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A masterful, single-volume history of the Civil War's greatest campaign.

Drawing on original source material, from soldiers' letters to official military records of the war, Stephen W. Sears's Gettysburg is a remarkable and dramatic account of the legendary campaign. He takes particular care in his study of the battle's leaders and offers detailed analyses of their strategies and tactics, depicting both General Meade's heroic performance in his first week of army command and General Lee's role in the agonizing failure of the Confederate army.
With characteristic style and insight, Sears brings the epic tale of the battle in Pennsylvania vividly to life.

640 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2003

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About the author

Stephen W. Sears

69 books186 followers
Stephen Ward Sears is an American historian specializing in the American Civil War.

A graduate of Lakewood High School and Oberlin College, Sears attended a journalism seminar at Radcliffe-Harvard. As an author he has concentrated on the military history of the American Civil War, primarily the battles and leaders of the Army of the Potomac. He was employed as editor of the Educational Department at the American Heritage Publishing Company.

Sears resides in Norwalk, Connecticut.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 264 reviews
Profile Image for Matt.
919 reviews28.3k followers
August 22, 2019
“Young [Lieutenant Alonzo] Cushing, graduated early from West Point in 1861 to meet the need for educated soldiers, kept his guns firing steadily, despite grievous losses among the crews. ‘He was as cool and calm as I ever saw him,’ recalled one of his men, ‘talking to the boys between shots with the glass constantly to his eyes, watching the effect of our shots.’ But so many gunners were down that Cushing too had to call on infantrymen to help man the guns. John Gibbon saw three of Cushing’s limber chests blow up at once, sending up a huge column of smoke and fire and triggering ‘triumphant yells of the enemy…’ Finally only two of Cushing’s 3-inch Ordinance rifles were still serviceable. A shell fragment eviscerated one of the infantry volunteers, who pleaded for someone to put him out of his agony. When no one had nerve enough, he pulled out a pistol and ended the agony himself. Presently, Cushing was painfully wounded in the shoulder and groin but stayed at his post. His sergeant urged him to go to the rear. ‘No,’ Cushing said, ‘I stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt…’”
- Stephen Sears, Gettysburg

Gettysburg is the most famous battle in United States history, and among the deadliest. It’s one of those rare events easily identifiable as a pivot in history. Had the Union lost at Gettysburg, shortly after a crushing defeat at Chancellorsville, there’s no telling what might have happened. Even if a Union defeat didn't lead immediately to collapse, it certainly would’ve changed the details of the eventual outcome. Militarily, the Union was still in a strong position, but politically, it’s harder to say. An easy way to go cross-eyed is to start imagining the accumulation of the “terrible ifs.”

We can, at least, say with certainty that the Union victory changed the tenor of the Civil War. After Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee never took the offensive again; once he got knocked back on his heels, the war became a mathematical process of elimination. (With General Ulysses Grant as the visiting professor, the man who fully understood what must be done, and the man who had the extraordinary self-confidence to do it).

The outlines of the battle are well known. Following Chancellorsville, General Lee disengaged from the Army of the Potomac and moved north through Maryland and Pennsylvania, using the mountains to screen his movements. He intended to draw the Army of the Potomac into battle at a place of his choosing. The Army of the Potomac, Joe Hooker commanding (soon to be replaced by George Meade) gave chase, taking care to keep between Lee and Washington. The Union moved surprisingly fast, all the more surprising to Lee because his cavalry, under J.E.B. Stuart, was too busy circling the Yankees to send back reports.

On July 1, 1863, elements of A.P. Hill’s Corps, under Harry Heth, moved into Gettysburg on a reconnaissance mission (and also to find shoes). Heth was under orders not to bring about a general engagement; however, when he ran into John Buford’s cavalry brigades, he mistook them for local militia and attacked. Buford held the high ground to the west of Gettysburg until he was reinforced by John Reynolds First Corps. The Confederates brought up reinforcements as well, and the battle was joined. When Richard Ewell’s Confederate corps attacked from the north, the Union lines broke. Retreating back through town, the Union army took up positions along a line of hills in the shape of a fishhook, anchored by Round Top and Little Round Top on the south, and Culp’s Hill to the north.

Ignoring the advice of his lieutenant, James Longstreet, Lee decided to press his gains at Gettysburg. On the second day, he launched attacks against the Union right and left flanks. Due to Union General Dan Sickle’s criminal mishandling of his corps, the Union left nearly broke. It took a Yankee engineer (Gouverneur Warren), two amateur officers (Strong Vincent and Joshua Chamberlain), and one undersized regiment turned sacrificial lamb (the 1st Minnesota) to save the day. But by nightfall, both flanks held.

On the third day was Pickett’s Charge and the Confederate high tide.

This is well-worn ground. So why does Sears’ Gettysburg stand out? Simply put, it is a masterwork of historical research. Sears has synthesized all the available scholarship, from the official records to diaries of private soldiers, and molded it into a readable, engaging tale. He has added to that his own reasoned judgments and sharp analysis. Most history books will tell you what happened or how, fewer attempt to explain why.

Decisions are not made in a vacuum. Very few people intentionally set out to make the wrong choice. Instead, decisions are pulled from a dense, tangled web that includes current knowledge (which might be faulty), past history, and personality.

