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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

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Review: Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg

By James M. McPherson.  Crown Journeys, 2009, 144 pp


"Perhaps no word in the American language has greater historical resonance than Gettysburg," writes the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War historian, James M. McPherson.  "For some people Lexington and Concord, or Bunker Hill, or Yorktown, or Omaha Beach would be close rivals.  But more Americans visit Gettysburg each year than any of these other battlefields—perhaps than all of them combined."


Indeed, nearly 2 million people a year (including around 60,000 foreigners) visit the Gettysburg National Military Park, where the battle took place in the first three days of July 1863.  There were almost 50,000 casualties in this battle, which, the author calls the "costliest" in the Civil War and which, he believes, "turned the tide toward ultimate victory."


McPherson, who says he has visited the Park and given tours so many times it feels almost like a "second home," is a superb guide for readers.  Not only is he knowledgeable, he is a lively writer, with a good sense of character and story.  As he walks, pausing at one of the approximately 1,400 monuments and markers, or at a particular hill or road, he fleshes out the significance of the place with portraits of the players.


At one spot, he tells the story behind the only monument to an individual enlisted man: Amos Humiston, a sergeant in the 154th New York, whose unidentified body was discovered clutching a photograph of his three children in his hand.  His eventual identification, through this photo, and the subsequent publicity, led to the establishment of The National Soldiers' Orphan Homestead, a home for widows and orphans of Union soldiers, with his wife as wardrobe mistress and his children as the first residents.


At the monument to the Twentieth Maine, we hear about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a professor of rhetoric and languages (he knew seven) at Bowdoin College, who led his diminishing force on a sudden and successful bayonet attack, who went on to fight and be wounded twice at later battles, and who was made so famous by a novel (The Killer Angels), Ken Burns's documentary, The Civil War, and a film, Gettysburg, that this monument is now the most popular in the Park.


And we hear about Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who advised Lee not to attack on Cemetery Hill, and who, when his advice was rejected, "turned away sadly, as he wrote years later, with a conviction of impending disaster."   Maps in the book showing the positions of the two sides help readers understand the battle decisions.  I have never read military history or thought I would be interested in military strategies, but I found McPherson's discussions riveting.


Along the way, the author debunks some myths about Gettysburg (the battle, he says, was most likely not started "because of shoes") and speculates interestingly on how things might have gone differently if different decisions had been made.


What if, for example, General George Gordon Meade had pursued Lee immediately after the battle—as Lincoln wished—instead of delaying so long that the Confederate troops had already crossed the Potomac?  Would this have ended the war, which went on for 21 more months?  "A Union assault might have succeeded—with heavy casualties—or it might not have," says McPherson.  Whether it would have ended the war "is anybody's guess."


The book concludes, fittingly, with Lincoln's magnificent brief Gettysburg Address.  By this time, armchair visitors to the battlefield will understand why this is indeed hallowed ground.

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