- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 29, 2002

By Noah Andre Trudeau
HarperCollins Publishers
$34.95, 736 pages

More ink may have been spilled writing about Gettysburg than blood was shed fighting it. The inkshed continues with this latest history of the Civil War's pivotal battle, which the publisher promises will be the "defining account for years to come." It likely will be by stint of length and depth alone. Yet a third of the way through, this reviewer thought the description of Robert E. Lee's artillery chief, Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton, also applied to the author: "well intentioned and moderately capable."
The basic narrative, told in chronological order in the present tense and buttressed with scores of detailed maps, ought to make West Point's curricular cut list. But it is so laden with excerpts from the letters, diaries, memoirs and reminiscences of the participants from soldiers and politicians to newspaper correspondents and the townsfolk of Gettysburg that the general reader might wish he could join Pickett's Charge to escape suffering through, say, another soldier's complaint about mundane miseries a thoughtful reader could imagine on his own. (For example: Woolen uniforms plus summer heat plus marching in the rain equal unhappy soldiers.)
Though not excusable, it is understandable that anyone writing about the Civil War in this post-Ken Burns era should feel obliged to overvalue first-person accounts.
Fortunately, "Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage" proves to be like the Pennsylvania moonshine that for many a Confederate was the chief reward for crossing the Mason-Dixon Line: It gives one the shivers at first, then achieves more pleasing effects that make one dismiss the shivers as a small price for pleasure.
By book's end, the reader should be satisfied with a huge increase in knowledge of the battle that not only claimed more lives than any other war fought on American soil, but sealed the South's fate. Several explanations account for the transition from irritation to appreciation.
First, thanks to memory's filter, one forgets the minor peeves that initially seemed important. Second, one learns to skip over the anecdotal boilerplate that too often dams the narrative flow. Third, the narrative speeds up after the 150-page introduction to the three-day-long battle. It is in the technically proficient, often bracing account of the battle that one realizes why Noah Andre Trudeau, an executive producer at National Public Radio, is a prize-winning Civil War historian whose book about Petersburg is considered the definitive account of that battle.
One final negative criticism: The subtitle, "A Testing of Courage," suggests a sort of sentimental hagiography a la Stephen Ambrose and fails to identify Gettysburg's real distinction. Courage was not the main quality being tested, as two years of fighting already had shown both sides capable of daring and sacrifice. The issue was whether the South could break free of its defensive posture and achieve a critical victory on its own terms.
As the long lead explains in detail, down to the drummer boy's brass buttons, Gettysburg was a battle stumbled into by both sides. This time, however, the Confederates were the aggressors. In exchanging a defense for an offense, Lee had planned to draw Federal forces out of Virginia and deal them a decisive defeat on their own turf, thereby undermining Abraham Lincoln's 1864 presidential re-election bid and strengthening the Confederacy's long-term viability as an independent nation. Thanks to an elaborate intelligence network aided by new technology, the telegraph, Washington determined Lee's general plan and sent troops to halt his advance.
After lead elements of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia engaged Federal cavalry at the southeastern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, the action quickly escalated beyond the possibility of a neat retreat to give battle elsewhere. Lee's generals did not unanimously favor fighting there. Corps commander James Longstreet adamantly advised Lee to back off and wedge the army between the Federals and Washington. Lee, however, decided to stay put, entrusting the outcome to Divine Providence and improvisation. According to Mr. Trudeau, Lee reckoned "it was time for instinct and experience to replace tattered plans."
Yet neither instinct nor experience proved successful against a Union force that, despite less august leadership its quarrelsome commander, Joseph Hooker, resigned amid political intrigue just before the battle was better equipped and had occupied Gettysburg's high ground from Day One. This served as a premonition of defeat for Confederates who likened the position to their own the previous December at Fredericksburg, where from Marye's Heights they had mowed down waves of hapless Yankees.
Yet a historian who claims that an outcome is predetermined ceases to be a historian. Mr. Trudeau does not dabble in determinism. Rather, his scholarship forges a credible basis for the claim that Lee could have won the battle, if not the war. The "what ifs" of such a victory are intriguing and still morbidly debated in Dixie.
(Another "what if," raised by a footnote, is whether later history would have been affected if wounded Pvt. George Nixon, former President Richard M. Nixon's great-grandfather, had been sent to a high-mortality prisoner-of-war camp instead of being rescued from capture by a comrade who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action.)
The book suggests several factors that botched the South's chance of victory. The broadest is the essentially man-centered nature of Civil War combat, which offers a renewed appreciation for how radically warfare has evolved into a technologically driven enterprise. Without radios or satellite imagery to coordinate battlefield movements, men "communicated by words, gesture, or sound, all of which became increasingly obscured when the action began."
Slain messengers whose directives perished with them; verbal orders muted by gunfire; hand gestures obscured by smoke because offensive strategy requires greater coordination, such mishaps especially handicapped the Confederates.
Compounding such problems were Lee's leadership style and the Confederate army's "dysfunctional operational culture." Without besmirching Lee's excellent character or usually keen judgment, Mr. Trudeau lays bare his deficiencies at Gettysburg. Lee's light-handed style worked incredibly well on the defensive. Given discretion to interpret their commander's orders to meet the enemy's advances, Lee's masterful generals prevailed time and again.
An offense requires a heavier hand, however. Rather than impose his will at Gettysburg through strict orders that could have given unity of purpose to his free-wheeling generals, he issued broad directives that lacked clear direction. Left to interpret those directives, his generals often acted at cross-purposes, shattering the cohesion necessary to successfully attack an entrenched enemy. This failure was most evident in Pickett's Charge, the disastrous frontal assault that ended the battle on July 3, 1863.
For those familiar with the battle primarily through Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" or the movie it inspired, "Gettysburg," Mr. Trudeau does a service by exploding two myths: that Pickett's Charge was doomed and that Lee blamed himself for its failure. Although as commander Lee took responsibility for the defeat, he maintained that the charge would have worked had his original plan, which called for a second assault to break the Federal line, been carried out. But the man he entrusted to direct the action as he saw fit, Longstreet, decided to call off the attack after the first wave.
Delegating command to Longstreet, who did not even want it because he was opposed to the plan, lends credence to the author's critique of Lee's leadership style: If a boss expects a job to be done a certain way, he should not give a subordinate discretion to act differently. Such lessons, as applicable in the boardroom as in battle, constitute one of this book's little pleasures.
Mr. Trudeau's book should be a boon to professional historians and Civil War buffs with insatiable appetites for minutiae. His work also presents to the general reader both the delights and drawbacks of any exhaustive history. In any case, the publisher's boast will likely prove true: Do not expect another Gettysburg history of such magnitude anytime soon.
Matthew A. Rarey is the letters editor at The Washington Times.

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