Sears fully recognizes that human reality. When, say, General Lee or General Ewell or even that dope General Sickles makes a decision that is clearly wrong in hindsight, Sears explains why that particular road was taken. Sears knows that we are all – Civil War generals included – constantly rationalizing our actions. In the end, a disaster is often a string of seemingly-logical decisions that end in a heap.

There are a lot of blunders in war, and Gettysburg was no exception. Sears excels at showing the reasoned thought processes that led to those blunders. (Again, none of these generals was trying to throw the battle as the result of a bet or dare). He is relatively soft on the performance of General Lee, who is generally indicted for his overconfidence. He shows how Lee’s boldness, his aggressiveness, actually made sense. Lee, after all, was fresh off his crowning victory over Hooker at Chancellorsville. Today, many historians will tell you that Lee should’ve followed Longstreet’s advice and tried going around the Yankee army. That ignores the fact that Lee very nearly won at Gettysburg and that his tactics were generally sound (though his inability to write clear orders nicely prefigures this age of misconstrued emails).

The most surprising thing about Sears’ Gettysburg is its elevation of Union commander George Gordon Meade. In the years following the Civil War, the political and military acolytes of the deposed Joe Hooker took turns trashing Meade’s reputation. Meade wasn’t helped by an oddly-ungrateful Abraham Lincoln, who kept barking at Meade to follow-up his victory and destroy Lee’s army (which is quite unfair: Meade had been in his job a week). Later histories have followed this early lead, attributing the Union victory to Lee’s mistakes or, to a lesser extent, the vitality of certain Yankee commanders such as Buford and Winfield Scott Hancock. Heck, if you watch the film Gettysburg (based on Michael Schaara’s The Killer Angels), Meade is barely to be found. In a movie that is over four hours long (!), Meade is only on screen for five minutes, and in that time, he is portrayed as a doddering old man who looks like he’s just walked over his own grave.

Sears tries to life Meade’s reputation up to where he thinks it belongs. He demonstrates that Meade took an incredibly active part in the defense of Gettysburg. More than that, he was able to effectively counter all of Lee’s aggressive movements by adroit shifting of his men along the line. He was also able to delegate local command to worthy subordinates, such as John Reynolds (killed on the first day) and Hancock, who held Cemetery Ridge. Finally, Meade was canny enough to know that not only was Lee going to attack on July 3, but also exactly where that attack was coming. (So much credit is given to Lee’s ability to gauge his opponents, which allowed him to use his aggressiveness against more passive foes such as George McClellan and Joe Hooker. Here, Meade used his knowledge of Lee’s aggressiveness to draw Lee into the center of his lines, where his artillery chewed Pickett’s division into bloody bits).

Sears goes on to show that Meade’s pursuit of Lee, while not as swift as possible (or as swift as necessary to do the job), was probably the best that could be asked for under the circumstances (especially since Lee was begging for a fight where the Union army attacked his entrenchments). Again, there is a very human psychology at play here, and Sears does not neglect this. Meade had only been in command a week (think of the last time you got a new job; did your boss ask you to save the nation?). He had just won a white-knuckle victory while suffering some 23,000 casualties. And not just any victory. He’d defeated the Great Lee (and he probably hadn’t slept in three days). Lincoln’s protests aside, I think Meade can be forgiven if he wasn’t super keen to press his luck right at that moment. Indeed, Lincoln should have been happy that Meade wasn’t running around in circles peeing on himself while pulling at his beard and yelling “Lee! Lee! Lee!” in a high-pitched voice. Because that is how I would’ve reacted.

This is a big book on a single battle, and it does an admirable job thoroughly covering the subject. This includes helpfully setting the scene behind Lee’s invasion. Still, so much happened at Gettysburg that a lot of events get a short-shrift. For instance, Chamberlain’s famous defense of Little Round Top gets about a paragraph, as does the charge of the 1st Minnesota. George Custer’s repulse of Stuart’s cavalry, which protected the Union rear, is almost treated as an afterthought. While regrettable, this is also inevitable.

There is a triad to great history writing: (1) scholarship; (2) judgment; and (3) literary merit. Sears nails the first two, though the third element isn’t enough to push this book into greatness.

It’s not that Sears is a bad writer. Bad writing is unclear, ungrammatical, strained, dull, plodding, lifeless. That’s not what I’m talking about here. Sears is an accessible writer; he is lucid in his explanations; clear in his points; and he makes deft use of primary accounts to add that firsthand presence to the story. However, he doesn’t have the narrative power of Shelby Foote or Bruce Catton. Foote (author of The Civil War: A Narrative) brought a novelists immediacy to his work; however, his scholarship and objectivity left a lot to be desired. Catton, on the other hand, to whom Sears has been compared (and whom Sears worked with at American Heritage), managed to combine analysis with great prose. Sure, there are times in his books when Catton gets carried away, but if there is ever a time for heightened rhetoric and soaring passages, it is in a book about the Civil War.

Of course, I can’t fault Sears for not being Foote or Catton. A person’s writing style is personal, and you can’t force or fake it. Still, I think there were some little things that Sears could’ve done to make his narrative more lively. For example, during Sears’ description of the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg, he presents Union General Francis Barlow facing off with Confederat General Ewell. Barlow had placed a battery of artillery on a small hill, forming a salient. This battery was commanded by nineteen year-old Bayard Wilkeson. Bayard’s father, a reporter, was at Gettysburg, covering the battle for his paper. Sears writes that Bayard was killed, and then includes a sad quote from his father. Then he moves right along.

