Historic America Reviews

Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears

In Gettysburg, Stephen W. Sears charts the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 to July 24, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North during the American Civil War. The campaign culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, in which approximately 48,000 Americans became casualties. In the end, nothing was gained except these men added to the casualties rolls.

No two armies could have been more similar and yet more different than the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia. For the first time, the two armies neared manpower parity. While Lee’s army was supremely confident, even contemptuous of its opponents, George G. Meade’s army had no illusions about the coming fight. Its men were eager to prove they could win a victory.

Where Lee’s command was rife with disagreement, miscommunication, apathy, and poor decision making, with some exceptions the leadership of the Army of the Potomac had its finest hour. Sears convincingly demonstrates that the Union army’s leadership simply out classed their counterparts, at least on this battlefield.

Much has been made over the years of Confederate cavalry commander Maj. General J.E.B. Stuart’s absence during the critical days leading up to the battle. Sears in some ways exonerates Stuart. Stuart was following Lee’s orders when he rode around the Union army, capturing supplies and disrupting communications.

“The very concept of Stuart’s expedition was fueled by overconfidence and misjudgment at the highest command level,” he argued. While frustrated with Stuart’s absence, Lee made no effort to rectify the situation until after the battle was underway.

The Army of Northern Virginia lost many of its finest men and officers at the Battle of Gettysburg. It would never recover. Faced with opposition from his generals for the first time, particularly Lt. General James Longstreet, Lee dug in his heels and stubbornly refused to budge. This inability to properly manage his subordinates was at the heart of the campaign’s failure. Where Lee failed at managing his subordinates, Meade succeeded. Sears concludes, Meade “thoroughly out generaled Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg.”

In some ways, Sears judges the Army of Northern Virginia too harshly. Despite some missteps, the first day was a stunning victory for the Confederates, and the second day was at worst a draw. The Union army occupied a strong defensive position on high ground. It is questionable whether any Confederate army could have dislodged it. Still, Pickett’s Charge on July 3 was an inexcusable disaster that everyone except George Pickett and Robert E. Lee seemed to know would fail.

Perhaps no Civil War battle has been written about more than Gettysburg, but Sears still manages to break new ground. There are no factual bombshells here–it is a familiar story, but the author’s analysis is as insightful as his writing style is clear, concise, and at times even poetic. This is truly a masterwork.

Stephen Ward Sears (born July 27, 1932), of Norwalk, Connecticut, is a graduate of Lakewood High School and Oberlin College. He began his writing career in the 1960s as a World War 2 historian but later found a niche writing about the Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War, and particularly its most famous commander, General George B. McClellan. His other books include Lincoln’s Lieutenants (2017) and George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (1988).

Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears was published by Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, Massachusetts) in 2004. The 640-page softcover edition retails for $17.99. The Kindle edition sells for $9.99.

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