Gettysburg: A History for the People

This book by Licensed Battlefield Guide John D. Cox tells the story of the battle of Gettysburg. In many ways this is a standard retelling of the history of the battle. In some ways, though, it departs from standard histories. There seems to be no human interest story Cox left out of his book. One gets the impression he was looking for good stories instead of what can be verified, though he does seem to have sources for every story he uses. Sometimes, though, even if there is a source for a story one should verify it through checking other sources or critically evaluating the source of that story. There are some notable cases where Cox indeed critically evaluates sources and makes the determination they don’t measure up. As you can probably tell, I’m a bit ambivalent about the book. On the one hand I wanted more critical evaluation, but on the other hand there are cases of critical evaluation. On the one hand I wanted verification, on the other hand he has a source for what he’s writing. On the one hand, I don’t like the fact that he doesn’t footnote his work, but on the other hand he does provide the sources for his claims in the “Notes on Sources” section at the end of the book. On the one hand the book is generally very accurate, on the other hand there are some basic facts the author doesn’t get right.

For example, on page 33 he writes, “No other American general has ever won so great a battle, as Gettysburg and been so forgotten. There is, of course, a reason for this: Meade was forgettable.” That’s a smear against George G. Meade and not at all accurate. Meade was overshadowed in 1864 and 1865 by two factors: Ulysses S. Grant traveled with the Army of the Potomac, dominating the coverage of that army, and Meade was the victim of an agreement among newspaper correspondents to leave him out of any positive coverage of the army, due to the Cropsey affair where Meade had correspondent Edward Cropsey of the Philadelphia Inquirer humiliated and sent out of the army’s camp after parading him around on a mule with a sign around his neck reading, “Libeler of the Press” due to a story Cropsey wrote. Meade wasn’t forgettable. He was deliberately left out of the story. On page 35 he tells us since Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain, he was “not a natural born citizen” of the United States. That’s not true. Since he was the son of two US citizens living abroad temporarily, even though he was born in Spain, by law he was still a natural born citizen of the United States.

On page 39 Cox writes that after 2nd Bull Run, “The army was whipped so thoroughly that only George McClellan could bring it back to life. In command for a second time ‘Lil Mack’ raised the spirits of the men and brought organization from the chaos.” After the battle of Antietam, Cox writes on the same page, “The next day both sides stood glaring at each other, bleeding not wanting to continue the fight. Quietly in the evening Lee slipped away and McClellan decided to stay and rest, for a very long time. After a few weeks Lincoln came to visit with the wish that McClellan would get up and get after the rebels. This did not suit the general’s thinking, however, and he remained stationary. McClellan was fired a second time and this time for good.” That isn’t accurate. McClellan wasn’t fired up through the battle of Antietam. He had retained command of the Army of the Potomac, though several of his units were transferred to John Pope’s Army of Virginia. So McClellan wasn’t put “back in command.” The Army of Virginia, including the units of the Army of the Potomac that had been transferred to that army, were placed in the Army of the Potomac. So when McClellan was relieved in November of 1862, it wasn’t for the second time. It was the first time. On page 52 he says, “Ewell was in a quandary. Having pillaged the Pennsylvania countryside, he was poised to capture the state Capitol.” The Capitol is a building. Cox, I’m sure, meant to say “capital,” which would be the city of Harrisburg. He certainly wasn’t looking to capture a single building within that city.

The vast majority of the book, though, is very accurate. And there are cases where the research is impressive, such as the account of Major General John Reynolds’ death, where Cox appears to have consulted all the available primary sources describing it. There is no doubt he worked hard at researching this book. Additionally, it’s well written and an easy read. All in all, even though I’m ambivalent about whether or not I liked it, I can confidently recommend it to students of the war and students of Gettysburg for the large number of pieces of information that you just don’t find in most histories of the battle and for the deep research and general accuracy of the narrative.

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