This was a golden moment for Sears to bring a little intimacy to war. Obviously, Sears can’t describe every death, for a variety of reasons (space limitations, sheer horror, and the fact that most men died alone and unsung). However, in Bayard’s case, we know the details of his death, and they are astounding. Start with the fact that Bayard was nineteen! I don’t remember what I was doing at nineteen, but I’m pretty sure it involved Miller High Life and did not involve me commanding artillery. Bayard was hit in the leg by a cannon ball. In response, he fitted himself with a tourniquet and amputated his own leg with a pocket knife. Again, he was nineteen! With a pocket knife. Afterward, he was carried to an almshouse, where he died.

Sears certainly has the intellectual angles of Gettysburg covered. However, I truly think that the addition of a few more humanizing details would have given Sears’ Gettysburg a bit more of the breath of life.

Still, this is not a deal-breaker. It merely marks the difference between great and really, really good. I’ve read a lot about Gettysburg, and I’ve walked the battlefield twice, and still after reading this book I found myself learning new things and thinking critically about old things and seeing a different vision of the battle unspool in my head. And that’s one of the endlessly fascinating things about Gettysburg. Depending on the teller, the story is always different.
Profile Image for Chris.
Author 36 books11.3k followers
February 25, 2023
I read this as research for my 2025 novel, and it was riveting. I know the Battle of Gettysburg well, but not like Stephen W. Sears. A treasure for historians and Civil War buffs -- and, yes, for novelists writing books set in the 1860s.
Profile Image for robin friedman.
1,794 reviews221 followers
June 30, 2022
Sears' Study Of Gettysburg

The Civil War, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg, retains its hold on the imagination of Americans. We seek to understand our country by studying the events of these terrible but formative years. The Civil War did indeed lead to a "new birth of freedom" in the United States. We still struggle to understand and to develop the implications of this "new birth".

Stephen Sears is a distinguished military historian of the Civil War who has written in this book an outstanding account of the pivotal battle of Gettysburg (July 1 -- July 3, 1863). This battle ended the Confederacy's second invasion of the Union (the first invasion ended with the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862). Coupled with the Confederacy's surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 4, 1863, Gettysburg ended the South's ability to wage an offensive war and probably ended as well its chance of winning the war.

Sears gives a full account of the battle and of the events leading to Lee's second invasion of the North, beginning with Lee's victory over the Union Army at Chancellorsville in May, 1863. Sears explains well how the invasion was linked to the impending Confederate loss at Vicksburg. General Lee put forward the invasion to Jefferson Davis as a calculated gamble and a means to counteract this loss.

The book offers detailed pictures of the march into Pennsylvania of the preludes to the Battle of Gettysburg, of the battle itself, and of Lee's subsequent retreat into Virginia. There are excellent discussions of each of the three days of the battle, beginning with the two great armies stumbling on each other on day one, continuing with the ferocity of the Southern charge on the Union left (Little Round Top) on day two, and concluding with General George Pickett's doomed charge at the center of the Union line on day three. I found the story of Pickett's charge dramatically and poignantly told. The book describes Lee's retreat and Meade's pursuit into Virginia following the battle. Sears, in general, exonerates Meade from the charge that he failed to pursue Lee adequately following the battle, to destroy Lee's army, and to bring the War to an end.

At least as important as the factual development of the events of the campaign, Sears gives the reader an analysis of why events developed as they did. In particular, Sears views the battle as a result of Southern overconfidence and arrogance -- hubris -- resulting from the many victories attained by the Army of Northern Virginia in the early years of the War. General Lee felt contempt for the fighting spirit of the Union Army and for its leaders which led him to underestimate the spirit of the Federals, especially when they were called upon to defend their own land.
Sears also points out many failures in the Confederate High Command during the invasion. The primary failure, I believe, involved Lee and his cavalry commander Jeb Stuart. Stuart left the invading army at a critical time and as a result Lee was deprived of knowledge of the whereabouts of the Union Army, its size, and of the terrain at Gettysburg. The Union enjoyed an overwhelming field position during the second and third days of Gettysburg.

There is a great deal made in Sears's' book of Lee's relationships with his other generals, particularly General James Longstreet. Longstreet objected vigorously to Lee's plans of battle on the second and third days, even while carrying out faithfully and aggressively his duties as a subordinate officer when the decisions had been made.

Sears contrasts the Southern command with that of the Union commander, George Meade, who had assumed command only four days before the battle. Meade was cautious and thorough. He assumed personal command of the Union operations at Gettysburg (unlike Lee who delegated heavily), consulted with and listened to his subordinates, and performed both brilliantly and stolidly at the time of the Union's great need.

The writing style of this book is outstanding. It flows inexorably from one chapter to the next and from event to event. The reader can follow the story, from the complexities of the troop movements, to Sears's discussions and reflections on his story. It is a style suited to a prose epic, and it kept me riveted throughout.

