Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sickles At Gettysburg Is Civil War History at Its Finest

I picked up James Hessler's Sickles at Gettysburg last week and have had a hard time since putting it down. Even when I finished this excellent book, I was somewhat disappointed: I wanted to read more. I have met Mr. Hessler on several occasions (he lives right down the road from me), and when I see him again I will be sure to congratulate him on a job well done. Although this is his first book-length study, Hessler writes with all the skill and clarity of a seasoned professional in bringing the remarkable story of General Sickles to life. Easily one of the most colorful and controversial figures of the Civil War, Dan Sickles continues to capture our interest, earning the veneration of some, the vehemence of most others. He was (is) one of those polarizing figures: most works have either portrayed him as the villainous scoundrel or, less commonly, as the man who saved the Union at Gettysburg but who suffered the discrimination of the army's West Pointers and professional soldiers. At last, Dan Sickles and his advancement of the Third Corps at Gettysburg receive fair historical treatment in Hessler's work; the author does not set out to prove that Sickles was either wholly this or wholly that, a villain or a hero. Focusing on Sickles's still controversial move on the afternoon of July 2, Hessler instead presents both sides of the story, and leaves much of the final determination up to the reader. There is much to admire about Sickles: his resiliency, his bravery, his patriotism and love for his troops, and his efforts at helping establish Gettysburg and other important sites as National Parks. But there is also much to despise: his philandering, his politicking, his relentless attacks on Meade both after the battle and after the war, and, most loathsome, his treatment of first wife Teresa and daughter, Laura. Still, his personal life aside, it was his move at Gettysburg that continues to define Sickles's legacy. In Sickles at Gettysburg, Hessler presents the best study of the general's actions during this epic battle. In addition to explaining Sickles's motivation for such a move (he advanced to avoid a repeat of a Chancellorsville-like, sweeping flank attack against the Federal left), and going into great detail about how this move was viewed among his fellow officers and the soldiers in the ranks, Hessler also presents an excellent, and easy-to-follow tactical account of the confused fighting on July 2 in an around Devil's Den, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard. The value of Hessler's book, however, goes far beyond the actual battlefield of Gettysburg. The author does a great job in explaining how Sickles and his supporters set about to shape and manipulate the historical record both while the war was still being fought and well into the Twentieth Century by including testimony from the hearings of the Committee on the Conduct of War, speeches delivered at monument dedications, and numerous newspaper accounts/editorials penned by the likes of Henry Tremain, Dan Butterfield, and Sickles himself. An epilogue presents a fine historiographical essay on how Sickles's move has been recently portrayed in print and on film.
In the end, this is a must-have book for Civil War enthusiasts and scholars. Sickles At Gettysburg is Civil War History at its very finest.

1 comment:

Jim Hessler said...

John,

Thank you very much for the generous review. I still (but with less frequency as the word spreads) come across people who are occasionally convinced that I have some sort of hidden pro-Sickles agenda. This is understandable since alot of authors do approach the topic with pro and anti agendas.

Other than admittedly finding him to be an entertaining and important (to Gettysburg) individual, I think you summed it up best with: "the author does not set out to prove that Sickles was either wholly this or wholly that, a villain or a hero. Focusing on Sickles's still controversial move on the afternoon of July 2, Hessler instead presents both sides of the story, and leaves much of the final determination up to the reader. There is much to admire about Sickles...But there is also much to despise..." You, the reader, should decide!

Thanks,

Jim Hessler
www.sicklesatgettysburg.com