Customer Reviews: Witness to Gettysburg: Inside the Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War
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on August 27, 1999
The use of actual witness accounts is an interesting technique but it creates a read which is not vey focused. Each witness, telling their own part of the grand story, takes it in their own direction. The result is a lot of tangents that make it difficult to focus on the details of the battle. This should be the fourth or fifth book on Gettysburg you read, not the first.
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on February 22, 2005
Witness to Gettysburg is superb history. Richard Wheeler has masterfully woven eyewitness accounts of the Gettysburg campaign into a remarkable tapestry, an evocative and haunting image of the most decisive battle of the Civil War.

Witness to Gettysburg is gripping narrative. Wheeler adroitly transitions from one account to another, from union soldier to confederate rebel, from army professionals to inexperienced civilians, from contemporary writings to memoirs penned years later. Wheeler maintains the intense drama of Gettysburg through careful selections, skillful editing, and his own insightful perspectives. Factual errors are corrected with unobtrusive comments in parenthesis.

Richard Wheeler's narrative account of Gettysburg compares favorably with the works of Shelby Foote, James M. McPherson, and Bruce Catton. Whether Witness to Gettysburg is your first reading on Gettysburg, your second, or your tenth, this exceptional compilation of eyewitness accounts will not disappoint you.

Witness to Gettysburg was originally published in 1987 by HarperCollins Publishers and reprinted in 1994 by The Blue and Grey Press. Although somewhat grainy, the more than fifty black and white illustrations are a valuable addition.
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on April 24, 2015
It is hard to express just how good a book this is. Richard Wheeler is an excellent author and his method of reporting chronological events through the eyes and words of the people who were there makes these episodes simply jump off the page. Moreover, the detail provided by the eyewitness accounts when combined with Google maps provides a first rate learning experience.

I have been reading about the Civil War for over 30 years. In that time I have enjoyed multiple versions and interpretations of the Battle of Gettysburg. But I have never read anything this good. This is a deep dive on Gettysburg, from the initial troop movements and developing strategy through the entire duration of the event. Starting with Lee’s crossing the Rappahannock six weeks earlier, through the 3 bloody days of the engagement and ending with Lee’s retreat back to Virginia, Wheeler delivers an intimate immersion as each step unfolds in this most critical event in American history.

The research is impeccable, the participants are vivid and the author’s writing is clear and concise.

Quite excellent!
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On page ix, the author lays out the key feature of this book: "". . .I would like to point out that 'Witness to Gettysburg' attempts something new: a telling of the story. . .as largely as possible in the words of participants, both military and civilian, both male and female." A few years later, Time-Life published a book with a similar theme--Gettysburg from an up close and personal perspective.

Indeed, the approach does add a nice element to the book. The work begins with the two armies glaring at one another across the Rappahannock after the battle at Chancellorsville. The book traces the movements of both armies from there to Gettysburg. One matter of some concern to me: In a 20 chapter book, it takes until Chapter 11 before the battle at Gettysburg begins. While the early parts of the campaign are important to be aware of (e.g., Brandy Station, the rout of Milroy's "weary boys" in the Shenandoah Valley, etc.), it seems a bit odd that we don't really get to Gettysburg until half the chapters have been accounted for.

The personal viewpoint does add nicely to the telling of the story of the battle itself. While the battle is not depicted in as much detail as many other volumes, there is enough material to get a sense of what actually happened. From General John Buford's decision to have his cavalry stay and fight through John Reynolds' arrival to the second day's fighting, with, as the chapter title puts it, "a near thing at the Round Tops," and the aftermath of General Sickles' creation of a salient that was overwhelmed by Confederate General Longstreet's assault.

Then the third day and the gallant--but doomed--charge by Trimble's, Pettigrew's, and Pickett's forces.