This is an excellent treatment of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Robin Friedman
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
897 reviews847 followers
June 25, 2021
Stephen W. Sears’ Gettysburg provides a serviceable narrative history of the Civil War’s most famous battle. Sears is not one of my favorite Civil War historians: his writing style often reads as dry and overly absorbed in detail, while his biographical sketches of military and political leaders are often a puzzlement (I still don’t understand his obsession with rehabilitating Joe Hooker, which fortunately is mostly absent from this volume). Here, Sears provides a thorough, workmanlike recounting of the Gettysburg Campaign, from Robert E. Lee’s strategic gamble, ignoring arguments to dispatch troops to the West to relieve Vicksburg in favor of a decisive Eastern victory, to the infighting among the Army of the Potomac’s commanders, which led to Hooker’s downfall and the ascension of George Meade three days before the battle. Sears deserves credit for highlighting issues that some historians overlook, or skim past: the Army of the Potomac’s manpower being greatly reduced between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, for instance, by the expiration of a large chunk of “two years’ regiments” enlistments. He’s also careful and judicious in his assessments of the battle’s leadership controversies: Sears argues that the Confederates’ failure was due, more than anything, to poor coordination between his officers, leading to piecemeal attacks that the Federals were able to contain or repulse. Thus, implicitly handing overall responsibility to Lee while not ignoring the culpability of Longstreet, Ewell, Stuart, etc. for individual miscues. He’s generally generous towards Meade, rebuffing the idea that he mishandled the battle and was saved by subordinates, but does critique him for not following up more aggressively on his victory. As a strategic overview, then, it’s largely sound. As a battle history, Sears explains the tactics competently enough but his combat writing lacks the verve and sweep of other treatments of the battle, like Noah Andre Trudeau’s A Testing of Courage or Allen Guelzo’s The Last Invasion. Readable, lucid and occasionally insightful, but little to commend it above the many, many volumes already written on Gettysburg.
Profile Image for Bob Mayer.
Author 181 books47.9k followers
September 13, 2016
A very detailed account of the battle. If you want a blow by blow, person by person narrative, this is it. Well written.
I found the politicking of the generals interesting. Some things never change. Despite the fact it's life and death for the common soldier, many generals still are more interested in their career.
The dry narrative hides the horror of this kind of battle; the bodies torn and destroyed.
I used this book as a reference for my Gettysburg mission in Independence Day (Time Patrol) Independence Day because I needed to know why the Union didn't counter-attack on the 4th of July. The day after Pickett's Charge.
Lincoln was certainly pushing for it. I agree with the author, and with General Meade, though, that an attack on Lee's forces on Seminary Ridge would have been a disaster. Certainly Meade could have pursued Lee more quickly after that, but it's easy to critique in hindsight. What's amazing is that Meade won despite having been in command less than a week.
I also found it interesting that Lee could never really admit that he made a mistake not he 3rd, preferring instead to lay the blame on the execution, not the orders.
Profile Image for Karen.
153 reviews37 followers
Want to read
September 1, 2008
I was visiting Gettysburg the weekend I started reading this book and brought the book along as my textbook. I've read other books about Gettysburg, but I understand this is an especially good overview of the battle. During the weekend I was in Gettysburg, I got to see the monument that commemorates the first shot fired at Gettysburg. It's easy to miss because it's quite small and, until recently, was on private land. The Park Service recently purchased the house and property on which the monument stands. It was farther west of Gettysburg than I had anticipated. I didn't realize that the Union's initial position began three ridges out from Seminary Ridge.

I highly recommend hiring a licensed tour guide at the visitors' center when you visit the battlefield. If you do and focus on a day of the battle at a time, the guide will share quirky little tidbits about the battlefield that most people miss. I spent my time on the "first day" of the battle (July 1, 1863) during my visit, but ended my visit there by watching the sunset from Little Round Top.

I have another trip to Gettysburg coming up in November and am going to set this book aside until I get closer to that visit.
Profile Image for Michael Kuehn.
278 reviews
August 20, 2022
GETTYSBURG, Stephen W. Sears [2003]

Gettysburg – most people, I suspect even those who slept through their history classes, have at least a passing knowledge of the battle and its significance. There have been movies, after all. And plenty of books, some poorly written; I know, I've read some of them. Yes, even something as interesting, as exciting, dramatic and momentous as the clash of two armies, the fate of the Union at stake, can be rendered tedious and lifeless with an excess of meticulous yet unnecessary detail. Stephen W. Sears has kindly and expertly bridged that gap between the minutiae of the scholarly and the capsulization of the popular, the mainstream, and while he does chart the composition and movements of various regiments, battalions, and corps – one hardly could explain and analyze the battle of Gettysburg without it – he provides the strategy and tactics as well, putting all in context. Perhaps most noteworthy is Sears' genius at providing fascinating backgrounds on the major characters; on the often cantankerous and meddling politics, particularly on the Union side, hampering the yankee campaigns; on all the unpredictable forces – communication failures, sudden weather changes, faulty intelligence reports – that influence a battle. Sears has written a masterful, thoroughly entertaining, absorbing account of this pivotal conflict. I was so impressed with Sears work that I've gone on to read his book on Chancellorsville, and now his 'Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam,' working my way in inverse chronology through the war. For those interested in the Civil War I can't recommend highly enough.
Profile Image for Sweetwilliam.
157 reviews55 followers
July 27, 2011
This is an outstanding compilation on the Gettysburg campaign. I have read the Landscape Turned Red, Chancellorsville, and now Gettysburg. I enjoyed every page of every book. This book explains Lee’s reason for the invasion of Pennsylvania…. first the Army of Northern Virginia needed food and supplies for their men and forage for their horses and secondly the South needed a victory to offset the pending loss of Vicksburg. Lee believed reinforcing Vicksburg would do nothing more than dilute the overall war effort. Instead Lee proposed a 2nd invasion of the north to fight what Sears refers to as a strategically offensive campaign but tactically defensive battle (Similar to Hooker's plan at Chancellorsville). This was Lee's last chance to take the offensive. Then why did Lee not fight the defensive battle he proposed? Sears accuses Lee of being passive at Gettysburg. He says the same about Lee's new Corp commander’s AP Hill and Ewell. Also, Lee was left blind by Stuarts ride around the army of the Potomac. It seems like the Union’s cavalry coming of age - thanks to men like Gregg, Buford, and George Armstrong Custer - played a large part in leveling the playing field. But the biggest factor may have been The Army of Northern Virginia’s overconfidence. If you read Sear’s Chancellorsville the Army of the Potomac, with the exception of the 11th Corp, was on par with the Army of Northern Virginia. The only problem I had with this book is that it had to end. Read the book. You’ll love it.
Profile Image for Josh Liller.
Author 2 books33 followers
June 14, 2018
An excellent book about the most famous battle of the Civil War. Sears does a great job of covering every last bit of the battle in depth. He includes the lead up to the battle, with Lee's initial discussions with Jefferson Davis about invading Pennsylvania and the fallout from Chancellorsville in Hooker's army which eventually leads to Hooker's resignation (and replacement by Meade) when he is in the midst of chasing the Rebel army.

