Leaving Gettysburg by Curtis Crockett

Curtis Crockett’s Leaving Gettysburg is a valuable addition to Civil War literature because it examines a rarely studies aspect of the conflict, the aftermath of battle. While many excellent books have examined the Army of Northern Virginia’s withdrawal from Pennsylvania, such as Kent Masterson Brown’s Retreat from Gettysburg and One Continuous Fight by Nugent, Petruzzi, and Wittenberg, this is the first fictional account of which I am aware that deals with this aspect of the Gettysburg campaign. Crockett’s writing reveals the weariness and frustration experienced by both pursuer and pursued as he tells the story of an enlisted soldier of the 26thNorth Carolina Asa Helms who is fighting to protect his home from invaders, not be an invader himself, and Colonel George Gray of the 6th Michigan Cavalry, who left unfinished business on the field at Gettysburg. Rounding out the characters is Captain Louis Young, who represents a more idealized version of the Confederacy than the pragmatic Asa Holmes.

     Crockett ‘s technique of following both Union and Confederate protagonists, made familiar to readers of Civil War fiction by Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels, highlights the fact that this is a war in which Americans fought Americans. Although each side faces an enemy, there is no clearly virtuous hero and no plainly despicable villain. Throughout the book there is a feeling that the real antagonists are time and terrain; can the Confederates make it south of the Potomac to the relative safety of Virginia, or will the Federal forces overtake them and destroy them north of the river? The soldiers themselves are performing their duty as they see it, but with no deep-seated hatred towards the enemy army. As Asa Holmes says at one point, “I don’t even want to hurt no one…I guess I didn’t feel I had no choice…I ain’t for killin’ but someone had to stop them (the Yankees).” Crockett reinforces the sense of urgency brought on by the retreat and pursuit by including descriptions of how the retreat stressed the bonds of discipline. Examples of desertion, civilian fears of theft, and the desperation of the rebel troops to safely cross the Potomac as the Union forces approached heighten the tension as the story continues. The story culminates with all three soldiers meeting at Falling Waters, Maryland with each man’s fate still in the balance.

     Leaving Gettysburg’s main characters run the gamut from historical figures to the completely fictional. Colonel George Gray, 6th Michigan Cavalry, was a real officer who did command the regiment at Gettysburg. Crockett enhances the narrative by creating a level of professional tension between Gray and his brigade commander, George Armstrong Custer not found in any historical accounts of the regiment. While poetic license, Crockett does a convincing job illustrating how bad blood between West Point trained regulars and volunteer officers could create problems in the field.     In contrast to Gray, Asa Holmes is wholly a creation of Crockett’s. Crockett has previously written about the 26th North Carolina Infantry and currently resides in that state. Thus inspired, he writes Holmes as a military “every man” determined to be a good soldier, but hopeful to return to his home and wife, putting the violence of combat behind him. Holmes is the book’s most sympathetic character, and the one in which readers may most readily see a version of themselves, an ordinary person trying to do the right thing in extraordinary circumstances.

     Lying squarely between Holmes and Gray in terms of character development is found Captain Louis Young. Crockett based the name and role on the character on an actual Confederate officer of Pettigrew’s staff. Starting with these slight facts, he created a character meant to embody the Confederate army at echelons above Holmes’ ground-story view of the war. Young is the least necessary character of the three, distracting readers from the life and death struggle faced by Holmes and the dogged pursuit personified by Gray. Pettigrew himself is readily identified with the action at Falling Waters, thus Captain Young helps provide the story some narrative structure. That said, the story would retain its urgency, and be much more tightly written if Young made less frequent appearances or was missing from the story altogether.

     Leaving Gettysburg is the latest addition to Casemate Publishers growing collection of combat fiction. While literature rather than history, the book does discuss actual maneuvers and mentions real civil war regiments. The book could be enhanced using appendices illustrating the order of battle of each regiment, or an epilogue that discusses the fate of each unit. The book does contain one map that highlights the overall routes the confederate and union troops followed out of Pennsylvania. Overall, however, Leaving Gettysburg is a solid piece of Civil War fiction that introduces readers to seldom discussed aspect of the Gettysburg Campaign.