Are we firmly in the golden age of Gettysburg publishing? The past 15 – 20 years have produced a wealth of essential Gettysburg reading for those of us interested in the climactic battle of the American Civil War. That’s not to discount the many important studies that were produced in the 135 years following the battle, but over the past twenty years we’ve seen a rise in digitization and accessibility of previously unknown or inaccessible collections that serve to enhance our understanding of the battle. Savas Beatie has taken the lead in Gettysburg-related publishing, each year pushing out a number of exhaustively researched, high quality books, often addressing overlooked aspects of the battle and the campaign.
Of particular interest over the past two decades we’ve seen more attention paid to the Gettysburg campaign rather than just the three days of battle. Authors like Kent Brown, Eric Wittenberg, J.D. Petruzzi, Jeffrey Hunt, Bradley Gottfried, Scott Mingus, Cooper Wingert and others have authored some outstanding books on various aspects of the campaign beyond July 1 – 3. Simply put – the battle of Gettysburg did not happen in a vacuum. Our understanding of the battle hinges on what had occurred in the days, weeks and months leading up to and following the battle.
Longtime Gettysburg historian Thomas J. Ryan authored one of my favorite Gettysburg books of recent memory – Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June – July 1863. In this multi-award winning book, Ryan examined the role of the intelligence communities in both armies during the Gettysburg campaign, relying heavily on the papers of the Bureau of Military Information and the Provost Marshal General. Only Edwin Fischel had previously looked in such depth at the vital role intelligence factored in decision-making during the Civil War.
Having enjoyed his earlier work so much I was thrilled to hear that Savas Beatie was publishing a companion volume in “Lee is Trapped and Must be Taken”: Eleven Fateful Days After Gettysburg, July 4 – 14, 1863. In this volume Ryan enlists Richard Shaus, a career military and intelligence officer, as an able coauthor. Ryan himself worked as a senior intelligence officer at the Department of Defense, so both authors bring a wealth of first-hand experience in analyzing intelligence.
In their latest volume – released in August 2019 – Ryan and Schaus look at the days immediately following the battle during which the Confederate army retreated and the Federal army pursued to the banks of the swollen Potomac River. Taking the same day-by-day approach as the previous volume, the authors examine how both Lee and Meade used their intelligence resources in conducting themselves away from the Gettysburg battlefield. Lee had the more difficult task of navigating his battered army back to safety in Virginia, while Meade faced increased scrutiny from Washington over his perceived flagging pursuit. While Meade did in fact mount an able pursuit, agonizing the Confederate army as it limped south through Maryland, a number of opportunities to inflict further damage were missed, which the authors assess in Chapter 13. As a West Virginian I appreciate the authors highlighting the Department of West Virginia and the troops Benjamin Kelley brought to bear in western Maryland. These regiments and companies – primarily tasked with guarding waystations on the B&O line – would have been cannon fodder to throw against Lee’s battle-hardened veterans, but were underutilized in maneuvering to disrupt Lee’s line of retreat.
Once again utilizing the papers of the Bureau of Military Intelligence, Ryan and Schaus mine some equally impressive and overlooked sources to pull the story together. What I found especially interesting was the interwoven story of the thousands of Federal prisoners of war who accompanied the Confederate army on its retreat south – a story I’d not been previously familiar with. These men suffered alongside their captors with short rations and some unforgiving weather before finding their way to southern prison camps.
Too often we accept that decisions are simply made – a brigade turned down a certain road; a regiment wheeled a certain direction; a defensive line was situated on one ridge instead of another – without considering how that decision, which could have life or death consequences for those involved, was reached. Ryan and Schaus help us to better appreciate the many factors that played into Lee and Meade’s critical decision-making in the days following the battle. This is a must-read for Gettysburg enthusiasts.