The Gettysburg Trilogy by Harry W Pfanz

A Review by Iain Mitchell

Yes, and before you say it, I was probably rather naive to think I could read three books which have a total of 1,444 pages between them in seven months. However, a) I usually read a lot and fast and b) when you take out the end notes and appendices the challenge is to read just 900 pages. Well, it has actually taken me about a year to do all three especially as I needed a break of a few weeks between books. So what do I learn about Harry Pfanz, the Battle of Gettysburg and his trilogy?

First of all (and isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing) I learned that before I started the trilogy my knowledge of the battle was actually rather poor, (though I have been to the battlefield twice now), and secondly what I really should have done was start with a different book and not Harry Pfanz’s trilogy. In retrospect I have concluded that I should have picked a shorter, easier to read and good overview of all three days of the battle. For example I could have read They Met at Gettysburg by Edward Stackpole or possibly Shelby Foote’s chapters on Gettysburg drawn from the second volume of The Civil War - A Narrative. This would have allowed me to have gained a better understanding of the events of those critical days, the geography and the key actors before tackling the trilogy. Of course, I didn’t do that, I plunged straight in to the First Day at Gettysburg and I quickly learned three things about Harry Pfanz. First of all, having served as the National Park Historian at Gettysburg for 10 years, he acquired an unrivalled understanding of the terrain and knowledge of the battle. Second, he was an experienced and meticulous historian who provides a generally balanced perspective of events though I detect a slight bias towards the Confederate side. Third and finally and I say this with great respect he was a better historian than he was a writer for frankly - and I know this may lead to howls of dismay from existing fans of Dr Pfanz - I found all three books hard to read. I suspect this is because I am not a Gettysburg expert and don’t know the battlefield intimately as Pfanz surely did. However, I would impudently dare to suggest an author and historian of his abilities should not have assumed that his readers know as much as he does about a battle when they write about it.

When reading his books on the first and second days, for example, he tends to assume that you already know where each ridge, old and new road and farm is on the battlefield. I thus had to spend time consulting a range of other sources and maps to find out these included the American Battlefield Trust website with its excellent coloured maps. Pfanz’s own maps are of course useful and help but they often appear some 5-6 pages after the relevant part of the book. A further problem I have with the trilogy is that as a historian and writer Dr Pfanz also has a tendency to assume that you have already learned the complete order of battle of both Union and Confederate forces along with their original and existing commanders before you start each of his books.

I accept that these comments may seem rather picky but the hard reality is of all the books I have read on the Civil War over the last eight years (about 40), many of which have been quite long, I found his books on Gettysburg have proved to be most difficult to read. I stress this is personal view other reviewers have praised his writing. This does not mean that I have only adverse things to say about the Harry Pfanz trilogy - not at all because I have now also become a clear admirer of his works, though not an uncritical one.

The first reason why I have become one his many admirers, is that Pfanz was the first person to write a comprehensive account on the all too often ignored fighting at Cemetery Hill and Culps Hill - the second book in his trilogy. From all accounts Harry Pfanz was irritated as the park historian by the tendency of many writers and the media to focus on the action at Little Round Top or Pickett’s Charge. His book on the subject clearly shows the critical tactical importance of this terrain and how close the Confederate forces came to seizing it because of Union command failures. I did feel he might have devoted more time to the critical role of George Greene as a commander in ensuring the Union retained control of the hill but this may be because I feel he is one of the forgotten heroes of Gettysburg.

The second reason is that all three books provide comprehensive, balanced and carefully crafted descriptions almost hour by hour, primarily of the first two days of the battle. His books were (and arguably still are) the only ones hitherto to offer the serious Gettysburg student a blow-by-blow account of the people, the places, and events of the first and second day of the battle. He also provides in context useful potted biographies and descriptions of the life and personalities of commanders down to regimental level. To his great credit and in contrast to many other writers Pfanz doesn’t shirk from talking about the gruesome and gory details of the impact of nineteenth century weaponry on human beings.

In conclusion I would say that for any Civil War historian or guide who truly wants to understand the battle at a tactical level - Pfanz’s books are essential reading and should form part of their library. They will in my view stand the test of time if nothing else as the best detailed single reference source of the battle.

It was perhaps unfortunate that Harry Pfanz was unable to complete the picture by writing a book about the third day. Fortunately, others have since taken on this task - notably in my view Jeffrey Wert whose book on the third day at Gettysburg, I am in the process of reading and so far it is excellent.

Before I conclude this book review by writing a little about Harry Pfanz as a man I thought I would like to let you into a little personal secret that hopefully may make you chuckle. When I finished the main draft of my book The Battle of the Peaks and Longstop Hill I sent a sample chapter to among others our esteemed Honorary Vice President and a valued friend, Joe Whitehorne, who as you may know was a US Army Historian, to ask for his comments. Those who know Joe well will be aware that he has two traits in common with Harry Pfanz, he is meticulous and conscientious, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to get five pages of written notes back in the post. The sting in the tail is that Joe wrote that he found sections of the chapter rather dry reading! I took Joe’s criticisms to heart in that chapter so I am pleased to report that when the book was published reviewers so far have been quite complimentary about how readable the finished book became.

As for Harry Pfanz the man - the portrait that emerged for me as I researched his life was of a quiet modest historian of great integrity and ability. It seems to me that he lacked Ed Bearrs flair for the dramatic, though he filled the same role - Chief Historian of the Park Service with distinction. Pfanz was, also like Ed Bearrs, a veteran of World War Two, in which he served as a field artillery officer in the 87th Infantry Division and was also seriously wounded, in Pfanz’s case during the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he earned his doctorate and spent a period as a historian with the US Army and it is obvious from his books that his knowledge of battle and the army had an influence upon the way he writes and what he writes in his books.

My brief research suggests that he was a historian and administrator of great ability. It is also clear that Pfanz in a quiet way and without fuss influenced, inspired and mentored (and was respected by) a whole generation of now familiar Civil War historians and battlefield guides. These include now famous names such as Eric Wittenberg and Chris Mackowski. Harry Pfanz sadly died in 2015 at the age of 93. His son Donald Pfanz however continued his father’s amazing legacy of Civil War scholarship and has built an excellent reputation as an author and guide in a series of roles for the National Park service before he too retired in 2013.