Archive for Book Review

More Tour Research

Over the Christmas holiday, my brother Phil – a Captain in the USMC – and his wife will be visiting from North Carolina. We’ve wanted to do an extensive tour of Gettysburg together for a while. During this visit, we’re finally going to do it.

You may think that winter is a bad time to go touring around a battlefield, but at least in the case of Gettysburg, it’s my favorite time of year. For one thing, there are NO crowds. Even at the “touristy” parts of the field like Little Round Top, you practically have the place to yourself. If you’re doing any walking around on the field, you also don’t have insects like gnats or ticks, or the ever-oppressive sun to deal with. Further, there are clear views of the terrain since the underbrush (which would not have been present at the time of the battle) has lost all of its leaves.

It should be a good time. Apart from sharing my passion with Phil, I’m really interested to see the field through the eyes of a modern infantryman. Hopefully, he’ll come with some good questions and I can really test my knowledge of 19th century tactics and how things would be different (and similar) today.

To get ready, I’ve been reading through the U.S. Army War College guide to the battle. Their suggested tour has quite a few more stops than my normal one, but I wanted to see how they portray the events for a military audience, so that I can make sure I don’t skip over anything that may be of interest to Phil. The book itself is really dry – even for being a work of military history. It’s basically just a collection of maps and quotes from the official records.

But there was at least one thing that caught my attention. In the “How to Use This Book” section, there’s a quote from George Macauley Trevelyan that really speaks to me:

The skilled game of identifying positions on a battlefield innocent of guides, where one must make out everything for oneself – best of all if one has never done it properly before – is almost the greatest of out-door intellectual pleasures.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, sir.

Gettysburg Comic Book

A few days ago, I found and ordered on Amazon, the comic book: “Epic Battles of the Civil War – Volume 4: Gettysburg“. I’d seen this particular comic come up (somewhat jokingly) in conversation among some of Gettysburg’s heavy hitters, and I just had to check it out. The book was the result of a collaboration back in the late 1990s between the Historical Souvenir Company and Marvel Comics, so there’s an expectation that it would be well-produced. Sadly, it’s a bit of a jumbled mess.

Marvel Comics' Gettysburg issue.

Marvel Comics’ Gettysburg issue.

The 48-page book starts off with an overview of the campaign – it doesn’t get to the first day of the battle until page 12 – and when it does, it does a pretty poor job of conveying the flow of the battle. It’s just panel after panel of guys in dialogue. Sometimes they discuss battle plans or results, other times the panels are telling a human interest story, but through short chunks of dialogue that aren’t well-explained. I know the Battle of Gettysburg pretty well, and I have trouble following what’s going on. There are 2 maps in the entire book, and neither one has any troop positions laid out on it. Maps are critical to understanding the flow of any battle, and aren’t comic books supposed to be for visual people?

The hastily-inserted human interest stories – things like Jennie Wade’s death, or Sarah Broadhead’s “mess of beans” – not only break up the flow of the battle, they make the whole thing read more like a collection of facts than an actual story.

And it gets worse when there are things that are suspect in those “facts”. For one thing, the book continues to perpetuate what Garry Adelman calls, The Myth of Little Round Top – we’re told in General Warren’s voice that it was “the key to the Union’s entire position”. General Sickles is portrayed – as is the popular myth – as being cool, calm, and collected after having his leg blown off. The somewhat questionable story of Lt. Bayard Wilkeson cutting off his own leg with a pocketknife is presented as fact. General Heth is shown expressing his desire to General Hill to go into Gettysburg looking for shoes – a story that he almost definitely made up later to make himself look better. And while it gets points for mentioning the oft-overlooked fight at the East Cavalry Battlefield, it completely misses the point of that struggle (it wasn’t because Stuart was supposed to secure the Confederate left – he was trying to attack the Union rear).

There are other things that are visually wrong. In the frame showing the leg story, General Sickles and his aide – both Union officers – are shown in grey coats. During the late-night council of war on July 2, one of Meade’s generals is shown wearing 3 stars (a rank which not only hadn’t been issued to ANY general at that point, but would have obviously out-ranked Meade himself). There is a woman wearing a 12-star flag with 13 stripes (starting and ending with white ones) on her blouse. Come on.

My favorite “typo” in the book comes during the description of the argument about whether to attack the Union position on Culp’s and Cemetery Hills that happens between Confederate Lt. General Richard Ewell, and Confederate Major General Isaac TRIMBLE:

General TRIMBLE loses the argument with General Ewell.

General “Trible” loses the argument with General Ewell.

I’ll admit: at first, I thought this was a mistake. I only knew of General TRIMBLE being present at the battle, but it turns out that I was wrong. After a little research on the Internet, I found out that there was a Confederate General Trible (even though his name is correctly spelled “Tribble”):

The only known image of General Trible (sorry - "Tribble").

