“We have come to dedicate…” Remembering and Memorializing the Battle of Gettysburg

An annotated bibliography prepared by Laura Mosher, Reference & Liaison Librarian


19th Maine Infantry Monument – Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Photo by Laura Mosher

We’ve just passed the 150th Anniversary of one of the most memorable battles of the Civil War, one that took place from July 1 through 3 of 1863, in and around a small town in south central Pennsylvania. The Battle of Gettysburg has fascinated historians, Civil War buffs, and pretty much everyone else almost from the day it ended – recall that President Lincoln gave his now-famous Gettysburg Address not even five months after the battle, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Since then, Gettysburg and the battle that occurred there have been the subject of countless books, memorials, songs, and even the subject of discussion in a popular sitcom, the Big Bang Theory:

The scene opens with our geeky gang seated at a table in the Cheesecake Factory, moving various condiment containers across the tabletop to signify the movements of soldiers at Gettysburg.

Sheldon: Alright, I’m moving my infantry division, augmented by a battalion of orcs from Lord of the Rings; we flank the Tennessee Volunteers and the North once again wins the Battle of Gettysburg!

Howard: Not so fast! Remember, the South still has two infantry divisions…plus: Superman and Godzilla!

Leonard: No, no, no…the orcs are magic – Superman is vulnerable to magic! Not to mention, you already lost Godzilla to the Illinois Cavalry and Hulk!

Rajesh: Why don’t you just have Robert E. Lee charge the line with Shiva and Ganesh?

Howard: Shiva and Ganesh??!! The Hindu gods against the entire Union Army??!!

Leonard: …and orcs!

Rajesh: Excuse me! Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and Shiva is the Destroyer. When the smoke clears, Abraham Lincoln will be speaking Hindi and drinking mint juleps.

What is it about the Civil War, and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular, that holds such interest for so many? In an attempt to understand some of that fascination, I joined a staff ride held by the Department of History a few years ago and got a chance to walk the same hills and fields that were the site of the significant engagements during the battle. We spent our morning visiting the scenes of Day 1 battles northwest of Gettysburg (McPherson Ridge & Woods – where Gen John Reynolds was mortally wounded; the railroad cut; Oak Ridge and Oak Hill; Barlow’s Knoll) and the afternoon retracing the battles of Day 2 (Devil’s Den & the Slaughter Pen; Little Round Top; the Wheatfield; the Peach Orchard; Cemetery Ridge/Hill; Culp’s Hill). On our final day in Gettysburg, we took the part of a Confederate unit and re-enacted Pickett’s Charge from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge, under imagined “fire” from Union forces on Round Top and Little Round Top most of the way. While walking the battlefields of Gettysburg gave me a sense of the enormity of the events of 150 years ago, it was difficult to truly comprehend that over the course of three days in and around that small Pennsylvania town, there were some 51,000 casualties (dead, wounded, and missing or captured). Even more difficult was finding a way to understand the effect of that damage and loss on a town of only 2,500 people.  It was an enlightening experience, especially since it has helped me with historical insights that allow me to better assist our cadets as they did the research and writing about the Civil War that their classes here require. 

One of the aspects of Gettysburg that made a lasting impression on me was the way the entire area has become a memorial: every battlefield has markers, statues, and plaques that pay tribute to the units who fought there, the soldiers who died or performed heroic deeds there, and the meaning of each engagement for the battle and sometimes even for the overall conflict between the North and South. This was fascinating to me, and I have been seeking out scholarship and commentary on this aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg ever since. Below, I’ll share the most engaging books I have found in my research, which, instead of focusing on the logistics of battle, the command decisions, and the outcomes of engagements, look at how we as a culture understand and memorialize, appropriate and re-interpret, and continue to be riveted by the “turning point” of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg.

