Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Review of Reardon & Vossler - "A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTYSBURG, SECOND EDITION: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People"

[A Field Guide to Gettysburg, Second Edition: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People by Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Softcover, 42 maps, 80 color plates, 60 illustrations, notes, index. 488 pp. ISBN:978-1-4696-3336-7. $24]

In 2013, Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler's A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People was released to wide acclaim. For historical narrative, interpretation, structure, directions, orientation, and maps, the guidebook is considered by many to be the very best of its kind for the war's most iconic battle. Popular reception of their Antietam follow-up volume* has been similarly enthusiastic.

One of the 'problems' inherent to Civil War touring tools (and it's a good problem to have!) is the fact that battlefield appearance, preserved size, and interpretation are in constant flux. Gettysburg National Military Park is certainly among those battlefields that have best benefited from recent initiatives aimed at restoring historical viewsheds and terrain, and those changes are represented in A Field Guide to Gettysburg, Second Edition: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People. Along with a few minor revisions/corrections from the first edition, the new version adds improved maps and roughly 25 pages of additional material. Most noticeably, there are two more tour stops (Day 1 - Harmon Farm fight, Day 3 - Powers Hill), raising the total number from 35 to 37. The digital version [A Field Guide to Gettysburg, Second Edition Expanded Ebook: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People] has also been significantly revised. It contains 10,000 words that had to be cut from the print versions due to space limitations and represents the ultimate version of the guide if handheld device touring is your thing.

For those unfamiliar with the first edition, the book follows the traditional pattern of organizing battlefield tours into numbered stops presented in rough chronological order. Ideally, this guide is best used on a multi-day visit [to this end, the stop locations are helpfully sub-divided into three sections representing each of the battle's three days of fighting], but it does ably arrange the experience into enough smaller discrete parts so that those with limited time can still conduct meaningful short tours.

Each stop begins with an Orientation section that directs visitors to the exact spot where they can make full use of the information provided. The authors carefully orient readers in all directions, using both event and landscape points of reference (with the latter also sometimes labeled on photographs). The attention to detail, here and elsewhere, is exemplary. Viewer orientation is also carried over to the cartography, with each numbered and/or lettered stop marked on-map and also accompanied with a directional viewpoint arrow.

For each stop, six main questions are answered:

1. What Happened Here?
At just the right depth, the narrative history accounts of military events associated with each location are detailed enough for readers to gain a full picture of events without being onerous (no one wants to spend the whole time in the field reading). The text is authoritative and sourced (with the notes located at the rear of the book). In support are modern color photographs, archival B&W images, and multi-color maps. The maps are plentiful, with their small-unit representations and historical terrain renderings designed to be complementary to the text.
2. Who Fought Here?
This section provides a listing of regiments and/or brigades that were present, often with numbers data included.
3. Who Commanded Here?
Short biographies of the higher command level leadership of both sides (brigade level or higher) are located in this section, with photographs.
4. Who Fell Here?
Casualty levels, including regimental totals, resulting from the fighting around each stop are listed here. In addition, a subsection titled Individual Vignettes is frequently inserted here, offering a more personalized insight into the battle's terrible losses. Numbers 3 and 4 together provide a broad picture of the human face of the fighting, from the top generals on down to private soldiers.
5. Who Lived Here?
Here, the civilian presence is emphasized in a fashion unique to Civil War tour guides. The section effectively reminds visitors that battles typically represented a lasting disruption to the lives of area residents. Effects on property and livelihoods were all too often ruinous, with post-war compensation incomplete and late, if any was forthcoming at all.
6. What Did They Say About It Later?
This is another element that sets A Field Guide to Gettysburg apart from the typical Civil War battlefield guidebook. In addition to offering excerpts from veteran letters, memoirs, and memorial dedications, the written records of civilian observers, and even some historiographical issues, are discussed. This is also the section containing additional sidebars of interest.

The book itself is of robust construction and should hold up well to repeated use in the field. The paper is thick and heavy, with a high gloss finish that will help keep the pages in good shape.

Many Civil War battlefield guide series promote their volumes as equally useful to armchair readers and field explorers, but the Reardon and Vossler Gettysburg and Antietam titles really do fulfill this promise like no other contenders in the literature. In addition to its unique elements, A Field Guide to Gettysburg, Second Edition has all the best features of the genre in unmatched balance. It's unclear what ambitions the authors have beyond the 'Big Two' of Civil War battlefields, so now might also be an appropriate time for a final plea to take this already tightly-honed system and apply it to a whole series of battles from all major theaters.


* - A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People (UNC Press, 2016).

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