Book Review: Gettysburg: You Are There

Gettysburg:  You Are There, by Robert Clasby

This book was instructive, which is perhaps a bit surprising given its utter simplicity.  The most interesting part of the book was the way the author discussed how he took photos and re-engineered them with the help of other photos of reenactors to make them look as if they were actual photos of the 1863 battlefield.  As someone who reads a fair amount of books about Gettysburg [1] and a lot about the Civil War in general, I am intrigued by looking at what sort of audience a book is aiming at, and in this case I think it is clear that the author is aiming at the audience of readers who want to imagine themselves in the immensely significant scenes of this important Civil War battle, one which appears to have largely ruined Lee’s ability to conduct successful offensive warfare.  Since the vast majority of people who want to imagine themselves fighting the civil war are pro-Confederate, this side largely focuses on them, as one can see from the cover of the book alone.  This has a great importance in the book’s contents, as we will shortly see.

In terms of its contents, this book is very straightforward.  The book begins with an introduction and prelude that sets the context for the battle of Gettysburg and then contains photos that show the places of the most intense fighting on the three days of battle.  After that the author discusses how to tour the battlefield with this book as well as how the images were created, showing what factors the author considers of the most importance in looking at this battle.  The book contains a striking lack of maps for one that seeks to encourage people to see themselves in the battle, but it appears that the vision the author has in mind is more based on mental imagination of the place based on a reconstruction of what it would have looked like rather than an understanding that includes a reflection on the influence of war on society or an understanding of issues like topography.  As a result, this book is somewhat strikingly superficial, and one that will likely engage most those readers whose understanding of the battle of Gettysburg is the most shallow and the most focused on vicarious dreams of personal glory through bravery in battle.

There are some consequences of the book’s focus on the men of grey, and the fact that the author focuses so much attention on his efforts at realistic photography.  Ultimately, this book has nothing new to say about the battle itself.  The importance of this book is the way in which it demonstrates an attempt to make the battle more psychologically realistic to those who want to imagine themselves refighting it, perhaps with a different outcome.  As a result, the book has nothing to say about the experience of the battle to traumatized civilians, to say nothing of the horrors the rebel army inflicted on the free black population of the area, nor does it even have anything to say about the way the battle itself was a mistake that largely finished off the Army of Northern Virginia as an offensive force.  Rather, this is a book that attempts to glorify the rebel army and to place it in a context of encouraging the wishes for glory on the part of its readers.  Yet it was precisely the horrific nature of the battle that gave it so many glorious moments that gave it such a destructive importance as well.  The same battle that gave us moving scenes like the combat in the railway cut on the first day or the suicidal charges of outnumbered Union units buying time for Meade to reconstruct his defenses on Cemetery Ridge or the doomed and wasteful nature of Pickett’s charge led to the killing and maiming of over 50,000 men in the course of three days, the sort of waste of human life that would lead a slightly later generation to write morose poetry of a lost generation.  And yet such a tragic waste of life for among the worst causes for which men have fought leads the author to write a book seeking to glorify and celebrate the supposed bravery of the men of grey, and occasionally of the blue as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Gettysburg: You Are There

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Bodies On Raw | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Zen Camera | Edge Induced Cohesion

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