- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

Stephen W. Sears has provided Civil War students and the general public with a new standard of excellence in scholarship about Gettysburg. In particular, by integrating crucial intelligence operations into a comprehensive study, Mr. Sears has made a contribution that is unique in the 140 years since the Gettysburg campaign took place in June and July 1863.

The question is inevitably asked, “Is another book about Gettysburg necessary?” The answer is “It depends.” Since letters and diaries are constantly turning up in musty attics or an occasional stash of documents is discovered, periodic reinvestigation of Civil War events is inevitable.

Also, when a book by a well-known author is published, it garners considerable attention. Mr. Sears has made his mark as Gen. George B. McClellan’s biographer, and with the acclaimed portrayal of the Battle of Antietam, “Landscape Turned Red,” among other works.

“Gettysburg” is written in economical prose; the coherence of the material aids the flow. Mr. Sears relies on the story to sustain interest and avoids intrusive embellishments. His scholarship, based on extensive primary research, refreshes this familiar story. It allows the reader to connect and follow along with anticipation.

Mr. Sears does not relate why he decided to write “Gettysburg,” but his motivation may have been a realization that the accepted standard on the subject, Edwin B. Coddington’s “The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command,” has been with us for some 35 years. It was time to provide a contemporary interpretation of the decisive events unfolding with biblical resonance over some 40 days.

There are other motivations, however. The ground upon which the three-day battle took place demands and deserves special attention. It is this national shrine where President Lincoln delivered the inspired Gettysburg Address, and some 2 million visitors make a pilgrimage each year.

In “Gettysburg,” the author focuses on the role of intelligence operations upon which victory or defeat hung in the balance. In the past, historians have often given intelligence short shrift as a vital factor in Union and Confederate command decisions. In Mr. Sears’ foreword to Edwin C. Fishel’s pioneering study, “The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War,” he wrote that in this “fully crafted ‘intelligence history’ … are answers to some of the most tantalizing ‘whys’ of the war.”

Mr. Sears did not fail to synthesize the results of Mr. Fishel’s analysis and apply them persuasively to his “Gettysburg” narrative.

Most studies about Gettysburg have correctly cited the limitations on Confederate maneuverability caused by the absence of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s principal information gatherer, cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart, for a good portion of the campaign. Mr. Sears, however, augments these works by addressing the vital intelligence role played throughout the campaign by a group of talented men who worked for Union Col. George H. Sharpe, head of the Army of the Potomac’s Bureau of Military Information (BMI).

“Gettysburg” describes how the BMI generated information for the Union commanders as critical decisions needed to be made. It did this as both armies marched northward from Virginia to Pennsylvania, and especially during the three-day battle itself.

Mr. Sears does not neglect other major aspects of the campaign: the command structure, organization, logistics and weaponry. There are vivid depictions of long marches and the obstacles involved, interaction of the armies with local residents, and the terrain of the battlefield and surrounding area.

The Union Army of the Potomac command was in turmoil following its crushing loss to Lee and his forces at Chancellorsville in May 1863. After a period of intrigue and indecision, Abraham Lincoln replaced the army’s wavering leader, Gen. Joseph Hooker, with the reliable but quick-tempered George G. Meade three days before the momentous battle at Gettysburg.

Mr. Sears narrates how Union cavalry officer John Buford deceived inexperienced Confederate division commander Henry Heth into believing he was confronted by infantry rather than cavalry during Heth’s early morning reconnaissance on July 1, the first day of the battle. This bought just enough time to allow Gen. John Reynolds’ corps to arrive and contest the Confederate infantrymen. This prevented the Southern army from marching into Gettysburg and gaining the high ground to the south, where the second and third days of the battle would be fought.

The author does not shy away from giving credit and assigning blame to individuals on both sides as events transpire.

Union gens. Reynolds and Winfield Scott Hancock receive plaudits for their exceptional leadership, bravery and sacrifice (Reynolds is killed and Hancock seriously wounded). Oliver O. Howard, Daniel E. Sickles and Henry W. Slocum earn criticism for inattention, disruptive unilateral action and lack of perceptiveness, respectively.