The only known image of General Trible (sorry – “Tribble”).

This is the junction where my Civil War nerd side starts to collide with my Star Trek nerd side. I deeply apologize that you had to witness that.

Seriously though, all of these seemingly little things come together to make the comic historically hazardous for the casual reader who knows very little about the battle. Something like this could be a great introduction for people who “don’t like history”, but instead it reinforces many misconceptions and muddies the telling of the story.

The only thing that keeps me from completely dismissing it is that, much like the old Gettysburg movie has for my generation, maybe there are a few people out there who would casually pick this comic up and have it spark an interest in the battle that propels them to learn more. I won’t hold my breath, though.

Recent Reads

I wanted to do a quick set of mini reviews of some books that I’ve read lately. Due to my preparations for a reading party I hosted on Constitution Day, there’s an easily-detectable theme here. Enjoy!

Miracle At Philadelphia

Catherine Drinker Bowen

Miracle at Philadelphia

Miracle at Philadelphia

A few months ago, I read Bowen’s biography of Sir Edward Coke (the greatest lawyer of all time), The Lion and the Throne. While it wasn’t an easy read, and seemed to focus much more on the events around Coke than on Coke himself, I thought I’d give her take on the events surrounding the Constitutional Convention a shot. I’m glad that I did.

She does a good job of setting the stage quickly and getting right into the details of all the politics involved in the convention coming together. Some of the more prominent personalities – Hamilton, Franklin, Washington, and even lesser-known James Wilson – are the central characters. Madison gets his thoughts in as well, but since he kept copious notes on the convention proceedings, he ends up playing the role of narrator in Bowen’s telling.

Some of my favorite parts involved the struggles of the different personalities trying to get their way. Patrick Henry, as the leader of the Anti-Federalists, ends up looking like the “bad guy” in retrospect. I think we tend to forget that not everyone in the room agreed that the Constitution was a good idea – or even that creating a Constitution was a good idea. Some of the ideas that were floated, from having a 3-person committee act as the executive (because we were so freaked-out by the idea of monarchy), to the “revolutionary” idea that elected offices wouldn’t come with a religious or property-ownership requirement, seem really strange to us today but were all concepts that were experimental at the time. It’s good to remember how far we’ve come.

There is an odd section in the middle where she talks about the people and history of the different sections of the country at that time, including the western frontier. It was good info, but it really felt like it killed the flow of the book to me.

This is a solid history of the personalities and politics of the Convention. I really highly recommend it.

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The Odd Clauses

Jay Wexler

The Odd Clauses

The Odd Clauses

This book came up in an article I read on one of the libertarian blogs I read frequently. You have to love the idea of investigating some of the stranger parts of the Constitution, and if the author is the kind of guy who would put Christy’s classic painting of the Convention (with the addition of a few random woodland creatures Photoshopped in) on his book’s cover, you know you’re in for a fun ride.

Wexler doesn’t disappoint. This is a great combination of serious Constitutional scholarship, fascinating historical trivia, and joking-around. It’s quite brilliant.

He does a good job of remaining neutral throughout the book, too. You can just barely detect his own liberal slant on issues in the writing. He does end up going a little nuts in the final chapter though – I suppose he can’t help but rip into the concept of Substantive Due Process (although he does admit that this mechanism also gave us Roe v. Wade).

One of my favorite passages is in the chapter about judicial powers. Wexler imagines the justices operating like a trial court, arguing about whether to let in a certain piece of evidence. Of course, the court splits 4 – 4, with everyone turning to Clarence Thomas for whether to uphold or overrule the objection. He just sits silently. Maybe that’s only funny to SCOTUS nerds.

Overall, if you can tolerate the occasional liberal outburst, this is a really fun book. And you’ll learn a ton in-between laughs.

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A Sanctuary For The Wounded

Christ Lutheran Church – Gettysburg, PA

A Sanctuary For the Wounded

A Sanctuary For the Wounded

This one is not regularly published. The church self-published this collection of essays – I found it in a book shop in Gettysburg.

Christ Lutheran Church is an old historical church in Gettysburg just west of the center of town. It quickly became a field hospital the morning of July 1, 1863 when the fighting started on the ridges west of town. The church does a weekly program (on Saturday nights, I think) where they tell the story of the church as a hospital and they sing period music, and read period poetry. This book is basically the take-home version of that show.

As a collection of essays, its a little disjointed and scattered. While it begins with an overview of the history of Christ Lutheran itself, it doesn’t focus exclusively on the church, but tells the story of the wounded and those who cared for them in the downtown area. There’s also a collection of 19th century poetry at the end for character.

This was a really brief read. I’m no speed demon, but I finished in about 2 hours. While the information is good and somewhat interesting, this is hardly a deep treatment of the subject of the mess left behind after Gettysburg.