Friday, December 02, 2005

Review: "Retreat From Gettysburg"

[Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign by Kent Masterson Brown. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Pp. 474, $34.95, Hardback, photos, 21 maps, illustrations, notes, appendix. ISBN 0-8078-2921-8)]

Among the relentless flood of Gettysburg-related books published each year, relatively few are truly groundbreaking. Fortunately for experienced and novice readers alike, Retreat from Gettysburg is just such a work. Author Kent Masterson Brown’s study begins at the planning stages of the campaign and carefully reconstructs the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia’s logistical apparatus along the army’s invasion route through Maryland and Pennsylvania. For the first time, the story behind the truly massive scale of the “foraging” operations by Lee’s subsistence and quartermaster teams is thoroughly told, almost to the level of being itemized. After a brief summarization of the three-day battle, the bulk of the book comprises a definitive account of the organization and execution of the southern army’s escape back to Virginia. Beyond the purely material aspects of the retreat, the sad odyssey of the thousands of wounded officers and men is heartbreakingly told.

As the title suggests, the main focus is on Lee’s army, but the post-battle condition and movements of the Union army (especially the cavalry divisions) are far from ignored. Meade’s own significant logistical problems are illuminated, along with an accounting of the reasoning behind the movements of the Army of the Potomac in pursuit. Long gone (hopefully) are the days when writers will confidently continue to put forth the idea that only Meade’s caution and/or blundering kept the Confederate army from being destroyed.

The often severe fighting that occurred during the retreat at places like Monterey Pass, Smithsburg, Funkstown, Hagerstown, Williamsport, and Falling Waters is described at a level of combat detail that readers of tactical histories will find more than acceptable. The accompanying maps cover the important strategic and tactical movements and are both sufficient in number and of a high quality. Additionally, there are some wonderful never-before-published photographs of several personages and sites that figure prominently in the text.

Beyond being a great read, Retreat from Gettysburg is exceptionally well researched. The author’s twenty years of gathering source material is readily apparent after viewing the impressive array of archival sources listed in the bibliography. Such skillful use of these source materials provides the reader with probably the best account of a Civil War army’s retreat after a major battle in existence.

Although the assertion that the Battle of Gettysburg was not a decisive turning point is not new, Brown contends that it was largely the success of the retreat (and more particularly the saving of the army’s gigantic ordnance, subsistence, and quartermaster trains along with the tens of thousands of captured horses, beeves, and hogs) that allowed the rapid reestablishment of a military equilibrium in the East. Brown argues that the forage and food obtained from the North supplied Lee’s army throughout the rest of the summer and early fall and allowed it to stay in the field and, thus, on balance, the Confederates were able to claim a level of strategic success for the campaign. Whether you agree with this idea or not, this remarkable book deserves the highest of recommendations.

(Reprinted with Permission from North & South Magazine. Originally published in Vol. 8 #6, pg. 90, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blogger ID not required, but if you choose not to create one please sign your post with your name (no promotional information, please). Otherwise, your comment and/or link may be deleted.