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- Feb 23, 2013
- East Texas
The First Battle for the High Ground
Steven H Newton
I recently reviewed here a highly-detailed and very long (500 pp+) account by David Martin entitled Gettysburg July 1 https://civilwartalk.com/threads/gettysburg-july-1-by-david-g-martin.136673/ ; for those who prefer a short, entertaining overview-type account covering a part of the action on the first day of the battle, Steven H. Newton's McPherson's Ridge might well fill the bill. One of a series called Battleground America Guides, this slim paper-bound book concentrates entirely on the action on this terrain feature and the maneuvers leading up to it, largely ignoring things occurring nearby. At a mere 120 pp. total this can only be described as an introduction to the battle; however, the narrative is concise and accurate, apart from the old canard of arming Buford's troopers with repeating carbines. Despite this, the positioning of the cavalry and especially its camps and outposts prior to the start of shooting is well-presented. This account strictly pits the Union I Corps and Buford's First Cavalry Division against the Confederate divisions of Heth and Rodes. The final chapter consists of a driving tour of McPherson's Ridge and surrounding ground that I intend to take with me on my next visit to the battlefield.
This is by necessity largely a battles-and-leaders approach concentrating on several key decisions made by the few men in charge; the author rightly notes the lack of an overall hand on either side guiding events as they unfolded which significantly hurt the Confederates especially. Newton goes so far as to characterize A. P. Hill as being absent because he was "suffering from symptoms of his gonorrhea and the psychological stress of being a corps commander", not a new interpretation but one that's still controversial. The main characters in this drama are Generals Henry Heth, Robert Rodes, and Alfred Iverson for the Confederates; and John Buford, John Reynolds, and Abner Doubleday for the Federals. The three successive Union commanders are credited with the most important decision made here on the first day to fight and hold ground at the farthest possible distance from the town and road hub. There are interesting and relatively lengthy studies of Buford, Doubleday, Heth, and Iverson, the latter of whom comes off better than usual - though not absolved by any means - in most accounts of the battle. All of them except Buford and including Reynolds are criticized for acting too hurriedly and rashly, often leading to serious complications and even disasters as in the case of Iverson. The author also points out correctly that all these men in command were new and largely untried in the positions they occupied on July 1, 1863.
In the introduction Newton's first statement is the military maxim The map is not the terrain and he proceeds to demonstrate the importance of that fact in determining the action that unfolded here. Several somewhat muddy photos sprinkled throughout the text attempt fairly successfully to picture the terrain as it appears at ground (infantry) level, especially in the case of the almost-unseen Railroad Cut which swallowed parts of several regiments. The three maps provided were copied from other sources and while adequate could have been more relevant to the specific text. If this short work has a serious flaw it lies in isolating the action on McPherson's Ridge and its approaches on Herr's Ridge and the ground between the two. Although perfectly understandable in light of the stated mission of the series which "highlights a small American battlefield - sometimes a small portion of a much larger battlefield" , it creates a somewhat distorted view of the whole: the critical action of the XI Corps on the right flank of the army is barely alluded to; the maneuvering of Buford's cavalry completely disappears after the Iron Brigade arrives; and the subsequent severe fighting by Dorsey Pender's Division against the new Union line on Seminary Ridge is omitted altogether. If this review seems harsh, allow me to assure prospective readers that I enjoyed this look at the opening phase of the great battle and would recommend it to anyone looking for a quick, well-thought-out account.
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