The book paints quite an interesting picture of the squabbling and failings of the Confederate commanders at Gettysburg while being more favorable to Meade than history has sometimes been.

I thought one of the most interesting tidbits was Pickett's Charge had precedent to work: 4 years earlier, the French had broken the Austrian center with an intense artillery bombardment followed by an infantry assault.

Even the 3rd day fighting at East Cavalry Field gets a fair shake; while Sears doesn't put forth the master plan suggested in "Lost Triumph" it does suggest Stuart was indeed trying to access the Union rear (some historians have blown the whole thing off and suggested Stuart was merely covering the Confederate flank with no larger intentions.)

Superb book. I'm going to be reading more of Sears' works.

I originally read this book in 2009 after visiting the Gettysburg battlefield. It started a great deal of reading on my part about the Civil War and a return to college where I completed a History B.A. Now in 2013, after reading Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, I decieded to reread this book to compare and see if my opinion of it had changed.

While I found a few points to nitpick and few typos on this second reading, my overall opinion has not changed. I still think this is an outstanding book. He may be a little less entertaining than Trudeau, but Sears is still a great writer and this book is has more insight and information than its peer. The author's best work, probably the best single volume on the battle, and still one of my favorite history books ever. Highest recommendation.
Profile Image for Sean Chick.
Author 5 books1,041 followers
August 5, 2022
I think I see the value of Sears' work. He is not an exacting historian. He is not an archive rat who will prove the precise location of a regiment in an obscure battle. He also has a defined bias aganist certain men who can seemingly do nothing right in this book (Howard, Slocum, Pleasanton, Kilpatrick, etc.) He is also not a person to overturn the existing orthodoxy. This does not mean he does not have original insights. His take on Hooker is fresh and solid although some of Hooker's less savory actions are ignored (he was the man who prodded Sickles and Butterfield to attack Meade). However, Sears' writing is clear and evocative. Although he concentrates on the actions of the commanders (and his analysis here is usually fair) he will always make clear the hellish nature of warfare. For these reasons, I see him as the heir to Bruce Catton and one of the best Civil War historians out there.
Profile Image for Creighton.
77 reviews12 followers
May 7, 2022

Gettysburg... If there is one battle that will forever live on in the annals of American Civil War history, it would be this battle. Most people think of this battle when they think of the war itself, so no doubt there have been books written on this battle. I chose this book mainly because I wanted to get a rundown of the battle, and because I have been in an ACW fix lately. I watched the movie "Gettysburg" a few months back, so I felt myself connecting what I was reading with the movies visualization.

It was great, but since my area of expertise in the nitty gritty of details concerning this battle is still developing, I give it 4-stars in terms of rating. It was an exceptional piece, and I look forward to reading Sears' book on Chancellorsville, as that is another battle I want to learn more about.
Profile Image for Stephen Simpson.
638 reviews10 followers
January 29, 2019
Very solid, very thorough recounting of this key battle, including the immediate lead-up and aftermath. While there is a tremendous amount of "they went here and did this", it doesn't generally get bogged down. A few more illustrations/battle maps would have been helpful, but most readers should be able to follow the flow of battle in their head.

The book dealt a lot with the personalities, interactions, and foibles of the men who led the troops. If you want a soldier's view/perspective, you won't get that here, but the high-level interactions were really interesting and added a lot of context and "so, that's why..." to historical events that I previously knew about, but couldn't really put in context.

As for the accuracy, I can't really say - I'm just not enough of a Civil War buff to say whether the author's explanations for how/why things happen fit the current consensus. I can say that the book is highly critical of Lee (though in a forgiving, "how could he/why would he make these mistakes?") and certainly highly critical of other generals on both sides.

