, but it didn't seem to notice it so much. it was easy to read and it was a very good read. I highly recommend it for any serious student of the battle. His explanations of the actions on second day of the battle are superb.
     
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