Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book Review: "Isn't This Glorious!"

When I was putting together my lecture to the San Diego Civil War Roundtable last month about the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, or Harvard Regiment, at Gettysburg, I happened upon a text I had not known existed. Prior to my discovery of "Isn't This Glorious!" by Edwin Root and Jeffrey Stocker, I thought my library had all of the pertinent materials I needed.
As soon as this book arrived in the mail from the publisher, I knew I had been mistaken, as this book had a treasure trove of new photos and personalities to examine. It was put to use as a resource, and after the lecture, I've gone back and read it as it is supposed to be; a treatment of the 15th, 19th, and 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments at Gettysburg that will bring their memory up to an equal level with other, more celebrated forces that participated in the battle.
There is no shortage of books providing analysis of various regiments and their exploits at this most famous of American battles; "Isn't This Glorious!" is particularly unique because it's investigation does not end with the battle or even the war's conclusion.
The first part of the book introduces us to the men of the regiments, the bloody paths that brought them to Gettysburg, and focuses us in on the essential role they played in the battle: the sealing of the southern portion of the Confederate breathrough at the Copse of Trees. The detail is tremendous, as the fighting is told straight from the eyes and mouths of the men, and not just the officers, either. We learn about the brutal dealings from the rank and file, brought out in vivid and anxious detail. There is also no shortage of photos of the men from whom we are hearing, so we can almost see their faces through the battlesmoke.
The fighting in this small section of the battlefield was just as chaotic as it was pivotal, and the tension provided by the authors as the men surge towards the Confederates at the Copse of Trees is palpable. Bringing this home in a more tangible form are some of the best battle maps I've seen. These foldout pages do not present the battle as a whole, but the the small piece of the action these regiments took part in. The value and uniqueness of these maps comes in their kinetic ability to show the lines of the regiments move from a disciplined front on Cemetery Ridge to a mob charging north towards the Copse of Trees. The Confederate forces have no marking at all, they come forward in the maps as a ravening horde, an irresistable tide plunging toward the Union forces.
The actual detail of the battle I'll leave to you, but this little-discussed segment of the battle, fought just below the Copse of Trees by men with carbines, pistols, swords, and bare hands, will leave you quite shaken.
The second section of the book takes us on a journey quite unique in the regimental histories pertaining to Gettysburg. After we spend much time investing in the men and their sacrifices, the authors take us through the sometimes sordid history of the monuments placed on the field to commemorate these sturdy men. In this portion, we see how this story became almost lost in contemporary Gettysburg history and how the men of these regiments faded from memory.
The historiography of the Civil War is spoken of frequently in this space, and this section of the book is an example of historiography at the highest level. We are walked through events that occurred over decades and shown how decisions were made and how they have influenced our current conceptions of the battle. There was quite a struggle over these regiments, and I learned, quite to my dismay, that the marker of the Harvard Regiment on the field today is in the wrong place! This story is a perfect example of how the reality of the past is frequently altered subject to the exigencies of the present.
As the various markers and monuments are shuffled around, it can become difficult to follow. We are well-served by the map that shows the previous and current locations of the structures, as well as another collection of photos of the site as well as the monuments themselves.
The stroke of genius in this book is in its ability to remind us why we care about these monuments and showing how closely the men whom they represent were so closely tied to them after the war. It's clear why these monuments maintain a hold on our imagination and why the pictures in the book are so evocative.
At the book's end, the author's stated goal, to elevate the memory of these Massachusetts men back to a level field with the more celebrated units that fought at the Copse of Trees and repulsed Pickett's Charge, is fully realized. In closing, we are reminded by the authors just what these men dealt with not only to achieve victory, but also to survive the sometimes tragic lives that awaited them after the war. The diary entry of one James Tenney, an enlisted man in the 15th Mass. as pertaining to the battle, is a telling conclusion to this story.
You will undoubtedly close this book with saddened eyes and a newfound appreciation for these men who helped win the battle of Gettysburg. If you have any interest in this battle or in Massachusetts regiments, this book will be an asset to your learning. Best of all, you can acquire it and still remain faithful to our commitment to supporting independent booksellers. I refer you please to the book's website, where you can order directly from the publisher.

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