Missed opportunities. With those two words I would describe the days after the Battle of Gettysburg. Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael F. Nugent provide an excellent narrative and analysis of the retreat from Gettysburg and the pursuit of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in One Continuous Fight.
The book mainly covers July 4 through July 14, 1863 because, as the authors point out, the main action after the battle occurred during this time period. Although many have written and analyzed the Battle of Gettysburg, few have spent much time on Lee’s retreat and Meade’s pursuit. This book has a plethora of information on the time period – the authors cover everything from the evacuation of the wounded to the final withdrawal south of the Potomac River by the Confederates.
I like the balance of the authors as they discuss the decisions and dispositions of the two forces. In my opinion, neither the Union nor the Confederate forces is favored. The authors equally praise – the actions of the Union and Confederate cavalrymen during the retreat – and equally criticize – the actions of certain generals on both sides.
I once thought that the aftermath of the battle was anticlimactic and nothing much really happened. However, as the title infers, there were more than 20 engagements – mainly cavalry verses cavalry or cavalry verses infantry. These engagements took place over a large area of territory – from Greencastle, Pennsylvania to Williamsport, Maryland to Hagerstown and Falling Waters, Maryland. The authors do an excellent job of describing each of these battles and the significance of each to the overall campaign.
The authors interweave personal accounts from letters and diaries of the participants into the narration of the events. Thankfully, the text and the primary sources smoothly fit together unlike some books which are just a collection of primary sources with no real transition language between them.
One of the major strengths of the book is the chapter on conclusions. The authors break down the controversies surrounding the retreat – they answer questions such as could Union General George Meade have done more? Could Lee’s army have been bagged as it fought for its existence against the Potomac River? Was the Army of the Potomac in any condition to launch the sort of attack that would have been required to defeat Lee’s army in Maryland? Each of these questions is answered in detail. Many of the answers bring forth information I have never heard of or thought about before. For example, regarding Meade’s timidity to attack, the authors explain that one must think about how new Meade was to command of the armyÂ and the relative inexperience of his corps commanders.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the authors highlight many of the opportunities that the Union forces missed to hinder or capture large portions of the Confederate forces. These missed opportunities include Meade’s error in not ordering General William French’s command to take and hold Williamsport before Confederate General John Imboden could garrison the town. In another example of a missed opportunity, Union General Alfred Pleasonton failed to send his cavalry to block some of the main mountain passes that Lee used to escape, Jack’s Mountain passes – if he had, the Union cavalry and artillery would have forced Lee to either fight or take a longer route to the Potomac. In addition to the strategic missed opportunities, the authors point out several missed opportunities at the tactical level.
The book is well organized and a relatively quick read at 348 pages. If you are one to follow in the footsteps of the participants, there is a driving tour section, including GPS coordinates, of the retreat of the main Confederate army and another for its wagon train of wounded. Although the writing is very strong, it is hurt a little by several grammatical errors with words missing and misspellings.
This book deserves a spot in any Civil War historian’s library because of the authors’ detailed account and analysis of the days following the Battle of Gettysburg.