Book review

Gettysburg -The First Day

by Harry W. Pfanz, 496 pp., 54 illus.,16 maps, Chapel Hill N.C.

 

(The University of North Carolina Press, P.O. Box 2288,Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2288, priced at $34.95)

 

Review by: Allan Paterson Milne

 

When Harry W. Pfanz's study of the second day's battle came out in 1987, it was recognised as a landmark in Gettysburg studies. His new study of the first day's fighting is even better. A particular merit of the book is the way Pfanz integrates the overview of the battle - as the generals saw it - with the confused and desperate struggles of the fighting units involved.

 

This is especially true of his account of the fighting astride the Chambersburg Pike, where bold counter-attack, and resolute defence by Buford's and Reynold's men threw back ill-organised and ill-led Confederate onslaughts to win crucial time for the rest of the army to come up. No single Confederate commander was responsible for this, but in Pfanz's account A.P.Hill, the 'invisible man' of Gettysburg emerges as a lacklustre performer who could have done much more damage to I Corps than he did.

 


Yet the crucial question - or at least the question everybody asks - about the first day of Gettysburg is: why did Ewell falter at the foot of Cemetery Hill with the evening coming on?

 

In his penetrating analysis, Pfanz identifies a number of factors, some Union, some Confederate. Oliver Otis Howard has never stood high in the Union's Gettysburg pantheon, and, given the sudden collapse of his XI Corps north of the town, small wonder. Yet as Pfanz shows, Howard's selection of Cemetery Hill as the point on which the Army of the Potomac should form for battle, and his decision to deploy Steinwehr's Division, plus artillery, on the Hill when the rest of XI Corps went forward would be of vital importance in denying the Confederates the victory that seemed within their grasp.

 

What matters most, in Pfanz's view was not that XI Corps failed to hold a position which it had basically no hope of holding anyway, but that when Ewell arrived at the foot of Cemetery Hill a determined line of fresh defenders, well furnished with cannon, were ready and waiting to bar his way.

 

It was now that the fatal disunities among the Confederate brass took effect. Confronted by Lee's order to attack "if practicable" Ewell, as we know, hesitated. However in Pfanz's view what caused Ewell's befuddlement was less this order than Lee's injunction to "avoid a general engagement" (as if he had been involved in anything else!) until the rest of the army was up.

 

Yet, if Pfanz's account put more of the blame on Lee than on Ewell, he demonstrates that Ewell failed to show the hard-driving initiative the situation demanded. Had he moved fast enough, Ewell might just have secured a lodgement on Culp's Hill. Instead he decided to wait on fresh troops to do the job. By the time they arrived darkness was falling and whatever chance of success there might have been was gone.

 

And so the first day ended with a frustrated Lee facing a battered, but not broken, Army of the Potomac. Lee's frustration would shape the way the battle would develop in the two days to come.

 

This is a masterly work. No one can hope to understand what happened at Gettysburg without it. Strongly recommended.