Saturday, December 30, 2006

Leehan: "Pale Horse at Plum Run"

[Pale Horse At Plum Run: The First Minnesota At Gettysburg by Brian Leehan. (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002. Pp. 243, $29.95, Hardback. ISBN 0-87351-429-7)]

Late on a hot, dusty July day in 1863, the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry plunged down into a rock-strewn ravine south of Gettysburg and passed into legend. James Longstreet’s ferocious assault on the Federal left flank on July 2nd had just finished destroying Dan Sickles’ III Corps along with the reinforcements sent down from Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps. Consequently, a large gap appeared in the center of the Union line and opposite this hole stormed the Alabamians of Cadmus Wilcox’s brigade. Faced with disaster, Hancock grabbed the only infantrymen immediately available, the First Minnesota, and ordered them into the maelstrom. Their sacrifice is re-examined in exceptional detail in a compelling new book by Brian Leehan.

Pale Horse at Plum Run is a fast-paced book that comprehensively recounts the actions of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. Though the famous charge on July 2nd rightly forms the centerpiece of the book, a stirring account of the regiment’s participation in the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on the next day is also included. The research is exhaustive and the detail extraordinary. Furthermore, the author’s approach to the subject is careful and refreshingly evenhanded. For instance, Leehan consistently avoids hyperbole when discussing the heroics of the First Minnesota on the 2nd, giving the units flanking the regiment (the 19th Maine and Willard’s brigade of New Yorkers) their proper due.

Wading through a wealth of material, Leehan uses sound reasoning and meticulous research to reinterpret the many myths surrounding the charge—from the numbers engaged and lost to the results of the charge and the circumstances of Hancock’s order. The narrative is augmented throughout with the personal letters and reminiscences of the participants, though very few are by members of Wilcox’s brigade. An opportunity to provide valuable perspective from the opposing side is unfortunately lost here (especially since many details of the charge are deeply shrouded in myth and exaggeration).

Several appendices add even more value to the book. Of perhaps the greatest interest to the general reader is the essay discussing the role of mythmaking in the understanding and remembrance of battles. Articles providing a comprehensive listing of casualties and analysis of numbers engaged are included as well. Finally, even the most casual reader is urged to examine the book’s unusually expansive endnotes, which are full of hidden gems.

Brian Leehan has created an important work that significantly increases our understanding of the role of the First Minnesota in the battle of Gettysburg. This book is highly recommended.

(Review reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appearing in vol. 5 #7, pg. 91, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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