SNELL: My Gettysburg (2016)

Posted: 3/15/2017
Reviewed By: Jeffry D. Wert

My Gettysburg: Meditations on History and Place by Mark A. Snell. Kent State University Press, 2016.  Cloth, ISBN: 978-1-60635-293-9. $29.95.

 

As the author, Dr. Mark A. Snell, notes in the Preface, this new work “is a modest addition to the extensive historiography of the Gettysburg Campaign and is a result of my own particular interests” (xi).  The book is an anthology, comprised of nine essays or chapters—of which four have appeared previously in print.

A retired army officer, professor of history, and a noted Civil War author, Dr. Snell purchased a small farm roughly five miles south of Gettysburg in 1989.  A native Pennsylvanian, he had been visiting the battlefield since his childhood and, with ownership of a nearby residence, his admitted attachment to the historic ground only deepened.  It is the reason for the book’s title and the subjects of the essays within the work.

The book’s first chapter is autobiographical as the author chronicles his life from youth to the present.  He covers his professional career and then discusses the historic farmstead that he now owns.  During the Gettysburg Campaign, Henry B. Cromer and family lived on the farm.  Troops of the Eleventh Corps used the farm as a temporary campsite after the battle.  The farmhouse is allegedly haunted, with “unexplained experiences.”

York County borders Adams County to the east of Gettysburg and, during the campaign, witnessed Confederate troops occupy the borough of York and the cavalry clash at Hanover on June 30.  The author examines the impact of events on York County residents in the next chapter.  He devotes roughly half of the essay to a description of the antebellum social and political characteristics of the county.  He mentions the Hanover engagement only in passing and devotes the rest of the chapter to Jubal Early’s presence in York.

Although published previously, the chapter on Union logistics during the campaign is a most welcome inclusion in this book.  The subject is often overlooked in campaign and battle studies, but this essay is a solid introductory account.  Rufus Ingalls, Henry F. Clarke, and Daniel Webster Flagler were the army’s chief logisticians and merit recognition for keeping the members of the army fed, clothed, and armed during the extensive operations.

The author spent two decades teaching American history and directing the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  In turn, he has included a chapter on West Virginians at Gettysburg from one of his previous books.  Most of the “(West) Virginians,” as he designates them, served in Confederate ranks, mainly in the Stonewall Brigade and Jeb Stuart’s cavalry regiments.  Most, if not all, of them would have been unwilling to be considered a native of the newly formed state.

Gettysburg abounds with controversies.  Some of them arguably contributed to the engagement’s outcome, while a few minor ones have generated heated disputes among historians.  Late on the afternoon of July 3, Union general Judson Kilpatrick ordered a mounted attack against Confederate infantry across rugged ground at the south end of the battlefield.  Kilpatrick’s decision resulted in a defeat, the death of Elon Farnsworth, and a controversy that has spanned 150 years.  In opposition to other historians’ judgments, including this reviewer’s, Dr. Snell offers a defense of Kilpatrick’s actions.  He argues that his orders to attack the enemy placed him in a difficult position given the terrain and the opposing forces.  According to the author, Kilpatrick “applied sound military doctrine, but he launched his mounted assault with the wrong part of his line” (110).  It was not a rash act or misjudgment to order the charge but obedience to instructions.

The final three chapters and an epilogue are devoted to music associated with or inspired by the battle, the postwar use of the hallowed ground by the army as a training site into the twentieth century, Civil War reenacting, and the controversy over building a casino adjacent to the battlefield.  The essays on the army’s decades-long presence at Gettysburg and the life of a reenactor are the most interesting chapters.  

This book treats eclectic topics on America’s most famous and most visited battlefield.  The subjects are seldom addressed in other books, and this seems to be the main appeal of the work.  The author writes well and renders his own judgments on certain events.  There is much to like in this book.

 

Jeffry D. Wert is the author of numerous books on the Civil War era, including Gettysburg: Day Three

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