Before delving into the memorial aspect of Gettysburg, it’s appropriate to suggest a few significant books about the battle itself. If you are looking for a book or series of books to acquaint you with the Battle of Gettysburg, you can’t go wrong by consulting these classics in the field: Stephen W. Sears’s Gettysburg, Harry W. Pfanz’s Gettysburg: the First Day and Gettysburg: the Second Day, and Gettysburg: Day Three by Jeffry D. Wert. These books give an overview of the events that took place 150 years ago, each in their own way. Sears’s book covers the entire battle, including a portion of the campaign building up to the encounter in south central Pennsylvania, and is considered an authoritative history which delves into the events of those days in July 1863 in exhaustive detail. Pfanz, a former historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, presents a deeply researched and detailed tactical description of the first day’s fighting in Gettysburg: the First Day, drawing on published and archival sources to present his analysis of the events. His Gettysburg: the Second Day (which he actually wrote first!) is considered by some to be the most complete account of the actions of July 2, 1863 in print, giving a detailed account of the second day’s combat along with a thorough analysis of the decisions and events that took place that day. Finally, Wert’s Gettysburg: Day Three, portrays the last day of the battle, relying heavily on letters, diaries, and other primary sources, taking the reader through Pickett’s Charge and into the evening of July 3rd, providing a coda to the three days of the battle.

If you’re planning a trip to Gettysburg, and are looking for a detailed guide to bring the events of those three summer days to life, check out the Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg, edited by Jay Luvaas, Harold W. Nelson and Leonard Fullenkamp, with maps by Steven Stanley. The Guide is part of the series “The U.S. Army War College Guides to Civil War Battles,” and it’s clearly written by authors with more than a casual feel for their subject. Formatted with routes that match the stops of the battlefield auto tour created by the National Park Service and the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, the Guide includes at every stop the words of the officers who led the men who fought there and reported on their actions and encounters, taken mostly from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. You’ll get a nearly eyewitness account of the events – as you stand on the very ground where they took place. Guaranteed to give you shivers!

The first book I came across after I returned from the Staff Ride was The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle, by Margaret S. Creighton. In her book, Ms. Creighton explores how these three disparate groups of Gettysburg residents were affected by their participation in or response to the conflicts that surrounded them. This book gave me an introduction to several aspects of the battle that are not generally covered in other literature I have encountered about Gettysburg.

Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, and there seem to be an endless number of books that describe, parse, and evaluate one of the most famous speeches given over the course of America’s recorded history. Lincoln at Gettysburg : the words that remade America, by Gary Wills, and Lincoln’s sword : the presidency and the power of words by Douglas L. Wilson are only two. Wills won the Pulitzer for his examination of both the address and Lincoln in the context of the time period and the President’s cultural and historical knowledge, while the strength of Wilson’s book lies in the insights he gained during his painstaking work transcribing Lincoln’s most famous writings for the Library of Congress, and his detailed recounting of the revisions and refinements Lincoln made to many of his notable speeches, the Gettysburg Address included.

A more introspective examination of the Gettysburg Address – part memoir, part observation, part analysis – has been written by Kent Gramm, in his book November: Lincoln’s Elegy at Gettysburg. Written seemingly day to day as he spent the month of November in Gettysburg, searching for the exact place where Lincoln delivered his address, Gramm’s book ranges far and wide through Novembers throughout history, examining events both famous and deeply personal, in a search for the ultimate meaning and lasting significance of the Gettysburg Address.

When it comes to the monuments and markers on the battlefield, Gettysburg: Sentinels of Stone, by Timothy T. Isbell, is a great place to start. In beautifully composed photographs of memorials throughout Gettysburg, accompanied by text that describes the battles fought by the units or individuals commemorated by the pictured monuments, Isbell’s book provides a gorgeous tour of the commemorations placed at various battlefields and a snapshot of what happened at each memorable place.

During the 1890s, five Civil War battle sites were established as Civil War National Military Parks: Chickamauga-Chattanooga, Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg. In his book The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The decade of the 1890s and the Establishment of America’s First Five Military Parks, Timothy B. Smith recounts the process of turning these sites of great conflict into places that were preserved and interpreted. With an introduction that addresses why that particular decade was the right time for these efforts – incorporating the status of the war’s veterans, the end of Reconstruction, and the concept of reconciliation – Smith goes on to describe the establishment of the Gettysburg National Military Park and each of the other parks in great detail. If your interest in this topic extends to some of those other battlefields, you’re in luck, for Smith has also given us A Chickamauga Memorial: The Establishment of America’s First Civil War National Military Park and This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park.

