Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review--Confrontation at Gettysburg

Hoptak, John David. Confrontation at Gettysburg: A Nation Saved, a Cause Lost (Civil War Sesquicentennial). Charleston: The History Press, 2012. Index, Selected Bibliography, Order of Battle, b/w photos, maps. ISBN 9781609494261, $16.99.

John Hoptak is quite a busy man. Just a quick rundown of his roles would include author, blogger, educator (that's his face you see in the ads featured in Civil War Times and other magazines), and Park Ranger at the Antietam National Battlefield.

The historiography on the battle of Gettysburg is filled with broad pieces covering the whole campaign such as those by Coddington, Sears, and Trudeau to those dealing with small aspects of the battle such as those written by Wittenberg and Cocco.  There seems to be an author for every regiment that was on the field. The choices for the student are almost overwhelming and for those who don't know anything about the battle the choices are at best problematic. Where to begin? I asked myself that several years ago when first learning about the battle. I chose what is a good book but it was quite overwhelming and I was pretty confused despite having learned a lot. John Hoptak has written a book that surely should be recommended as the starting point for anybody wanting to learn about the Gettysburg campaign.

Mr. Hoptak's introduction probably describes his own book better than I can. With the vast amount of literature available this is not an attempt to be a complete history of the battle let alone the entire campaign. Nor was the author attempting to search out new resources or make new interpretations of those available. To quote the author: "...from the start, my approach has been to be more storyteller than historian." After reading this work this reader feels the author accomplished both.

The book is broken in to five chapters: the lead up to the battle, each of the three days of battle, and the aftermath of the battle. The battle itself is the key of this book and as such takes up around two thirds of the text portion. Each day is given a thorough discussion and while not delving into minute detail the battle is covered in good order. Once finished the reader will have a strong basic understanding of events that happened on those fateful days in southern Pennsylvania.

While not having an agenda that does not stop Mr. Hoptak from voicing his views on some of the major events and players of the battle. The author feels that it was probably a wise move for Richard Ewell to not have tried to take Cemetery Hill at the close of the first days fighting. Similarly the "failure" of George Meade to attempt take the Army of Northern Virginia after the battle is seen as probably a wise move when all is taken in to account. Dan Sickles, while not escaping blame, is given his due for having done what the general thought was best. While Sickles gets off a bit easy Joshua Chamberlain and the troops of the 20th Maine are downplayed and their importance to the overall success of the Union army is left to the reader to ponder.

Mr. Hoptak has a nice style of writing and the book moved along at a good pace. The look of the book is nice as well with many illustrations. These are not all the same worn out Library of Congress photos but rather a broad assortment from many sources. They are well worth looking at. The Order of Battle is nice and is a great way for readers to keep track of the major players.

The book does have a couple of "oddities" for lack of a better word. For those looking for end or foot notes you will be disappointed. Each chapter does however end with an essay titled "Chapter Notes" that covers the major sources referenced. For a book such as this on a subject as massive as it is I think this is appropriate and will suffice for most readers. The other thing I noticed were the two styles of maps. Cartographers Hal Jespersen and Manny Gentile both provided maps in their own unique style. The maps are two completely different types however and this might bother some readers.

The Civil War community has really needed a book such as this: a book written by a knowledgeable authority but yet accessible to a new student. The length of the book is not intimidating and will give the reader the foundation to move on to other, more in depth, works. When your friends or family ask you for the thousandth time why you are so interested in Gettysburg (or the war in general) hand them a copy of this book. For me, this is a book that I will no doubt be re-reading. Highly recommended.

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