Sunday, July 02, 2006

Book Reviews: Gettysburg


Killer AngelsKiller Angels
Michael Sharaa
Ballantine Books

CourageCourage On Little Round Top
Thomas Eishen
Skyward Publishing
Web page
Buy autographed copy from Author
Photo Gallery
Classroom Lesson Plans

NOTE: 08/15/2007. Mr Eishen reorganized and expanded his home page and the picture links no longer link. Start with his web page above.

The Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War, along with the Battle of Vicksburg
in the west, was the one of decisive battles of that war and a watershed event of American History. These two novels look at Gettysburg from different perspectives and together tell the story, not just of an epic event in our history, but also of the soldiers “who so gallantly gave their lives.”

Michael Sharaa’s Killer Angles is Pulitzer prize winning novel, telling the story of the leaders, mostly southern, who brought the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania in the hope of ending the war, as well as two of union officers who played key roles in defeating the South and preserving the Union. We see the thinking and emotions that went in to the battle decisions. The story of an army which in many ways allowed the sense of honor and pride that was a defining characteristic get in the way of it’s goal of victory. We see the big picture of the battle from when the armies first meeting engagement and the efforts of both armies to get good positions, the efforts of Longstreet’s Corp. to turn the Unions left flank on the second day, and Lee’s last attempt to destroy the union army, in the gallant and futile attack remembered as Pickett’s charge.

Thomas Eishen’s Courage on Little Round Top is the story of two regiments, the 20th Maine and the 15th Alabama that fought in one of the battles most important engagements on the south slope of Little Round Top hill on the second day of the battle. This is story of several hundred men on each side, on a four-year hiking expedition and camping trip, interspaced with interludes of pure violence. At the end of the fight the commander of the 20th Maine came to capture a Confederate Lieutenant at sword point. These two solidiers are followed through the events leading up to the battle and the battle itself.

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain is a university professor appointed as a volunteer officer, appalled at the loss of life and at the same time enthralled at the excitement of battle and the scope for personal accomplishment he could never have in a classroom.

Lieutenant Robert Wicker was collage student who enlisted and was commissioned from the ranks. Apparently suffering from some sort of clinical depression, he is fighting his own personal demons. I gather he was a person who would never be happy in an army, he was superceded for promotion and command of his company by an outside officer, but none the less tries to serve to the best of his ability and care for his soldiers.

While most of the details our fictional the characters are the soldiers who served, and built around actual events and authentic background gives a realistic feel for what happened to the people involved.

Items of Interest.

The situation.

The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) had marched north into Pennsylvania. The Union Army of the Potomac (AP) went off in pursuit. They met at Gettysburg, with the Confederates coming form the north, and the Union from the South. General Robert E Lee the Confederate Commander, wanted to draw the union forces in to a decisive battle, where the defeat of the Union army would force the union to accept Confederate independence. The Union army had orders to first prevent an attack on Washington and then drive the Confederate forces out of union territory.


West Point taught the system of the French General Jommni, one of Napoleon's lieutenants who systematized Napoleon’s tactics. A major emphasis was the full scale attack where the attacker would overwhelm the defender in a grand assault as much by the “moral force” of the assault as by numbers and weapons. This had some validity in the Napoleonic wars, though both the British and Prussian experience suggested that the defense could defeat a grand assault. In the early 1850’s the invention of the mini-ball allowed rifled muskets to fire as fast as the old smooth bore muskets and extended the effective range of the common soldiers weapon from about 30 yards to 200 yards. This allowed for firing five or six shots at the attackers instead of one or two, with a more accurate weapon. It would take the whole war before most everyone was convinced the grand assault was a thing of the past and new tactics were developed and people trained to use them. The worst part was not that the grand attacks failed but that they came so close to succeeding it was tempting to think that just a little more would win. While we are used the modern battlefield technology changing at a rapid pace, the rifled musket was the first major change in infantry weapons in 150 years and it is not really surprising that it took a long time to realize the full meaning of this change and modify tactics, and tactical organization and training to accommodate this change. (This section is from general knowledge not the books but it makes what happened clearer.)

The Cavalry.

The main role of the cavalry was to find the enemy and report their location and keep the enemy cavalry from doing the same. The days of the heavy cavalry charge had been ended by the invention of the rifled musket a few years before. Other than that, cavalry served as mounted infantry and a raiding force. Sharaa shows how the cavalry was used and misused. General John Buford, the commander of the Union cavalry has his division following the Lee and sending reports on a regular basis. When part of the Confederate army turns toward Gettysburg he reports it, finds the best position to delay the confederates and dismounts his division to fight as infantry and delay Lee long enough for the AP to react. In contrast General J. E. B. Stuart, the commander of the confederate Cavalry, sets off on a big raiding expedition, is on the wrong side of the Union army to send reports back to Lee, who is walking blind into the Union Army except for a spy hired by General Longstreet.

