If I ever walk the grounds over which the United States was effectively cast from the bloody trails of the Civil War, I will have Jack Kunkel’s guide in my grasp. I never have and in truth I probably never will visit these historic acres, however, this book has allowed me to get so close that I feel as though I once stood on Little Round Top and watched the whole terrible drama unfold.
Even in the electronic format that I read this book, it is stunningly well presented, with clear maps and some of the best known contemporary photographs of that terrible battle and its aftermath. This was the first war to be caught in the glare of the recently invented camera. Long photographic plate exposure ruled out anything approaching photographs of live action, but we still get a real feel of the terror of the conflict in the way the book is presented.
Kunkel brings his tour stops of the battlefield to life so effectively that I could easily build a visual picture in my mind as the troops engaged across the hard fought ground. We are guided towards an understanding as to why one of the greatest generals of all time failed at Gettysburg. Over ambitious tactics by Robert E. Lee outlined by him on the evening of July 2nd 1863 were to lead not just to the Confederates defeat in this battle, but to their eventual loss of the war. A few over ambitious decisions, that were less than thoroughly followed through, changed the course of American history and so that of the World. As Kunkel tells us, if the Confederates had entrenched and moved away their main forces towards Washington a very different history may have resulted from those three hot days in June. Even with Gettysburg following close to the course it did, if Lee had been just a little better served by poor logistics, he may have drawn victory over the North. A little more food, a better supply of artillery ammunition, better equipped artillery spotters, or perhaps even just a few thousand pairs of new shoes may have been enough to have swung the battle so far in Lee’s favour, even as late as day three, that the Union would have been routed.
We know what happened, and most of us with any interest in history know a good deal about why it happened. With Kunkel we take another step, and watch as it happens, watch the modern site of this historic battle come to life, watch history change by the hour as the tide of war swings from blue to grey and back again many times. Until finally, instead of tactical withdraw from the stalemate Lee maintains his onslaught into a third day, and the South bleeds out in the afternoon sun on Cemetery Hill. The World was not to see such senseless slaughter of so many regimented troops charging fixed and well-defended defensive positions again for another fifty years, and that was to be across the pond in Europe. Tactics had to change for the South after June 1863, as never recovered numbers dictated the need to skirmish rather than to march shoulder to shoulder against the guns.
Read Kunkel’s tour guide that allows one to see Gettysburg live, through the smoke of guns and the smog of time.