Reviewed by Martin Koenigsberg
A meeting engagement is when two opposing armies come in direct contact with each other and fight a battle. A fighting withdrawal is a battle where one side fights as it retreats, giving ground as slowly as it can, usually trying to buy time. Gettysburg, the American Civil War’s most Iconic battle is both, especially on its first day.
As Dr. Timothy Orr, a history Professor at ODU tells us in this 374th Book—The Battle Of Gettysburg 1863—in the Campaign series from Osprey Publishing, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia came north into Pennsylvania looking for both plunder and a decisive battle that might cow the Union Voters into ending the War. But his vaunted Cavalry, JEB Stuart’s boys who had been almost infallible as scouts and screeners, was off on a seemingly quixotic ride around the Union Army and not out front when his forward units blundered into Gettysburg.
Lee only wanted a battle on his own terms, and then Confederate General Heth began to attack the “Militia” he thought were trying to Block the Chambersburg Pike- a route the Confederates would need open as a passage south, should they need to get back to Virginia. But those “Militia’ were, in fact, the forward elements of the Army of the Potomac- looking to defend Union land…
The confederates were overconfident from a series of battles they had won over the Union and eager to take out their rage as they finally operated outside of their own soil. The Union’s Army of the Potomac was finally coming together even as Meade was replacing Hooker at its head—as symbolized by its Cavalry Divisions’ performance at Brandywine, a few days before. The Union soldiers were also angered by the invasion of Pennsylvania, fighting for their homes and families for the first time in the War. Adding those elements to the mediocre tactical training and acumen of most of the Officers on both sides—this would be a very bloody affair.
The Confederates keep attacking, losing more casualties than they can really afford because they think they are about to break through the militia on their front. The Union officers are feeding new units into battle as they arrive, trying to establish hold lines and MLRs on a succession of ridgelines until they find the strong Cemetery ridge position that would be the crux of the next two days’ battle.
Orr takes you through all of it well with great use of maps. Diagrams, sepia photos, and great color plates of key points of the action are the hallmark of this series. I think I will keep this with my Campaign Book of the Entire Battle (#52) for reference when I visit this battlefield because it adds a lot of nuance to understanding the battle and with it the climax of the war itself.
A few adult themes and a few passages with frank discussions of Minie ball injuries make this a book best read by Junior Readers over 12/13 years. For the Gamer/Modeler/Military Enthusiast, the designated market as it were, this book is on point. The Gamer gets a series of pretty cool little skirmishes with a few brigades a side that can be played as part of the full battle, or as separate engagements fine for a single afternoon at the club.
The Modeler gets a lot of anecdotes that can make good dioramas and builds. The Military Enthusiast gets a close description of an iconic battle, one whose narrative is woven into the war itself as this was the last battle north of the Confederate border. I’m glad I read this book as it got me interested in the ACW again, just in time for a Mississippi River/ NOLA travel adventure to get a better idea of my nation’s greatest internal test.