eReview: Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command
by Edwin B. Coddington New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997
Review by eHistory Team
[This review is one of the College Book Reports from the old eHistory site. The Reports were a more academic and thorough look at the text than our normal eReviews, complete with end notes and a bibliography]
Scope: Edwin Coddington has written an extensive book which covers the events surrounding Army of Northern Virginia's invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Beginning with the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in early May, 1863, and continuing until the time General Robert E. Lee withdrew his army across the Potomac back into Virginia, Coddington provides an detailed, scholarly analysis of the actions between Lee's forces and the Federal Army of the Potomac, first under Major General Joseph Hooker and, from May 28, 1863, under the leadership of Major General George G. Meade.
Thesis: Coddington believes that the Union victory was the result of several positive developments within the Union army combined with the overconfidence, which bordered on contempt, that the Confederate's had for their opponents. By underestimating his opponent, and by not having effective communications and organization within his army, Lee lost to a force of roughly equal size but which finally had effective generals leading motivated, very capable soldiers who fought just as hard as their more celebrated Southern foes. Coddington is convincing in his thesis that no single event such as the long absence of Major General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry, the lack of aggressiveness on July 1 by Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, or the lack of commitment to the attacks on July 2 and 3 by Lieutenant General James Longstreet were the causes of the Southern defeat. Rather, overconfidence, lack of respect for his opponent and poor organization in the face of a determined, well led, and combative Federal army proved Lee's downfall. Along similar lines, he treats Meade's generalship with greater respect than many other authors, and he convincingly shows Meade's failure to seriously cripple Lee after the initial battles was not simply due to the fact that Meade missed a golden opportunity; rather, Coddington shows Meade did just about as well as could be expected.
Sources: The Gettysburg Campaign is surely one of the most well documented books about the Civil War. It uses numerous primary sources, from the War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies to a wide variety of diaries, memoirs and articles written by the participants. Coddington also is lavish in his bibliographical references to secondary works. When other authors have come to a different conclusion as to events or their consequences, his endnotes always provide the alternative reference. For anyone studying the events surrounding Gettysburg, Coddington provides a great starting point for any aspect of the battle.
Accuracy: It is very hard to be critical of Coddington's thoroughness or accuracy. Of course, there are many things which are controversial, but Coddington usually takes time to distinguish his conclusions from others who have disagreed; as to disagreements among participants as to events and attitudes, especially related Meade's generalship, Coddington normally sides with Meade though he gives all a fair hearing. His graphic details of the micro-battles within the battle are well documented and consistent with primary sources.1
Logic: Coddington provides a logical analysis of command issues in both forces, his primary thrust, within the context of the entire campaign. The book is well presented, though a casual reader may have difficulty following many events without constant reference to both an order of battle and a detailed, annotated map of the area and the battlefield. Coddington meticulously provides the full name and rank of each participant when first mentioning them; however, with the wealth of details he provides, less-than-expert readers may become confused about references to people, units and geographical points unless willing to carefully study the events described. Although the maps Coddington provides are helpful, there are fewer than one for each of the twenty chapters. Therefore, having an open West Point Atlas of American Wars or similar reference is required in order to understand the text.
Balance: This book is well balanced, showing the strengths and weaknesses of both sides and all participants, though Coddington does seem to have a Union tilt. 2But clearly this is not the work of a Douglas Southall Freeman, for example, who seldom sees, and less frequently writes about, any shortcoming on Lee's part.For Coddington, it is enough to provide a detailed history of a great event without engaging in hero worship or looking for scapegoats. Surely there were enough of each in both armies that even an unbiased work brings them into focus. Ewell stopping in town on July 1, Sickles advancing beyond Cemetery Ridge on July 2, and Stuart's meandering through Maryland and southern Pennsylvania were clear blunders that receive Coddington's attention. Similarly, the personal heroism of Union Generals Hancock, Gibbon, Hays, Webb as well as the gallantry and bravery shown by the officers and men in Picket and Pettigrew's commands are well documented by the author.
The Gettysburg Campaign is a scholarly tome which provides a great starting place for anyone studying the battle. Is it well written? Of course. Is it exhaustive in both its details and its bibliography? Totally. Is it the standard as the single, primary reference book for the battle? Arguably. However, the author disappoints the reader by building expectations in his preface. Coddington writes that much had already been written about the battle, and that there was little new to learn, but that he wanted to write a book which addresses the "command relationships" within both armies.3 If that was one of his goals, he failed, at least in part.
While he does provide convincing proof of his thesis, he provides little about the "command relationships" among various general officers. Other books have described the division among Union generals into the Hooker-Butterfield-Sickles camp and another consisting of Couch, Reynolds, Sedgwick, Hunt and Meade.4 Also, the relationship between Lincoln and Halleck in Washington, on one hand, and the field commanders, Hooker and then Meade on the other, has been the source of many books. On the Southern side, much has been made of the Lee-Longstreet partnership and the fact that both Ewell and Lieutenant Generals A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell were new to corps commands. The effect that the combative Major General Jubal Early had on Ewell early in the battle has been widely evaluated. Of course, Stuart's long ride around the Union army has been subject of much criticism.
But these personal aspects related to "command relationships" are only addressed in summary form by Coddington. Did Meade's dislike for Sickles prevent Meade from properly supervising his subordinate on July 2? Did Meade even know that Butterfield spent so much time preparing withdrawal orders on July 2? Why did Lee not assign Hill and Ewell to more prominent roles on July 3, since Ewell seemed to have regained his aggressiveness early on July 2? These and other issues of personal dynamics, which are so important among commanders in every war, are given only minimal coverage. Given the extent of his research, it seems likely that he could have added important new insights into the personal relationships among the high level commands of both armies. Regrettably, there seems little new information in this area.
In all other areas, however, this is a remarkable book. Coddington's assessments of Lee's misuse of the cavalry remaining at his disposal and of his ineffective high level communications show a deep appreciation for the military art. Similarly, by portraying Meade in a highly positive role, and showing that the armies on July 4 were still much closer in size and strength than anyone, particularly Lincoln, thought, Coddington breaks new ground. Thus, his conclusion that Lee's withdrawal is one of the best examples of Lee generalship, and Meade's failure to attack was probably the right decision for that harried commander to have made represent new analysis for later students to ponder. These and many other examples of the "command issues" give The Gettysburg Campaign a prominent place in Civil War literature. Any serious student of the Civil War must have access to Coddington's fine work. From the perspective of either combatant, Coddington's work is the single, standard reference for the Gettysburg Campaign of 1863.
1. Compare Joshua L. Chamberlain, Bayonet! Forward: My Civil War Reminiscences (Gettysburg: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994), p. 16-37, with Coddington, pp. 389-90, 440, 441.
2. Consider his description of Meade's temper - only evident in reaction to stupidity, negligence or laziness. Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968), p. 211.
3. Coddington, Preface, IX.
4. See Ernest B. Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863 The Souls of the Brave, (New York, Vintage Press, 1993), p. 331-2
Chamberlain, Joshua L. Bayonet Forward My Civil War Reminiscences. Gettysburg: Stan Clark Military Books, 1994.
Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign, A Study in Command. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968.
Esposito, Vincent J., ed. West Point Atlas of American Wars. 2 Vols. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. Lee's Lieutenants. 3 Volumes. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943.
Furgurson, Ernest B. Chancellorsville 1863 The Souls of the Brave. New York: Random House, 1993.
Nofi, Albert A.. The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863. Conshohocken, Pa.: Combined Books, 1993.
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