In contrast to the unsettled Union command at the outset of the invasion, Lee was on good terms with his subordinates and the authorities in Richmond. As the campaign progressed, however, relations between Lee and his corps commanders, gens. Richard S. Ewell, A.P. Hill and James Longstreet, became strained. Their inability to implement Lee’s plan of action by conducting coordinated attacks led to lost opportunities, and translated into advantages for the enemy.

Lee’s unusually high level of anxiety since the start of the campaign may have been a contributor to the stressful relations with his subordinates. As Longstreet commented, “Lee was not at his ease.” Undoubtedly, Lee’s heart condition that had incapacitated him in early April was a factor.

Mr. Sears exonerates the much-maligned Longstreet from culpability for the Confederate defeat, while laying principal blame at the doorstep of Lee and his other commanders: Ewell, A.P. Hill, and Stuart. Despite most observers’ unfavorable verdict regarding Stuart’s actions, an argument can be made that he was a victim of circumstances during his ride around the Union Army.

Lee’s orders and Longstreet’s recommendations laid the groundwork for Stuart’s detachment from the main Confederate force for a critical part of the campaign. While true that Stuart had taken the three most proficient cavalry brigades with him, Lee nevertheless made little effort to gather information by employing the cavalry units that were left behind.

The unavailability of cavalry for reconnaissance was particularly untimely on July 1, when Culp’s Hill was weakly defended, and on July 2, when Little Round Top had no defenders at all. These terrain features became the anchors of the Union position. If the Confederates had been able to occupy Little Round Top, site of a legendary battle on July 2, the situation for the Union Army would likely have become untenable.

Lee’s leadership style was in sharp contrast to his counterpart. Lee remained aloof from the fray once the battle was joined. Although this approach was successful earlier in the war, it proved inadequate given the inexperience of several newly appointed commanders at Gettysburg. Lee and his army also had the drawback of entering this conflict extremely overconfident, since they had been repeatedly victorious against this same opponent in the past.

Meade, on the other hand, was continually visible on the battlefield, redeploying units to meet emergencies. On the evening of July 2, Meade, uncertain about the condition of his army, summoned his commanders to his headquarters. Largely based on intelligence provided by the BMI, this council of war chose to stay and fight another day — a decision that culminated in the repulse of Pickett’s Charge the following afternoon. Meade’s spirited performance while his army was in a defensive posture would later fail him, however, when the situation was reversed and called for him to attack.

Mr. Sears captures the melancholy mood of the armies as the campaign draws to a close. Despite his hard-fought victory at Gettysburg, Meade was slow to pursue his advantage. Conversely, Lee was disappointed when the Union Army failed to follow aggressively during his retreat, thereby denying an opportunity for retaliation.

There is room for disagreement with the author’s uncritical approach to Lee’s negotiation with Richmond for reinforcements before the campaign. Reminiscent of a government bureaucrat at budget submission time, Lee maximized the size of the Union Army arrayed against him, yet minimized the number of troops available to contend with this threat.

Mr. Sears also does not address Union cavalry leader Alfred Pleasonton’s missed opportunity to isolate and attack Ewell’s corps, the vanguard of Lee’s invasion. For the early part of the march, from June 10 to 12, Ewell was without a cavalry screen, but Pleasonton’s scouts failed to detect Ewell’s movement. It is conceivable that aggressive action by the Union Army could have pre-empted Lee’s invasion.

Given that the BMI generated timely tactical intelligence for use by Union combat units while the battle was raging, a more detailed description of this activity would have been welcomed.

These comments do not detract from the overall quality of “Gettysburg.” Mr. Sears paid attention to the finer points. Detailed maps and ample illustrations depicting events and personalities are strategically placed throughout the text. Union and Confederate orders of battle are appended.

If you plan to buy just one book about Gettysburg, this is an excellent choice. If you count yourself among the many thousands for whom Gettysburg is compelling, then this study is a must. An analogy is that Mr. Sears’ “Gettysburg” is to the Gettysburg campaign what James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” is to the Civil War in general. Both are definitive studies.

Thomas J. Ryan is a former Department of Defense intelligence officer who lives in Bethany Beach, Del. He is a member of the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, and the author of a series of articles in Gettysburg Magazine titled “A Battle of Wits: Intelligence Operations During the Gettysburg Campaign.”

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