Historic America Reviews

Gettysburg: The First Day by Harry W. Pfanz

In Gettysburg: The First Day (2001), Harry W. Pfanz charts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg’s first day, July 1, 1863. July 1 went badly for the Union Army of the Potomac, yet quick thinking by generals like Winfield Scott Hancock staved off disaster and set the stage for what would become the most famous Union victory of the American Civil War.

While the author’s strategic overview falls flat, Pfanz shines in his detailed tactical descriptions of the engagements in McPherson Woods, at the Railroad Cuts, Oak Ridge, Seminary Ridge, Blocher’s Knoll, and the subsequent Union retreat through Gettysburg and rally on Cemetery Hill.

Gettysburg: The First Day is not a linear history. Though it is roughly arranged chronologically, the narrative jumps back and forth from events leading up to the battle to the battle itself. As Union and Confederate units appear on the field, Pfanz pauses to reflect on how each unit arrived, sometimes across the span of several days. In such a long narrative, this has a tendency to cause the reader to lose track of how events tie together.

Pfanz’s attempt to describe the armies’ approach to Gettysburg is particularly sloppy. The writing is so awful I briefly wondered if the book was self-published. The author lacks the strategic depth and understanding of Stephen W. Sears, and for a masterful retelling of the entire campaign, read Sears’ Gettysburg (2004). Pfanz focuses almost exclusively on what occurred, not why.

The author’s grasp of history shines through at the tactical level. When Pfanz describes the gritty events of July 1, 1863 in all their gruesome detail, he brings to life the men who fought that day, from the lowliest private to commanding generals. While most authors focus on the exploits of commissioned officers, Pfanz’s narrative includes enlisted men and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). NCOs form the backbone of the U.S. Army and many of the best officers, both North and South, began their careers as enlisted men.

The Union Eleventh Corps is often criticized for its role in the Union’s defeat that day, but Pfanz is more generous. He describes how many men in the Eleventh wanted to erase the stain from their poor performance at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and fought valiantly in the face of overwhelming odds. In particular, he highlights Col. Charles R. Coster’s stand at a brickyard north of Gettysburg, which bought time for retreating Union soldiers to escape.

Any history of Gettysburg will be weighted toward the Northern perspective because Confederates didn’t keep detailed accounts of the fighting, but we do know that victory came with a high price on the first day. Confederate leadership stumbled headlong into the enemy, often with disastrous results. Pfanz shows how, despite facing overwhelming odds, the Union leadership gave the Army of Northern Virginia a bloody taste of what lay ahead.

Harry W. Pfanz (1921-2015), of Gaithersburg, Maryland, was a graduate of Ohio State University. He served during World War 2 and was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. He was the historian at Gettysburg from 1956 to 1966 and chief historian of the National Park Service until 1981. His other books include Gettysburg: The Second Day (1987) and Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill (1993).

Gettysburg: The First Day by Harry W. Pfanz was published by the University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, North Carolina) in 2001. The 496-page hardcover edition retails for around $54.00 (softcover, $26.84). The Kindle edition sells for $9.99.

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