THE TURNING POINT (Monthly Book Report: 4/18)

High Tide at Gettysburg: The Campaign in Pennsylvania (1958)
Glenn Tucker

The only book i finished in April was Glenn Tucker’s High Tide at Gettysburg, which I quoted from a couple of times along the way.

I could have quoted a lot more. Tucker’s history of the most important battle in American history yielded insights on nearly every page, even to a long time student of both the battle and the Civil War. The author was Indiana born and raised, spent his career as a Yankee journalist, and retired to North Carolina in the late forties to concentrate on writing history.

I mention his biography because this particular book could be accused of having a pro-Southern bias, especially in our current climate. Tucker is as prone to romanticizing southern gallantry and courage on the battlefield as some actual southerners have been. Here as elsewhere, it’s more a matter of tilting perspectives a bit, as opposed to cheering for one side over the other.

That said, it wasn’t enough to impede my enjoyment of Tucker’s account. If you want a concise, well-written, relatively brief but comprehensive, account of a subject everyone should know at least a little about, you could hardly do better.

As an example of Tucker’s grasp of the blend of events, gossip and coverage that go into making History what it is–including his own–here’s his take on a little known aspect of the Third Day at Gettysburg (and why it is little known):

Members of Davis’ brigade, this company was part of he regiment that pursued Cutler’s men north of the railroad cutting on the first day of the battle. The point of farthest advance was established–at least to the content of the North Carolinians, and the apparent satisfaction of the Gettysburg battlefield authorities of that day–when Lieutenant T.D. Falls, of Fallstown, Cleveland County, North Carolina, and Sergeant Augustus Whitley, of Everitts, in Martin County, visited the terrain, made affidavits about the point they had reached, and had it marked by the Gettysburg Commission. This testimony, according to Adjutant Charles M. Cooke, of the 55th, had other corroboration.

Taken with the advance of Lane and D.H. Hill in the pre-Manassas affair on the Peninsula, and the fact that Cox’s brigade fired the final round of the Army of Northern Virginia, this bold feat of the 55th Regiment went to establish North Carolina’s most cherished tradition of its part in the Confederate War: “First at Bethel, farthest at Gettysburg and last at Appomattox.”

Unhappily for the North Carolinians, the principal press accounts of the battle were from the Richmond correspondents. In one of the first conspicuous dispatches to the Enquirer, Pettigrew’s (North Carolina) command, containing some of the staunchest veteran regiments of the army, was termed “raw troops” and Pickett’s defeat was attributed to Pettigrew’s “faltering.” North Carolina has not yet recovered.

Against that gimlet-eyed view of the means and motives of nineteenth century Fake News, here is Tucker’s account of one of the battle’s most poignant anecdotes:

When the results were reviewed, it was recognized that Culp’s Hill had been the scene of some of the most determined, sanguinary fighting of the war. Geary always thought that the main battle of Gettysburg was won by Meade’s army on Culp’s Hill. (called by the Confederates “The Hill of Death.”)

Kane’s brigade found 500 dead Confederates in its front. Somewhere among them was a squat little man, Wesley Culp, a private in Company B, 2nd Virginia, of the Stonewall Brigade. He was twenty-four and because he was only five feet tall, Colonel Douglas had had a special gun made for him. Where he fell he could look at the house where he was born. Like Henry Wentz, he had gone to Virginia to sell Gettysburg carriages and Southern eyes made him stay.

No one who appreciates those two descriptions of lost causes–the public cause of a battle unit’s reputation and the private cause of a young man killed fighting with an enemy army to capture his father’s land at what was, literally, the Confederacy’s high tide–would be remiss in adding this little volume to any list of a completist’s interest in this, or any, “high tide.”

Same for anyone who knows nothing and is looking for a place to begin learning.

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