Hallowed Ground: A Walk At Gettysburg, by James M. McPherson
As a result of reading quite a few books by the author , I have come to the understanding that James McPherson writes a great deal of short and topical books on various Civil War matters, and many of them are filled with a certain sense of wit as well as a highly critical attitude towards what he views as particularly poor historiography. Those tendencies are all in full evidence here, and this is a book that has a particularly narrow scope but one that handles that scope particularly well and with a sense of savage wit that I can only appreciate and enjoy given my own. Whether or not you like this book will depend on how you feel about the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg and efforts to preserve the truths of that battle in history and memory. If you have a vested interest and a concern in the Battle of Gettysburg and have or want to travel there, this is a very enjoyable book. If you have little interest in the Civil War and in Gettysburg in particular, you are not really going to get a lot out of this short volume.
In about 140 pages or so, James McPherson deals with the Battle of Gettysburg and tourism on that in a very straightforward fashion. After a prologue discussing the terrain and transportation nature of Gettysburg that made it a battlefield, the author discusses the three days of Gettysburg and the aftermath of the battle in turn, giving a look at the battlefield as it now is and giving the routes to various places where fighting appeared, a discussion of unit monuments and the controversies involving them (especially among partisans of the South), and even a discussion on the symbolism of equestrian statues. After this the author includes the text of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, and the text itself makes reference to the address on at least a few occasions. Despite its brevity the book does manage to have a lot to offer, including some comments about the problems of worldview and politics when it comes to history. McPherson is particularly critical about the neo-Confederate perspective as well as national reconciliation that avoids the importance of freedom to the Civil War narrative. None of these matters ought to be a surprise from someone who knows the author’s perspective and background.
There are a few readers who will get a lot out of this book. For example, this is the sort of book that would be extremely useful for someone on a tour of the battlefield, especially someone who was looking at the battlefield on their own. I would not be surprised if this book was sold in many of the shops and various tourist traps around Gettysburg. I cannot remember seeing this book on such an occasion myself, but it has been a long time since I visited the town, so it is possible that this book does have a place of honor and a great deal of sales to what would be its ideal targeted audience. For those readers who are far away from the fields and woods of Gettysburg, and from its distinctive hills and ridges, the book can give one a mental picture, and has some worthwhile maps that show the three days of the battle and text that discusses some of the neglected parts of the battle, like the Union defense of Culp’s Hill as well as the Cavalry action of July 3, 1863. This book is certainly small, and more than a little bit fierce, but it is also a minor classic in its own biting and witty way.
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