I have no plans to go into the military (not least because it has recently gone woke), but, like many other men throughout history, I am fascinated by reading about great military campaigns and generals of days past. Douglas MacArthur’s Reminiscences, Lost Victories by von Manstein, Memoirs by Ulysses Grant, the discussions of Roman campaigns in The Rise of Rome, Phase Line Green, The German Army on the Eastern Front, and so on. Reading about the glory of past battles and the men that fought them fascinated me despite my lack of military service.
But some battles are sad rather than glorious. They’re interesting to study, sure, but knowing how they turned out make them incredibly sad. One such battle is the fall of Constantinople; because Christianity lost there, the Roman Empire ended for good and Constantinople became Istanbul. Another battle like that is Gettysburg; on the three fiery days of battle in Gettysburg, PA, there were over 50,000 American casualties. It was with a heavy heart caused by that knowledge that I read The Gettysburg Campaign by Albert Nofi.
So much about the Civil War is profoundly sad, but also worth studying. On one hand, hundreds of thousands of Americans on both sides died to fight over something that could certainly have been solved politically, had cooler heads prevailed. But, on the other hand, there is much worth studying in the war. Jackson’s Valley Campaign was an example of how brilliant maneuver can lead to a small force defeating a far more powerful foe. The ironclads showed how naval warfare had irrevocably changed. And Pickett’s charge on the last day of battle in The Gettysburg Campaign showed that the days of infantry line assaults overrunning a position were, more or less, over.
Because of that, I got over my emotions about the war and sat down to read The Gettysburg Campaign. It’s brilliant, for the reasons I’ll describe later in this review. For now, suffice it to say that Nofi wrote a book that is perfect for the amateur military historian. If you read The Gettysburg Campaign, you’ll finish it knowing just how the battle went and why each action ended the way it did. He’s unbiased, includes all the important information, and does a brilliant job of writing about the battle in a story-like manner rather than in the dry terms and phraseology of many other historians.
Summary of The Gettysburg Campaign by Albert Nofi
The Gettysburg Campaign is not a book about the Civil War as a whole, the Eastern theatre of the war as a whole, or even all of the fighting of 1863. Instead, as you would hopefully guess after reading the title, it’s about the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg.
That intense focus on one battle gives Nofi the ability to focus on the interesting details of the battle while still keeping the book relatively concise and fast-paced. He starts with the skirmishes that turned into a general engagement on the first day of the battle, a general engagement Lee did not want to have, and ends after the slaughter of Pickett’s charge on the last day.
There is some lead-up, where he describes Lee’s goals for the campaign and the Army of the Potomac’s many mistakes before the battle began, and something of an ending as he describes Lee’s retreat out of Pennsylvania and back across the Potomac, but the overwhelming majority of The Gettysburg Campaign is about the three days of battle.
To describe each day, Nofi writes mostly chronologically. He describes each engagement of each day in gripping terms that pull the reader into the booming, smoke-filled fields of battle. The many infantry assaults up and down the hills on which the Union Army was making its stand, the massive artillery barrage that preceded Pickett’s charge, the razor-thin margin of victory in each engagement, where thousands died to hold a small hill or push the enemy off that hill and onto another, all of it is described in fascinating detail that informs the reader while also holding their attention.
Additionally, Nofi’s intense focus on the fighting and results of each action in chronological order allows him to show how the battle developed and why without having to pause to explain it to the reader. While there is a brief note about who won each day of the battle, Nofi is generally able to show, rather than tell, the reader what happened and why.
Another interesting aspect of The Gettysburg Campaign is the voluminous number of brief snippets and notes placed throughout. Every time a new general or important officer is mentioned, there is a box on the page explaining that officer’s backstory and capabilities as an officer. Similarly, where there is an interesting detail that can be expanded upon, Nofi inserts a small box that delves into that interesting aspect of the battle. Those notes ensure the reader knows who the main officers were, thus giving them more background on why they might have made the decisions they did, without having to pause the action in the main story of the battle to do so.
All in all, The Gettysburg Campaign shows just what happened in the Battle of Gettysburg and why things went the way they did. No important details are left out and everything that should be expanded upon is.
My Take on The Gettysburg Campaign by Albert Nofi
I thought that The Gettysburg Campaign was brilliant. I’ve read some books about the officers in the Civil War, such as Lee’s Lieutenants and Clouds of Glory (Michael Kulka’s excellent biography of Robert E. Lee), but I haven’t read as many books about the battles and campaigns of the war as I should have.
The fact is, despite the great tragedy of the war, hundreds of thousands of brave men dying in what were often horrific circumstances, the war is fascinating and was a turning point in how war was fought. Before it, lines of men could march toward each other and fight in the open without such a battle resulting in slaughter. The Civil War showed such tactics were suicidal due to the mass production of rifles, the rise of repeating rifles, and increasingly accurate and powerful artillery.
The Battle of Gettysburg was perhaps one of the best examples of that shift in how battle had to be fought. Pickett’s charge, the most tragic act of the battle, resulted in slaughter because lines of men slowly advanced across an open field. Yes, many European officers somehow didn’t grasp that lesson before the Great War, and the result was Pickett’s charge on a massive scale at the Somme, Passchendaele, and the Marne. But, for those that cared to pay attention, the lesson was there. And The Gettysburg Campaign, although it doesn’t mention, much less reflect on those changes, shows the result of using Napelonic tactics in a world of repeating rifles and highly powerful artillery.
In addition to showing how bloody modern battlefields had become, The Gettysburg Campaign does a terrific job of showing the immense bravery of individual units. Rather than focus only on troop movements and the officers that ordered them, as some works of military history do, much of The Gettysburg Campaign is spent describing Confederate charges into the jaws of death, small bands of Union troops holding out against all odds and defending their patch of dirt, and troops on both sides somehow finding the courage to go on despite Earth-shaking cannonades, massive volleys of rifle fire, and the ever-present threat of sharpshooters. Nofi does a brilliant job showing the horrors of the battle and courage that they spawned.
Finally, Nofi does an excellent job in The Gettysburg Campaign of remaining unbiased. He praises troops on both sides for their bravery, notes the gallantry, competence, and tactical brilliance of both Confederate and Union officers, and criticizes those that did a bad job in the battle (such as Lee) without worrying about upsetting the armchair general fans of those figures. It’s an honest book that shows both sides in a very fair light and focuses on what is important, rather than dwelling unnecessarily on the political topics (such as slavery) that most authors do.
There’s nothing negative I can say about The Gettysburg Campaign. While the war was a tragedy, the Battle of Gettysburg being one of the saddest parts of it, reading and learning about it and the lessons from it are crucial. Books such as this one are the best way to do so.
If you enjoy reading about military history or American history, reading The Gettysburg Campaign is a must. It won’t take too long, is an interesting and fast-paced read, and is highly informative. Read it.