Specific to Gettysburg, Jim Weeks’s Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine is a fascinating study of how Gettysburg has been, from just after the battle to the present day, a tourist site, a business, a memorial, and a reflection of how Americans remember and commemorate significant historic events through changing times. Surveying how the battlefields of Gettysburg have variously been treated as curiosities, hallowed ground, locations for re-enactments of battles, and ultimately revelatory of what we prioritize at different times as we pay respect to our past, Weeks’s book is well worth a read for anyone captivated by the Battle of Gettysburg.

In These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory, Thomas A. Desjardin examines the many ways in which Americans have participated in understanding, telling, crafting and reinventing the story of the Battle of Gettysburg since the battle ended. Desjardin brings his knowledge of the battlefields and his historian’s expertise to bear on the cultural and societal constructs that have created – and continue to create – a narrative of Gettysburg that tells us sometimes more about ourselves than about the actual battles that took place there 150 years ago.

Moving a little farther afield from Gettysburg, but keeping to the theme of commemoration and memory, my research has led to me to several books that address important aspects of honoring the Civil War dead. For anyone interested in the concept of reconciliation between the States after the war, and the influence of memorialization on reconciling the North and South, Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation, written by John R. Neff, is a must-read. Neff contends that the ways in which the North and South commemorated the thousands of lives lost during the war served not only to honor those who died, but to emphasize the differences in the ways each side interpreted the war and understood the meaning of the conflict as a whole. He describes how both sides engaged in myth-making during their memorial efforts, leading to two very different views of a “united” America.

Since we’re in the midst of observations of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, logic would lead us to believe that there was a Centennial observation at the time of the 100th Anniversary. For those of us not around during those years, Robert J. Cook’s Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965, can give us some insight into what it was like, 50 years ago, to observe that anniversary. Against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, efforts to observe the centennial of the Civil War were complicated by each side’s historical memory of the war and its aftermath, the injustices of racism, and the growing activism of the day. Cook recounts the differences between the North and South, the difficulties inherent in finding a common ground while each part of the country tried to observe the anniversary in a way meaningful to its dominant culture, and sets the commemoration into the events taking place not just in the United States but around the world during that era.

These are but a few of the many books we have here in the USMA Library that address how we as Americans have memorialized the Battle of Gettysburg.  I hope that the books I’ve described have introduced an aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg that inspires further investigation, and in that spirit, I’ll conclude with a few recommendations that don’t involve books!  Everyone should make a visit to Gettysburg, and here are a few links to places on the web where more information about both the park in general and the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg commemoration can be found. First, visit the National Park Service website: http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/150th-anniversary-index.htm and their special 150th Anniversary page: http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/150th-anniversary-index.htm, and next, the website of the Gettysburg Foundation: http://www.gettysburgfoundation.org/101. Although the events of the actual anniversary weekend are over, at both of these websites you’ll find links to event guides, walks and tours, and information that you can use at any time when visiting or learning about the Battle of Gettysburg.

Since photography serves, even today, as both a documentary and memorial method of sorts, I highly recommend visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Photography of the Civil War” exhibit. Although we’re getting close to the end of its run (the last day is September 2), it’s well worth a visit.  Showcasing more than 200 images from both the Metropolitan Museum’s collections and private owners, the exhibit catalogs the evolving role of the camera during the Civil War. Check out information on the exhibit here: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/photography-and-the-american-civil-war. While there, you can view another exhibit (running concurrently), “The Civil War and American Art,” an examination of how major paintings by American artists responded to the Civil War and its aftermath.

Before you go to the exhibit, or to Gettysburg itself, I invite you to come in and take a look at our collection of books about Gettysburg, to get ready for your travels!