I first heard Edwin C. Bearss speak as a commentator on Ken Burn’s series The Civil War, then one-on-one with the viewer as he led the camera around the likes of Gettysburg on the series Great Battles of the Civil War. So it was with great interest that I bought and read this book, attracted by Bearss’ “you are there” method of storytelling.
The book’s text is derived from transcripts of Bearss’ battlefield tours augmented by supplementary text in italics from collaborator J. Parker Hills. It traces out a fresh-sounding path across two tales familiar to Civil War buffs: the campaign to take and resulting siege by U.S. Grant of Vicksburg, Mississippi and the storied battle of Gettysburg. The former of which ended one day after the latter.
As I said, Bearss goes for a “you are there” method of storytelling, as a sample from his depiction of the first day at Gettysburg shows:
‘Posted in the cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary is a Federal signalman, Lt. Aaron B. Jerome, and Buford has him peering southeast through his spyglass—towards Emmitsburg—for any sign of Reynold’s ground-pounders. The pressure from the Confederate advance has already forced Calef to start pulling his artillery back. In a matter of minutes the cavalry will have to fall back. Then, around 10 a.m., Jerome spots the vanguard of Reynold’s column advancing north on the Emmitsburg Road, well south of the John Wentz farm. Buford breathes a sigh of relief, and says, “Now we can hold this place.”’
However, there are no footnotes or bibliography provided, though there is an index. Also, Bearss states opinions as facts, saying of U.S. Grant protégée James Harrison Wilson that: “Wilson lives to be 88, so he outlives almost every other Civil War officer, and like Joshua Chamberlain, Wilson writes prolifically after the war. Also like Chamberlain, every time he writes he gets a little bit bigger in the picture.” Say you say what about Old Josh?! If you’re going to accuse some historical figure in a history book A. make sure to state it is your opinion and B. source an example to back that opinion.
That said, this book is a must for buffs into Vicksburg and Gettysburg because of how well Bearss can narrate a monumental event.