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Book Review Pickett's Charge by George R. Stewart

Discussion in 'Book & Movie Review Tent' started by James N., Nov 14, 2017.

  1. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    If we grant - as many would be ready to do - that the Civil War furnishes the great dramatic episode of the history of the United States, and that Gettysburg provides the climax of the war, then the climax of the climax, the central moment of our history, must be Pickett's Charge.

    So wrote author George Stewart in the Foreword to his 1959 Pickett's Charge, a work that must be considered a classic of its kind, an in-depth study of only part of a pivotal battle that has become more common in recent years. In preparation for my visit to Gettysburg this September to Remember, I had been reading almost exclusively about the battle on its separate days and so decided to revisit this work I had read now so very many years ago. It is impossible now to consider this long-ago work without comparing it with the more recent analytical works by Harry Pfanz or David Martin I have reviewed here recently; Stewart was a novelist as well as a historian, and this shows especially in his devotion to telling a good story over a highly detailed analysis of military maneuvering. His characterizations of historic personages is also concise without too much extraneous information. Stewart manages to tell his story in fewer than 300 pages, with appendices on Confederate Losses, The Pickett "Letters", Fire-Power and Losses, Battle Orders in Confederate Brigades, Wright's Report, and The Battlefield; plus Notes, Bibliography, and Index, for a total of 354 pp.

    This is not to say that detail is lacking, but if any potential reader wants to know exactly where any particular unit was at any specific time and the exact route of march that had brought it to the battlefield, they should look instead to Martin or Pfanz. Stewart approaches the subject as an epochal event peopled with many interesting characters much as a novel might be. Of course, central to this are the figures of Lee and Longstreet and Stewart presents fairly the most likely reasoning behind their respective views while recognizing the subsequent partisanship that marred interpretation for almost a century before this book was written. If there's a problem with this approach, I thought he gave Lee's decision to attack a little too much possibility of success, pointing out the disparity in numbers between the attackers and the defenders at the point of contact. But this was written before the prevailing interpretation of another novelist, Michael Shaara in his The Killer Angels and its derivative movie version Gettysburg, became the agreed-upon yardstick by which most now measure these personalities and events.

    Stewart might've used more sources - and it's really unfortunate he was writing before more recent research revealed things like Edward Porter Alexander's "suppressed" version of his famous memoirs which much here is based upon - but his overall intent seems to have been to give a fair, balanced, and entertaining account rather than a dry, scholarly, and pedantic one. He devotes a good bit of description to the ground on which the action occurred, accompanied by several easily-understood diagrammatic maps scattered through the text, and I was especially glad to see often-neglected elements like the artillery "duel" and the action occurring on the flanks of Pickett's Charge featured prominently. For the Federals, the Vermont Brigade of George Stannard and Alex Hays' Second Corps division emerge as heroes who are too often diminished in general accounts of the battle.

    No doubt much more recent accounts of this pivotal event in Civil War history have supplanted Stewart, certainly in wealth of detail (sometimes overwhelmingly so) and likely additional information as well, but it should be remembered this was in its time a pioneering work. I recommend this with certain reservations: those looking for that overwhelming wealth of detail should certainly look elsewhere, and there are others who might be put off by the segmented or episodic style this is presented in. However, for those seeking a well-written, flowing account that doesn't overburden the reader, this would be a fine introduction to this ever-popular subject.

    James N.
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2017
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  3. Jimklag

    Jimklag Captain Forum Host Silver Patron Trivia Game Winner

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    When did Harry Pfanz publish Gettysburg - The Third Day? I have never seen it and it is not shown on Amazon. I'd love to get it.
     
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  4. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    Sorry - that's a brain f*rt - I must've been thinking of his Culp's Hill, (since it occurs at least partly on the Third Day) which I have yet to get and read myself! Thanks - I'll correct that in the text.
     
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2017 at 11:33 AM
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  5. Irishtom29

    Irishtom29 Sergeant

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    A very good book and entertaining too. Yes, I read history for entertainment.
     
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  6. Pat Young

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

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  7. Bee

    Bee 1st Lieutenant Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    Unfortunately, Harry Pfanz died before the The Third Day could be written. I have read part of the First Day, All of the Second Day, and Culp's Hill & Cemetery Hill. At times they were over my head, but for the experienced reader, they are fine works.

    Very important point!
     
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  8. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    My confusion was probably due to not knowing until very recently that he had written The First Day one, and remembering wrongly that that was The Third Day instead. When I finally read his The Second Day, it wasn't exactly as you say over my head, but I grew exasperated with how he kept referring back in the text to things he had already covered in previous chapters. Of course that was to "remind" the reader that these events were occurring simultaneously instead of sequentially like he was describing them, but it was annoying nonetheless.
     
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  9. sjw83071

    sjw83071 Corporal

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    @James N. do you know who did the cover art?
     
  10. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    Stewart's book is still probably the best read on the attack.

    Ryan
     
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  11. mofederal

    mofederal 2nd Lieutenant Member of the Month

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    I used to have a copy of this book. I remember reading it a long time ago. It was a pretty good book. Thanks for reminding me James, it is a great book.
     
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  12. Andy Cardinal

    Andy Cardinal Sergeant

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    It's been years since I've read this book, but I still consider it one of the best Civil War books I have ever read. It was one of the first books I ever read about Gettysburg.
     
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  13. chucksr

    chucksr Corporal

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    If it is detail you want concerning Pickett's charge then you can do no better than John Michael Priest's "Pickett's Charge". I am currently rereading the fine book and it is hard to put down. Illustrated with clear maps this work details the experience of the junior officers and enlisted men that made the charge and is fair to those divisions of A.P. Hill that also crossed that field during those horrible two hours.
    Priest is often overlooked as a Civil War historians but over the years, I find myself appreciating him more and more for creating, in words, the battle experience of the common soldier--perhaps better than any other Civil War author/historian. Might want to give him a try if you are interested in this battle.
     
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  14. jackt62

    jackt62 Sergeant Major

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    I did wonder why there was no "Third Day" at Gettysburg by Harry Pfanz. His other books on the battle are amazing in detail and readability.
     
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  15. James N.

    James N. Captain Forum Host Civil War Photo Contest
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    Unfortunately, no; that is my own personal copy I scanned and it's a very old Morningside publication as I recall.
     
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  16. sjw83071

    sjw83071 Corporal

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    Thanks. It's very unique looking. Almost like you can feel the pressure of those moments.
     
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