If there's a main weakness, it's that the author focused on personalty and personal interactions at the cost of some discussion of strategy and background information. If you don't know about Civil War-era weapons, tactics, equipment, etc., well, you won't after reading this either. It's not a major flaw (more in the realm of "no author/book can cover everything"), but that may be a meaningful omission to some readers who don't know as much about that era.
322 reviews11 followers
June 20, 2011
I am going to Gettysburg this autumn and plan to read or re - read several of the most authoratative books of the battle. Sear's has written an excellent and gripping chronicle of the battle and the military and political context around it. His source material for the military intelligence and command decisions of Army of the Potomac is excellent. On the other hand , there is not any new insight or perspective on the reasons for the most controversial actions of Lee's army. Lots of speculation and references to accounts written years later , but he did not take a position on some of the enduringly perplexing actions taken by Lee or his commanding generals .
Nevertheless , a superb book .
Profile Image for Michael Kleen.
55 reviews2 followers
September 9, 2018
In Gettysburg, Stephen W. Sears charts the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 to July 24, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North during the American Civil War. The campaign culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, in which approximately 48,000 Americans became casualties. In the end, nothing was gained except these men added to the casualties rolls.

No two armies could have been more similar and yet more different than the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia. For the first time, the two armies neared manpower parity. While Lee’s army was supremely confident, even contemptuous of its opponents, George G. Meade’s army had no illusions about the coming fight. Its men were eager to prove they could win a victory.

Where Lee’s command was rife with disagreement, miscommunication, apathy, and poor decision making, with some exceptions the leadership of the Army of the Potomac had its finest hour. Sears convincingly demonstrates that the Union army’s leadership simply out classed their counterparts, at least on this battlefield.

Much has been made over the years of Confederate cavalry commander Maj. General J.E.B. Stuart’s absence during the critical days leading up to the battle. Sears in some ways exonerates Stuart. Stuart was following Lee’s orders when he rode around the Union army, capturing supplies and disrupting communications.

“The very concept of Stuart’s expedition was fueled by overconfidence and misjudgment at the highest command level,” he argued. While frustrated with Stuart’s absence, Lee made no effort to rectify the situation until after the battle was underway.

The Army of Northern Virginia lost many of its finest men and officers at the Battle of Gettysburg. It would never recover. Faced with opposition from his generals for the first time, particularly Lt. General James Longstreet, Lee dug in his heels and stubbornly refused to budge. This inability to properly manage his subordinates was at the heart of the campaign’s failure. Where Lee failed at managing his subordinates, Meade succeeded. Sears concludes, Meade “thoroughly out generaled Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg.”

In some ways, Sears judges the Army of Northern Virginia too harshly. Despite some missteps, the first day was a stunning victory for the Confederates, and the second day was at worst a draw. The Union army occupied a strong defensive position on high ground. It is questionable whether any Confederate army could have dislodged it. Still, Pickett’s Charge on July 3 was an inexcusable disaster that everyone except George Pickett and Robert E. Lee seemed to know would fail.

Perhaps no Civil War battle has been written about more than Gettysburg, but Sears still manages to break new ground. There are no factual bombshells here–it is a familiar story, but the author’s analysis is as insightful as his writing style is clear, concise, and at times even poetic. This is truly a masterwork.

Stephen Ward Sears (born July 27, 1932), of Norwalk, Connecticut, is a graduate of Lakewood High School and Oberlin College. He began his writing career in the 1960s as a World War 2 historian but later found a niche writing about the Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War, and particularly its most famous commander, General George B. McClellan. His other books include Lincoln’s Lieutenants (2017) and George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (1988).
Profile Image for Sharon .
129 reviews
May 15, 2015
The title of this book is a bit deceiving. There is much more to this work than just the battle itself. Sears sets up the scenario by revealing how the different pieces for this accidental battle fell into place. It begins with Lee and Davis planning their invasion of the North with the parallel account of the political bickering in the Union Army which resulted in General Meade becoming the reluctant Commander of the Army of the Potomac.

The Gettysburg Campaign begins June 3 in Culpeper VA as Lee and his forces make their way north and it ends nearly a month later when they recross the Potomac back into Virginia. There are battles and skirmishes on the way to Pennsylvania and more battles and skirmishes during the retreat. Sears covers every movement of the battle itself taking time to give short bios of the officers and descriptions of the terrain. None of this slows the story down.

Good comprehensive book that tells the complete story of a great three day battle that not only affected one nation but also had ramifications for the future of the world.
Profile Image for David.
47 reviews7 followers
April 12, 2009
If you are fascinated by civil war history and enjoy a well researched history book than you should give Stephen Sears a try. I read this book last year in expectation of a trip to the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania. It was a slow read for me but one well worth the time. I found myself re-reading sections of the book as I traversed the town and battlfield upon finishing the book. A fantastic piece of historical documentation. The best thing about Sear's books are the variety of sources he uses. There are first hand accounts from varied sources including townspeople, generals, privates, and spouses back home. He uses journal entries, letters, newspaper stories from that time, and documented observations. I also love the maps he includes inside the text to highlight movements on the battlefield. A history book well worth the tim and energy it takes to read it!
Profile Image for Sue.
392 reviews20 followers
July 15, 2011
This is probably the most comprehensive and indepth study of what's arguably the most famous battle of the Civil War, and possibly of American history. It covers more than just the events of those three fateful days; it delves briefly into the events of the war so far that led up to the battle, the personalities of the generals and their subordinates, and attempts to explain the rationalizations for the decisions (both good and bad) that ultimately helped decide the victor. In particular, I loved the significant amount of first-hand accounts provided. I've visited the grounds of this battlefield several times and it's always been a sobering experience, but this book seems to bring this tragic story into much more vivid life, even nearly 150 years later. This is an absolute must-read if you have any interest in the Civil War or just American history in general.
121 reviews12 followers
December 20, 2009
Faulted Sears's Chancellorsville for spending too much time locating every bullet that was ever fired. Then my National park ranger and old room mate took me on a trip through Fredricksburg, Marys Heights, and on to Chancellorship where he forced marched us along Stonewall Jackson's flanking maneuver. Made me appreciate Sear's detail.

