Hold at All Hazards: Bigelow’s Battery at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863 by David H. Jones

A novel of an artilleryman’s epic stand

Published by Casemate Publishers

American authors from Stephen Crane to Michael Shaara have examined the drama and danger of Civil War battlefields through fiction. Such writers set a high standard for combining history and literature. David H. Jones joins their ranks with Hold at All Hazards. The book follows Union Captain John Bigelow as he assumes command of an artillery battery demoralized by garrison duty in the Washington defenses and a poor previous commander in early 1863. Bigelow begins the task of making his new unit combat ready. He is an experienced combat officer and  takes on the task with professionalism and zeal, aware that the lives of his troops may depend on their preparation and training. Bigelow earns the respect and support of his subordinates, and the battery is ready when called upon to join the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia north into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863.

The most fascinating element of Jones’ writing is its focus on an artillery unit. Most combat troops in the American Civil War served in infantry regiments, and Civil War fiction tends to focus on battle from an infantryman’s perspective. Artillery, if mentioned at all, is an impersonal danger in form of shot and shell decimating friend and foe alike, with little attention paid to the men servicing the guns. Jones relates the tactical and technical elements of an artilleryman’s life in detail, from actions in camp and on the march, to maneuvering on the battlefield and firing in battle. The climactic battle at Gettysburg illustrates that artillerymen served in posts of great danger, especially if without infantry support, and could not easily escape if the tide of battle suddenly turned against them. Jones also explains how the Army of the Potomac’s artillery arm reorganized and adopted a more centralized form of command and control prior to the battle. Early in the Civil War, the artillery batteries supported specific infantry divisions and the role of the artillery reserve was to replace losses and reinforce batteries under pressure. Under General Henry Hunt, the artillery reserve assumed a tactical function that allowed artillery commanders to mass fires against specific targets, independent of infantry formations to bring overwhelming firepower to bear. Jones explains this tactical evolution very well as the story unfolds.

Hold at All Hazards might be easily dismissed as a trope, featuring a dynamic officer turning around a hard luck unit. In this instance though, art is imitating life as Bigelow was an actual Federal volunteer officer. Jones’ work is a fictionalized account of his true wartime experiences leading the 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery Battery. In a letter to the reader, Jones recounts that he based the book on a variety of primary and secondary sources detailing the battery’s history. In this way, Jones’ writing recalls Shaara’s The Killer Angels and its focus on Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry. Like Shaara, Jones includes both Union and Confederate points of view, but adds an additional category of voice  by including civilian characters whose lives are disrupted by the Battle of Gettysburg.  He effectively builds tension in his writing by interspersing narrative from each perspective as Bigelow’s battery and its Confederate antagonists draw nearer to the same point on the field, where a family anxiously awaits the outcome of the battle.

Jones allows many members of the battery to speak throughout the book. Whereas Shaara expressed the  Union point of view almost exclusively through Chamberlain, a variety of soldiers in Bigelow’s battery have a voice. This technique allows readers to share the experience of both officers and enlisted soldiers who have a variety of motivations and reactions throughout the story. Jones’ characters speak in a manner that may seem stilted to modern readers, but this style gives the story a nineteenth century feel that might have been diluted by more current dialogue.

At All Hazards focuses on small part of the war, and thus is a small book. It comes in at just over 200 pages, without appendices. The appendices themselves are a treat, as they explain the lives of the men of the battery post-war, and contain a variety of information on casualties, commemorations, and memorials to the 9th Massachusetts artillery. Jones also enhances the story through the use of period photos and illustrations throughout the book. David H. Jones gives the civil war artilleryman his due in this engaging story.

Readability- four stars
Historical Accuracy- five stars
Historical Value- four stars
Details- five stars
Overall Rating % 90

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