Gettysburg: The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz

In Gettysburg: The Second Day (1987), Harry W. Pfanz charts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg’s second day, July 2, 1863. July 2 was the Confederacy’s last, best hope for winning a decisive victory on Northern soil. Like the previous day, it started badly for the Union Army of the Potomac, yet ubiquitous action by generals George G. Meade and Winfield Scott Hancock staved off disaster and won what became the most famous Union victory of the American Civil War.

This book is far superior to Pfanz’s later works on Gettysburg, but it only focuses on the action on the Union left flank and not on Culp’s Hill or Cemetery Hill. That received its own book-length treatment. The omission was a relief to this reader, since its grueling 624-page length already pushed the limits of my attention span.

As a micro history, Gettysburg: The Second Day almost entirely focuses on the tactical, rather than strategic, aspects of the battle. It would be unfair to say the author never engages in higher level thinking about the events, but he devotes the lion’s share of text to describing what happened and not how or why.

The maps were helpful because in addition to giving readers a visual representation of the verbosely detailed text, they featured a chronological summary of events. That helped put everything into context.

Gettysburg: The Second Day is not a study in command, but it does highlight some key differences between the overall Union and Confederate commanders. General Lee was a passive observer of the day’s events, sending out only one report and receiving a single message.

In contrast, writes Pfanz, “General Meade… was actively and directly involved in the events of the late afternoon… Meade was in the saddle observing the course of the battle and issuing orders that would send troops to the dangerous gap and was seeing that they were obeyed.”

Longstreet’s flank attack was deceptively successful at first, but in the end its momentum was too little and Union reinforcements too numerous. In hindsight, had the Confederates attacked a few hours earlier, they may have won the day, but the author makes no such judgements. He chooses to focus on what happened, not what might have happened, with remarkable detail and precision.

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 First Day (2001) and Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill (1993).

Gettysburg: The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz was published by the University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, North Carolina) in 1987. The 624-page hardcover reprint edition retails for around $60.00 ($10.00 used) and the softcover for $30.00. The Kindle edition sells for $9.99.

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