His Gettysburg is even better. Here he not only locates the bullets but the soldiers that fired them and all but climbs into the minds of the field general's who fought the the fatigue, the heat, and the questionable orders. Read closely and you can even understand what transpired in the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard. Culp's Hill also gets it due.
Profile Image for lyle.
62 reviews
December 25, 2009
Once I began this I was unable to do much else except read it to the end. A good battle story should cover both the top-level political and strategic context and decisions as well as the view of the soldiers on the ground, bringing out both the exhaustion, horror and heroism. Sears does all of this well and in detail. General Lee, brilliant in earlier victories, is portrayed as out of action here. General Meade, later criticized for not pursuing the confederates afterward, comes across well as in touch with his units.
Profile Image for Steve Rice.
100 reviews
June 25, 2019
Read this book as preparation for next week’s trip to Gettysburg. This was an excellent journey from the events that led to the two armies finding themselves in Gettysburg and choosing that place to fight, through the aftermath of the battle and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Sears lays out an almost minute by minute account of the three days of fighting. He seasons the narrative with a healthy dose of first hand accounts, and his own analysis. All in all, a great textbook on Gettysburg that reads like a grand story.
Profile Image for Ben Vogel.
446 reviews
June 1, 2018
This is the best single volume work on Gettysburg I have read. Sears really is a great writer. I enjoyed how he has put focus on areas and aspects that other historians have not, and ignored some of the narrower focus that other authors have felt compelled to emphasize following the success of The Killer Angels. (No slam against that terrific novel, only that those who know only a little about Gettysburg believe that it was all won or lost by Chamberlain at Little Round Top.)
Profile Image for Neil.
10 reviews2 followers
October 20, 2011
A truly great work on the battle. Does a very good job of covering the transition from Hooker to Meade and addresses the many questions regarding Lee and his subordinates during the battle.
I would recommend this work to anyone interested in the battle. Detailed, even-handed without being non-judgmental just a great work.
Profile Image for Mark R.
7 reviews
June 21, 2011
This is by far the best history of the battle of Gettysburg that I've ever read (and I've read too many). I would, however, recommend that you have a basic knowledge of the military jargon of the time, specifically dealing with the organization of the respective armies.

Highly Recommended.
462 reviews
September 1, 2011
This is an outstanding book on the battle. It has enough detail for the serious student of the battle yet the story doesn't bog down with too much detail. The writing is clear and all facets of the fighting are covered.
Profile Image for Raimo Wirkkala.
674 reviews3 followers
May 21, 2020
This is superb history-writing. Sears has command of the subject and draws the reader in, from the outset, with his introductions of the players, the unveiling of the plot and, only then, drawing back the curtain on one of history's dramatic pivot-points.
10 reviews1 follower
January 16, 2018
Gettysburg by Sears is a military study of the Gettsyburg Campaign, beginning just after the Battle of Chancellorsville and ending with the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River in mid-July 1863.

The strengths of the book - or maybe more accurately my prior weaknesses - come prior to the battle and after the battle.

Sears does a good job of explaining Lee's sales pitch to President Davis for a Northern Invasion. Lee desires to go on the offensive in order to regain strategic imitative, and not be pinned down by the Army of the Potomac in an attempt to defend Richmond. Trouble is mounting in the Western Theater as Vicksburg threatens to fall, and Lee sees an aggressive maneuver against the North as a countermeasure and in the best case a way to relieve pressure on Vicksburg. Sears does not speak to Lee's general attitude towards the Western Theater or in an alternative universe whether Lee would have been able to shuttle off Longstreet to aid in the West.

Sears also does a good job of describing the palace intrigue brewing within the Army of the Potomac, as the loss at Chancellorsville and General Hooker's overall unwillingness to assume the majority of the blame for the defeat result in wisespread loss of confidence in his command among the Officers of the Army. Hooker's struggle to maintain command and his eventual dismissal play a key role in contextualizing the battle of Gettysburg, which begins only days after General Meade assumes command from Hooker.

The actual march North is well covered as well, with military routes and strategic goals well described. Sears faults Stuart heavily but ultimately places the blame for the Confederate's missing Calvary screening on Lee's acceptance of the Stuart proposal. In the context of the March, Sears does go into some detail as to atrocities committed by Confederate troops and the impact on civilians - most notably and least known to me was the enslavement of free African Americans by the Confederate Army even well into Pennsylvania. Sears cites a letter from Longstreet's command regarding human contraband to emphasize that these actions were not occurring behind the backs of Confederate Officers - this was a subject I was not taught about in school, and I would be interested in reading more about it.

Moving on, Sears effectively places the armies at Gettysburg while portraying the fog of war well. I left with a strong impression of how little each Commander knew about the other Army, and how difficult commanding over 100,000 infantry, animals, artillery, and supply lines must have been from a logistical perspective.

The details of the battle itself are also well written - if you are interested in particular skirmishes and elements within the battle, they are all well covered. The maps are mostly good (though often I wish then were broken down to the Regiment and labeled accordingly but this would have probably been overkill). Sears is methodically in describing the atrocities of the battle - so much that it is easy to forget exactly what he means when he states for example that a particular regiment lost over 70 percent of its fighting power in a single days fighting (or sometimes even an hours worth of fighting).