Longstreets Recommendation.

General James Longstreet, the ANV’s most experienced corp commander, had become convinced that the rifled musket had made the Napoleonic grand assault a thing of the past, that tactical superiority lay with the defense. He was recommending to Lee before the campaign that the ANV move north assume a defensive position where the Union would be compelled to make a grand assault on a prepared Confederate position. The evening of July 1st he tries to convince Lee to move to their right (south) and attack around the union flank rather than make a grand assault. If possible block the union supply line and force them to retreat. He repeats the recommendation on the evening of the second. Lee does not accept the recommendation, he is not convinced that Longstreet is correct, and the prize of destroying the AOP and ending the war in a massive assault is before him. Accepting Longstreets recommendation would mean withdrawing from the current battle field without victory, which he and his army would see as an affront to the honor of the their fallen comrades, the ANV, as well as their personal honor. Longstreet is frustrated at his inability to convince people on what seems so clear to him, and the fact that as the most experienced and able Corp commander it his duty to conduct attacks he does not believe in. Much of the tension of Sharaa’s novel comes from this conflict.

Little Round Top

Lee decided that on the second of July Longstreets Corp would attack on the south end of the Union line, destroy the Union forces there and then sweep north. Despite his doubts he almost pulled it off. Major General Sickles, a political appointee who commanded the Union III Corp in front of Longstreet, decided he did not like his position because there was some high ground in front of him. He moved his Corp forward against orders to occupy this position. The first problem was that it required him to double the length of his line and he did not have the troops to defend the longer line. The other problem was he left unguarded Little Round Top the high ground that really dominated that whole section of the Union defenses. Longstreets attack was achieving some success when the Union V Corp was sent to get Sickles out of trouble. As it happened the 15th Alabama was the end regiment of the Confederate line and the 20th Maine of V Corp became the end regiment of the Union line. For a short time that day the fate of both armies depended on the contest between these two regiments. This was a soldier’s battle that was over before the high command even knew it was fought. The battle was fought on a rather steep hill, too wooded for the tactics, by regiments were worn out from a day long approach march in a hotter than usual July sun. In the end it was decided by a bayonet assault when the 20th Maine ran out of ammunition. (This is the cover picture on Eishen’s book) This is the culmination of Eishen’s book and a key event in Sharaa’s

Panoramic View of the second days battle field looking east at the Union position. The partially deforested hill in the Center right is Little Round Top. The Confederates attempted to sweep to the right. The 20th Main and 15th Alabama fought on the back side of Little Round Top.
Map Little Round top
Source Wikpedia

Picketts Charge.

Lee decided to launch a Grand Assault against the center of the AOP on July 3d. Lee believed this assault could break the Union center and destroy the AOP and force the North to recognize the confederacy. He was probably right that if they made a major breakthrough the AOP would be destroyed, the question was could it succeed? The attack again went to Longstreet to conduct, but two of the three divisions belonged to another Corp. These divisions were the least tired and had not yet been in the fighting, and it would have taken too long to swap them for Longstreet’s other divisions who continued to hold the south end of the line and rest and recoup from the fighting on the second. The main division in the attack was one of Longstreet’s commanded by General Pickett. The attack was well planned and two hundred of Pickett’s men managed to make a small break in the union line but were quickly repulsed. (This is the picture on the cover of Sharaa’s book) This is a general’s battle where the preparation and planning will decide the battle. The soldiers on both sides only need to face the front and follow orders, “not to reason why but to do or die.” And much of the ANV died. After the battle the ANV had a major reorganization because of the losses, and never attempted an attack of this type again.

Panoramic View of the third days battlefield . This is the ground over which the AVN attacked. Union positions are the ridgeline in the background.

Map Pickets Charge
Source Wikpedia


One of the frustrating things about military history books and novels is the publisher is often to cheap to provide maps, let alone well thought maps that make the movements of the armies and people clear. Happily these books are exceptions. The maps are well designed to show the key information, but without a lot of superfluous information. The only poor map is one in “Courage at Little Round Top” where the publisher made a map postage stamp size when it should have been several inches square.

1 comment:

Tom Eishen said...

Hi Hank:

Thanks for the review and the links to my website.

Tom Eishen

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