Book review

Retreat from Gettysburg

by Kent Masterson Brown

 

(ISBN No 0-8078-2921-8: The University of North Carolina Press)

 

Review by: Basil Larkins

 

As any student of the civil war knows Lee attacked the federal army for three days in July 1863 and being unsuccessful, retreated to Virginia. An enormous amount of attention has been given to the three day battle and much debate has occurred as to why Lee lost and Meade won.


To the casual enthusiast the retreat may seem as the inevitable but nevertheless straightforward sequel to the battle itself. It has been argued that Meade failed to follow up his success at Gettysburg and allowed Lee to escape in the heavy rains that started on July 4th. This book starts with an analysis of the reasons behind the invasion of the north by Lee and then summarizes the action of the three days before setting out at great length and with meticulous detail the facts of the retreat and the logistical problems that Lee and his army had to overcome before they came home to the Confederacy.

 

The author believes that what Lee intended to be a giant foraging expedition became a major battle by mistake but that despite the appalling losses, especially in the officer ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia, the campaign was successful in replenishing the food stores and supplies of the army sufficient to see the army through the winter. Curiously among the items not found and requisitioned in large quantities were shoes and of course as the reader will know it was a rumour about shoes that many believe brought on the battle in the first place.

 

The book takes us on a journey of escape and pursuit across the mountains through swollen streams and eventually to the banks of the Potomac and beyond. Not only was Lee maneuvering his damaged army but also ensuring the safe movement of vast quantities of horses, livestock, and supplies `purchased' in Pennsylvania. Something over 60,000 cattle, sheep and hogs joined the army back in Virginia. Over 20,000 local horses found new employment as rebels and over 6,000 wagons took thousands of tons of hay, grain, and flour back south. The army even brought out quantities of Iron bars, steel sheets and coal as well as thousands of smaller items.

 

None of this was achieved in the absence of the federal army which harried the retreat causing casualties and reclaiming some of the captured supplies. Eventually the rearguard of the Confederate army is brought to a standstill with its back to the river but despite constant attack the army escapes over a pontoon bridge. Some skirmishers are left behind when the bridge is cut adrift prematurely but some of their colleagues row back over the river to rescue them. The Army of Northern Virginia is home.

 

Brown's account is very readable and sets out a clear disposition of the issues as well as containing many helpful quotations and anecdotes from the participants. The chapter on the crossing of South Mountain struck this reviewer as especially powerful and gave a sense to the reader of what it must have been like to have been there. My only criticism is of the maps which are in muddled monochrome. Use of colour would have been preferable.

 

Together with the index the appendices run to 144 pages on top of the 390 pages of the book itself. Throughout the author demonstrates his deep and extensive knowledge of the events both in their execution and their strategic overlay. This is a truly excellent work as befits the founder of the magazine `The Civil war'. It will grace your bookshelf.