Friday, October 31, 2008

Book Review: One Continuous Fight

I thought I’d posted this months ago. I discovered this morning that the post never went through. Rather delayed, here is a review of an excellent, groundbreaking new volume on the Gettysburg campaign. I apologize for the oversight. If you haven’t already taken a look at this book, do so today.

Don


One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863. By Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael F. Nugent.

One could fill a room with the books published on the Gettysburg campaign. Until recently, however, no single volume examined the tactical maneuvering following the battle itself as both armies maneuvered toward the Potomac. In most coverage of the campaign, scarcely a page covers the events between the end of the battle and the arrival of both armies at the Rappahannock River near Culpeper. This groundbreaking book finally provides just such an examination.

One Continuous Fight covers the nearly two dozen different engagements that took place during Lee’s retreat to the Potomac and Meade’s pursuit. While all three authors are recognized Civil War cavalry experts, this is a work for the sake of the cavalry. Cavalry units are simply the medium through which the majority of the story is told, as they were the principal players in the majority of the fighting. It was Confederate General Jeb Stuart’s task to protect the exposed columns of Lee’s army as it maneuvered toward the Potomac. The majority of the effort to intercept and disrupt these columns was assigned to Union general Alfred Pleasanton’s Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The army itself hurried in pursuit to complete the destruction of Lee’s army if brought to bay.

Many people think that Meade’s pursuit was simply a footrace for the Potomac by both sides, marked by little actual fighting. The authors do an excellent job of illustrating the continuous and desperate fighting that occurred throughout the pursuit. Noah Andre Trudeau wrote an extremely thought provoking essay on Meade vs. Lee that is an excellent set up for the authors’ narrative.

This book draws upon a truly massive array of sources, including letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and published primary and secondary sources. Many of the primary sources are previously unpublished. These new resources enable the authors to carefully describe each engagement within the framework of the overall pursuit. While the tactical discussions are very detailed, they enhance rather than bog down the story. The authors do a masterful job of weaving primary sources and text into a captivating tapestry that is at once easy to read and nearly impossible to put down.

To my mind, this framework makes the book all the more valuable as a reference. Each engagement, analyzed in detail from both a tactical and strategic standpoint, is contained within in its own chapter. After reading the entire book, the reader is left in essence with an encyclopedia of the retreat and pursuit.

The authors were remarkably evenhanded in their treatment of the pursuit. Both Union and Confederate viewpoints and sources are utilized throughout the book. Both sides are equally praised and critiqued, as appropriate to the situation. Such objectivity is unfortunately rare.

The conclusions chapter is yet another illustration of this, and a major strength of the book. It provides a balanced look at the various controversies surrounding the retreat. They attempt to break down the questions concerning each one and answer them in the context of the personalities and information available at the time. Each is answered in detail, with the same evenhanded consideration to opposing schools of thought that characterizes the rest of the book. In the end, my impression was that Lee was very fortunate to get away with his army intact, and that it was a much narrower escape than previous reading had led me to believe.

Unlike many works, this book is complimented by excellent work from start to finish. The book is well-constructed, with a wonderful jacket and great printing and binding. Savas-Beattie is to be commended for the quality of the work. Eighteen maps greatly enhance the reader’s ability to visualize the engagements, and dozens of photos show the participants. Two comprehensive driving tours are included as appendices, including GPS coordinates for those who enjoy following the footsteps of those who fought. These are particularly important in this book, as many of the places mentioned are unmarked by historical markers. While there are some editing errors in the first edition of the book, they don’t detract from the overall excellence of the work and have reportedly been corrected in the second edition.

Overall, this is an excellent book, both as an entertaining read from the amateur, and a detailed study for the more discriminating historian. The authors have greatly enhanced the body of knowledge on Meade’s pursuit of Lee following the battle. It will appeal to anyone interested in the Civil War, and deserves a place on the shelf of any civil War historian’s library.

4 comments:

TPS said...

Hi Don

Thanks for taking the time and trouble to write such a thoughtful, careful, and fair review. I know the guys appreciate it, and certainly wanted you to know that, as managing director of Savas Beatie, I do as well.

I hope you are well.

tps
Theodore P. Savas
www.savasbeatie.com

Stephen Keating said...

Ken Masterson Brown has put out a DVD about the retreat from Gettysburg. Though it follows his book, in discussing the logistics of the move, it also covers many of the battles that One Continous Fight describes. A very good companion for the book.

Don said...

Ted,

Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment.

Don said...

Stephen,

Thanks for the tip, it sounds like an interesting dvd. And just in time to make the Christmas list.