Gettysburg: Day Three

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9780684859149: Gettysburg: Day Three

As darkness settled over the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1863, the second day of fighting in the fields outside the small farming village had just ended. Thousands of men lay dead or wounded on the battlefield, victims of bloody encounters on Little Round Top, in the Peach Orchard, and at other locations whose names have become part of our history. But the outcome of the biggest battle in American history was still uncertain. Shortly before midnight the Union commander, General George Meade, called a council of war at his headquarters. Meade had taken command of the Army of the Potomac only days before the great battle. He consulted his top generals to decide what to do on the next day. The consensus emerged quickly: Stay and fight. And so they did. "Gettysburg, Day Three" is the story of the decisive day of the decisive battle of the Civil War. Opening with Meade's council of war, it shifts to the seven-hour struggle for Culp's Hill, the most sustained combat of the entire engagement. The fighting at Culp's Hill began early on the third day and produced heroes on both sides, perhaps none less likely than sixty-two-year-old General George Greene of New York, the oldest general on the battlefield. The crucial action on Day Three was the massive Confederate assault on the center of the Union line, the action that we know as Pickett's Charge. Jeffry Wert tells the story of Pickett's Charge in full detail, from the planning and preparations to the ferocious cannonade, the valiant but futile charge itself, and the bloody repulse and aftermath. He analyzes the failure of Confederate command decisions, from the level of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreetdown to the brigade commanders, that rendered the attack less powerful than it might have been. He gives great credit to the artillery officers, particularly General Henry Hunt of the Union, who contributed significantly to the defeat of the infantry assault. Wert's vivid and dramatic retelling of Pickett's Charge will captivate anyone who has enjoyed "Killer Angels" or any of the classic narratives of the Civil War. Although the repulse of Pickett's Charge determined the outcome of the battle, the fighting at Gettysburg didn't end there. On the afternoon of the third day, the most prolonged cavalry action of the battle took place. Confederate cavalry under the command of the colorfully flamboyant Jeb Stuart fought an excellent Union cavalry in a battle that ended in a draw. Among the most daring of the Union cavalry commanders was a twenty-three-year-old brigadier general, the youngest general in the army, named George Custer. For the Union troops, the victory at Gettysburg was enormous. The Army of the Potomac had consistently lost to Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, most recently in a bloody defeat at Chancellorsville less than two months earlier. A Confederate victory on northern soil would have jeopardized Baltimore and perhaps even Washington itself. Instead Union troops fought with determination and skill, and proved to themselves that they could fight as well as the Rebels. After failing with a series of commanders, Lincoln finally succeeded with his new commander, George Meade, who, Wert argues, deserves more credit for the Union victory than he has generally been given. "Gettysburg, Day Three" draws on hundreds of sources, including more than 400 manuscriptcollections, to provide the most comprehensive account ever of the crucial day of the Civil War's greatest battle. Brief excerpts from letters and diaries of soldiers on both sides bring to life the voices of the men who fought this terrible battle. As a result, despite the many books already written about the battle of Gettysburg, "Gettysburg, Day Three" is fresh and lively, a brilliant rendering of an immortal bloody day.

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Review:

On July 1 and 2, 1863, armies commanded by George Meade and Robert E. Lee clashed in the hilly farm country surrounding Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Badly bloodied, the outcome of the battle still uncertain, they fought on into a third day, one whose close would decide the Civil War.

Jeffry Wert, a Pennsylvania high school teacher and well-published scholar of Civil War history, offers a sweeping account of that third day of battle, one that relies heavily on letters, diaries, and other primary sources. From those combatants, we learn of the "carnival of hell" that was Pickett's Charge, when "the incessant rattle of musketry sounded like the grinding of some huge mill." We read of the heroic Union defense of Culp's Hill against equally heroic Confederate attackers, of a stirring charge of Virginia cavalry that elicited "a murmur of admiration" from opposing Michigan horsemen led by George Armstrong Custer, and of the exhaustion and terror of ordinary soldiers, one of whom mused, "What men are these we slaughter like cattle and still they come at us?"

Like the battle itself on that final day at Gettysburg, Wert's narrative unfolds with breakneck speed, and sometimes with so much detail as to yield momentary confusion as it proceeds from one butchery to the next. Still, his account is painstakingly researched and very well written, and it deserves a place on the shelf alongside the work of Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, and other popular historians of the Civil War. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Jeffrey D. Wert is the author of eight previous books on Civil War topics, most recently Cavalryman of the Lost Cause and The Sword of Lincoln. His articles and essays on the Civil War have appeared in many publications, including Civil War Times Illustrated, American History Illustrated, and Blue and Gray. A former history teacher at Penns Valley High School, he lives in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania, slightly more than one hour from the battlefield at Gettysburg.

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