Gettysburg: The Final Fury, by Bruce Catton
It is easy to see, in reading this book, why Bruce Catton received and was worthy of a Pulitzer Prize for his historical writing. As a child I first became familiar with the author due to his illustrated history of the Civil War, a book I repeatedly checked out of my elementary school library and which was given to me as a thoughtful present by my father when I first remember meeting him when I was eight years old. It is somewhat surprising in that light, I suppose, that it has taken me a long time to read the rest of the author’s work, especially given that this book is such a short one at barely 100 pages. Be that as it may, this is a worthwhile book about a compelling subject and it tells its story well, being very favorable to General Meade and also knowledgeable about the various myths that have sprung up about the battle and about the way that a variety of circumstances, including convenience, pushed the blue and the gray to fight so fiercely in the neighborhood of a small Pennsylvania town in early July, 1863, details Catton is well qualified to provide.
The contents of this short book are divided into five chapters. The first chapter examines the road to Gettysburg, where the author talks about the context of Chancellorsville, the crisis of the siege of Vicksburg which threatened to divide the Confederacy in two, and the movement of troops that led them to need to be concentrated at some point, which ended up being where a lot of roads met together in Gettysburg. After that there are three chapters that look at the battle of Gettysburg itself like a three-act tragedy. In the first day we have the collision between two armies joining together piece by piece, with the Confederacy getting the upper hand because they were able to concentrate first. On the second day we have fighting by compulsion, as Lee’s blindness and need to fight the enemy at hand especially because he was unfamiliar with the ground and lacking his cavalry, which led to furious attacks on both flanks and to horrific losses on both sides. And on the third day we have the climax of the battle as Lee’s men attack the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge and are unable to produce a breakthrough, with more casualties. Finally, we have a chapter on the retreat and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that shows why people will long remember Gettysburg and what happened there.
Admittedly, this book is not long, and one could have stood to have more detail about some aspects of the battle, like the cavalry fight where the Union fought off Stuart’s charge, and which Catton uncharitably considers inessential. Yet Catton manages to tell the narrative of the battle in a way that includes quite a few telling details about the behavior of people involved and manages to avoid padding the book with a lot of fluff. Catton’s concision in light of the tendency for contemporary writers to include a great deal of extraneous material is admirable and this book remains a worthwhile read even if there are far more lengthy and detailed discussions of the battle of Gettysburg and why it was fought. The author shows an admirable grasp of political realities and the narrowly Virginian focus of Lee, and subtly demonstrates in his discussion of Lee’s unimaginative and destructive frontal assaults and refusal to send troops West the way Lee contributed to the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy and to the destruction of that wicked regime’s most powerful instrument of aggression in the Army of Northern Virginia, which was limited in the aftermath of Gettysburg to a tenacious but ultimately futile defensive role.