Sears is at his best - or perhaps I find Sears most engaging - when he is discussing and questioning strategic decisions and contextualizing battle reports. Officers were often overzealous in their praise, or making up for previous blunders or cowardice in their decision-making, and Sears appears to be careful to point out when this occurs. This provides a needed context for understanding the motivations behind Officer decisions and allows the reader to both hear from the actual Officers and privates involved as well as scrutinize those accounts.

Overall, I would recommend Gettysburg to those looking for more detail on the lead up and the battle itself. I found Gettysburg most disappointing in its treatment of the consequences of the battle - Sears spends almost no time discussing the strategic or political consequences. This could partly be due to Lee's insistence that his strategy at Gettysburg was correct, only the exectuion of his plan was flawed. The Gettysburg Address is given a page, and the book ends with the feeling that the reader has more work to do to contextualize the battle. For a battle that has been described by many amateur historians as the 'turning point of the war' I was hoping for a greater examination of the consequences of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Profile Image for Dan Walker.
257 reviews14 followers
August 15, 2021
I really enjoyed the book, the analysis, and the detail on troop movements. I really feel like I understand the battle very well now.

Interesting that Lee does not come off as the military genius he usually was. He made several key errors. His best general, Longstreet, was not committed to this fight since his support of the invasion of the north was predicated on acting offensively in strategy and defensively in tactics. However Gettysburg was predicated on the South attacking Union positions that turned out to be well-nigh impregnable.

Lee was so doubtful of Longstreet's full support that he went directly to Longstreet's subordinates to order the attacks, undercutting his most able general. While he was busy micromanaging Longstreet, he failed to ensure that his other generals were pressing the attack as vigorously a possible. The Rebels could have seized the hill that came to anchor the federal right, but failed to do so when it was unoccupied or only lightly defended. IMO Lee failed to realize that he no longer had Stonewall Jackson to depend on.

I was shocked to learn just how deadly Civil War combat could be. I always thought of officers as being more or less immune, since they would be behind the lines. Not so. Only officers without direct line commands could expect to escape injury. Several generals were wounded or killed at Gettysburg, especially ones that were aggressive, such as Reynolds, who led Union efforts for much of day 1.

For the average soldier, combat meant that being hit or wounded was very likely. Casualty rates of 75 or even 90% were not unheard of. I think we need to have some tolerance for units that broke and ran. It was the sane thing to do! And it is extremely disappointing that generals during WWI had not learned the lessons of the American Civil War, such as that tactically the defensive held the advantage. Too dismissive of American fighting prowess, no doubt.

While Lee was failing, Meade did very well, always acting promptly and decisively. He favored a different battle line, but did not hesitate to adopt a new strategy once it became clear that that decision had been made for him.

Another failure on Lee's part was allowing Jeb Stuart to head off on a strategically pointless ride round the Union army. This left him blind as to Federal troop movements. Further, before the campaign he failed to bring up garrison troops that would have been part of Pickett's charge. Contrary to popular opinion that the charge was disastrous, elements of the charge did in fact reach Federal defenses and could have pierced the defensive line. However a) they stopped at the Federal breastworks instead of continuing forward, and b) reinforcements were not sent forward. Ultimately this success may have been shortlived, but it came closer to victory than is generally believed.

So read the book. All the regiments, brigades, etc. etc. are very confusing, but the maps helped. I just concentrated on keeping the generals straight and that more or less helped me follow the descriptions of troop movements. But I doubt an audiobook would be a good idea.
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,414 reviews300 followers
July 4, 2019
This book is fairly recent and the blurb says if you’re going to read one book about Gettysburg this should be the book! But I’ve got to say that reading verbal descriptions of battle maneuvering has got to be the dullest thing in the world. The reader was pretty good and it really did make you think that he was maybe just sitting there and chatting with you about a war story. And there were a few sides about personalities. But mostly there were just battle descriptions in a way that I just can’t follow. And how many times do you want to hear someone say we’re just going out there to get killed? And how many times do you want a general to say you can blame me? Or of the stories about how other people were second-guessing the decisions of the general?

I guess it isn’t any more amazing to read about guys with guns running across Fields being shot at by guys on the other side of the field. We just went through the D day invasion one more time with boatloads of guys coming up on the beach and dying before they even touch the sand. It was kind of like that at Gettysburg evidently. For three days in a row they just shot at each other with rifles and cannons from fairly close range. Only they had to re-load after every shot.

I see it took me three days to read this book. Or I should say to listen to it. July 1 through July 3 just like they did it in 1863. That was an accident.
Profile Image for Daniel Woodworth.
122 reviews3 followers
September 3, 2019
This is, I'd argue, an exceptionally well-written and gripping account of the battle, but the author's pronounced negative view toward a few generals (Kilpatrick and Howard, notably) is distracting whether or not it's justified.

(Curiously enough, Sears seems to dislike Howard more than Sickles - odd because in a contest for worst corps commander in the Army of the Potomac, the options are just "Sickles" seven times)

I'd also add here that if you want a somewhat shorter treatment of the battle without this books deficiencies (albeit without much of its detail, too), "Beneath a Northern Sky" is excellent - and I'd say that even if my dad hadn't written it.
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