Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book Review--The History Buff's Guide to Gettysburg

Flagel, Thomas R. and Ken Allers, Jr. The History Buff's Guide to Gettysburg. Cumberland House, Nashville, TN, 2006. 352 pages 280 pages of text. Index, bibliography, notes, orders of battle, time line, b/w photos.

Top ten lists are a staple in our world and since opinions are like noses just about everybody has one. This book is a series of top ten lists (opinions) for various subjects dealing with most aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg. I went in with high hopes but didn't find my expectations met. The opinions don't bother me but the factual errors and occasional odd comments did.

The book is broken down into five major sections with each section having several sub-sections. The major sections are: 1) Coming to the Crossroads--deals with events leading up to the battle including why the South invaded Pennsylvania 2) The Battle--deals with each of the three days individually as well as top and worst performing commanders (for those who hold Robert E. Lee to the highest you might wish to skip this section. He's number 3.) 3) The Last Full Measure--death and destruction including corps and states with the highest casualty rates 4) Post Battle--reactions to the events that took place and more 5) Pursuing Gettysburg--best books, monuments, myths and more.

I was curious to compare Flagel and Allers top 10 books to the top ten list compiled last year by Brett at TOCWOC. Both list Edwin Coddington's massive The Gettysburg Campaign as number one. Flagel lists Stephen Sears Gettysburg at number two while it comes in at number 10 on the list from bloggers that Brett published. Overall 6 of the 10 books match up. Contact me if you would like the full list from Flagel and Allers.

While overall the book read pretty well there are some concerns that need to be addressed. The first is a major factual error (usually if there's one like this there are more). When discussing the casualty percentage of the Florida Brigade (page 149), Flagel and Allers refer to the commander being Col. David Perry. The commander was in fact Col. David Lang of the 8th Florida. Lang took over command of the brigade due to the absence of Brigadier General Edward Perry who was ill with typhoid fever.

A second concern is with the targeted audience. Maybe it's just me but when I look at a book of this type I generally feel that I don't have to have a lot of prior knowledge to understand it. Not so in this book. Gettysburg was a complex battle that had much going on in many different areas. To try and simplify it does not do justice to the battle nor does it help the reader. I don't have encyclopedic knowledge of Gettysburg but I have enough to get through this work. If you haven't read other works forget it. The names and locations will be a blur to you. That is what makes this comment from the authors in regards to Coddington's work so strange "To read that Jones's, Nicholl's, and Steuart's brigades were reinforced by Daniel's, O'Neal's, Walker's, and Smith's might make sense to those already familiar with the figures, but to the general public the Greek tragedy might simply read like Greek." (page 217) Pot please meet the kettle.

The illustrations are not of any real help in my view. The black and white photos are very small and miss the mark. In the section dealing with changes to the battlefield (page 259) they really missed a great opportunity by not visually presenting the changes. The sub-chapter dealing with monuments (page 237) has small and uninteresting photos. This would have been a great chance to heighten enthusiasm for those not familiar with the field. The maps are few and far between and those are of little overall value. If this book goes to a new edition I would hope the editors and publisher really take a look at this area and consider improvements.

Overall not a bad book. It can certainly be improved however. The writing is fine but if you don't have a grasp on the major players and fields of combat you might want to hold off and look elsewhere. For those looking to compare your thoughts on the battle and battlefield with others this might be your book.

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