A historical novel focuses on the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspective of the North.
Pierce begins this detailed work on June 27, 1863. It is the middle of the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln and his team in the White House want a change. The Rebels have invaded Pennsylvania. A wrong decision could very well lead to an attack on the nation’s capital. A messenger is dispatched to the front lines to tell Gen. George Meade that he is the new head of the Army of the Potomac. Meade is a West Point graduate and career soldier, though he has some doubts that he is the right one to command so many men. He lacks the charisma of more well-liked generals and is known for his hot temper. But orders are orders. Meade is soon at the helm of what will be remembered as the bloodiest engagement of the Civil War. The narrative follows Meade and a few other characters on the Union side as they fight the enemy, the oppressive summer heat, and problems in their own ranks. Perhaps the biggest thorn in Meade’s side is Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. Although Sickles thinks quite highly of himself, Meade has quite the opposite opinion. Sickles, who has political connections and was once acquitted of killing his wife’s lover, presents a major problem on the battlefield when he decides to place his troops in a foolhardy position. Yet even when Sickles must exit the battle with a wounded leg, there are still lots of pounding artillery, infantry charges, and Rebel yells to fill the once-tranquil Pennsylvania landscape.
The book deftly outlines the enormous task that lay before Meade. From the difficulties of simply communicating to his troops to men like Sickles who might decide to do what they wanted regardless of orders, leading the Union forces in a major engagement is certainly no cakewalk. Not to mention that Meade takes command mere days before the epic battle. And those are just the logistical problems. The tale effectively depicts how even a general like Meade has plenty to fear from enemy fire, as when a shell bursts near a group of officers, “raining down steel fragments.” But not all of the details are quite as informative. Meade and others, as one could imagine, have a penchant for coffee. Yet readers need not care how a private “poured a steaming cup” and how “Meade’s cook walked onto the porch and handed Meade a cup of coffee.” Such moments lengthen an already sprawling novel without supplying much substance. Meanwhile, opportunities for providing more depth are missed. For example, much is made of the many participants in the war who are West Point graduates. But what might West Point have been like in the 1800s? Why do some leave the school with a sense of duty while others see fit to break their “solemn oath to protect and honor the Republic”? Nevertheless, the novel delivers an astute angle from which to consider the crucial events of those deadly days in July. In the end, Meade, a figure often overshadowed by other heroes, has a lot to tell readers.
This tale skillfully shows the complexities and bloodshed of three famous days in American history.
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