All in all, a nice work, looking at the battle from participants' views. Some issues come up, as already noted, but--still--a decent book.
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on May 21, 2009
If you've ever fought in close battle or have witnessed such firsthand the place or places where it occured- or where others have fought- take on different meaning.
Sadly, at the Gettysburg battlefield I watched many visitors drive by the various unit monuments and fields, momentarily glance at a map or brochure and then back out to what looked to be empty fields before moving on. There's not much in the way of shade in the area so many that I saw didn't leave their vehicles. Some even seemed bored, as though the expanse, didn't offer up much in the way of entertainment.
Getting to a place isn't the same as getting back to the time. That takes work on our part and help from others.
In this instance that help comes from Richard Wheeler's WITNESS TO GETTYSBURG. This is a book of old voices that come to back to life to tell their stories of the huge and costly three-day battle in early July of 1863. Thousands fell dead, tens of thousands more wounded in a fight that shaped the rest of the War Between the States and the nation itself.
Yeah, this is just a 'history book,' but in it you'll find more than you ever would with a brochure and more of an opportunity to appreciate those who went before us- from the housewife who attended the crowded wounded to the soldiers who gave the last full measure and died horribly.
There are some great fictional accounts of the fight and some excellent factual books. WITNESS TO GETTYSBURG has its place with the best of the factual personal histories.
A good book and by the way, the Gettysburg battlefield is a place you should walk. Will it take time? Yes and in the summer months it can be hot and miserable but then so was the three-day battle.
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I enjoyed every page of this one. I admit to being partial to firsthand accounts of historical happenings and the author certainly gives us a wealth of those in this work. This is a rather easy read since there are no orders of battle involved, only personal stories and how it effected the people who were actually there. I do agree with the one reviewer who suggested this work be read after other, more technical accounts of the battle have been studied as the reader will probably have a greater appreciation for what is found in this book. Goodness knows there are enough of those about and the reader will have no problems in finding several very good works out there. On the other hand, it is certainly not absolutely necessary. This three days was one of the pivotal points in our countries history and the more we understand it, the more we understand ourselves. We find in this work that the folks of that time were no much different that us and for some reason this is a comfort to me. I collect books concerning the Civil War and this is certainly a work that is treasured among my many volumes. I recommend it highly.
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on July 22, 1998
This book offers an interesting account of the Battle of Gettysburg as seen through the eyes of participants, both North & South, and civilian witnesses like towns folk and such. Not a detailed account of the battle but certianly a very easy to read and enjoyable (if you can say such about a terrible battle) story about this period of history. The use of first person accounts/recollections fits in with the historical narrative of the author which makes this book a pleasure to read.
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on August 22, 2005
An excellent collection of the Battlefield stories from the people who experienced the battle first hand. It gives you a feel of being there and a better sense of what the participants and the townsfolk went through on those days in early July 1863.
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on November 19, 2012
,An excellent perspective of the deciding battle of the Civil War conveyed by those who witnessed it. Compelling, gritty, horrible, and magnificent at the same time, it is a tale told with a masterful hand. This is a must read for any student of the War Between the States.
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on April 13, 2010
If you were a soldier on a battlefield you would see only your immediate surroundings and respond only to the orders of your officers. By the end, if you survived, you would know only what you saw and would be left to piece together the rest from rumors and the tales of others. On a complex battlefield like Gettysburg, with armies spread over several miles and action shifting from front to front over three days, much time would pass before you were able to piece together what might seem to be a coherent account, at least one that was coherent enough for you to be satisfied with. By adopting his "eyewitness" technique of presentation, Richard Wheeler provides the unparalled sense of immediacy associated with the eyewitness while also providing the broader perspective of the larger battlefield. In a sense, Wheeler has agents stationed all over reporting the viewpoint from their immediate surroundings and then he weaves together the input from these agents into a coherent whole. Of course, it is impossible to cover every spot on the battlefield, so there are great holes in the tapestry, but by standing back and looking at the tapestry from a distance the holes become less important than the larger picture presented by the incomplete tapestry.

Wheeler covers the advance of Lee's army through Virginia and into Pennsylvania so that the reader comes away with a clear idea of the preamble to the great battle and the motivations for the various actions along the way. Jeb Stuart's famous absence from Gettysburg on July 1 and 2 is placed in context and rationalized. Movements in Pennsylvania prior to the collision at Gettysburg help us understand how the "accident" at Gettysburg happened. At the Gettysburg battle, Wheeler's account of July 1 is especially vivid, when the citizenry encountered the armies and added their eyewitness accounts to those of the soldiers. Citizen accounts also add depth to reporting on July 2 and 3.

I would have given five stars had the parallels to Shaara's novel, "The Killer Angels", which predated "Witness to Gettysburg" by a decade, not been so apparent. That subtracted one-half star. I deducted the other half-star because Wheeler violates his own proudly professed rule of limiting himself to eyewitness accounts suitably examined and verified. Regrettably his "eyewitness" to the 20th Maine's defense of the Union extreme left flank was Theodore Gerrish, a member of the 20th Maine who is well known not to have been there, but to have been in Philadelphia during the entire battle. Gerrish undoubtedly drew heavily on the eyewitness accounts of his fellow regimental survivors. However, Gerrish's account is not eyewitness and is clearly romanticized, in some respects at least. The best that Wheeler could claim is that he quoted a second hand report. It isn't as though Wheeler had no source other than Gerrish. By the 1980's, when he wrote, Wheeler would have had available to him many eyewitness accounts. Why he rejected those in favor of Gerrish is a mystery but the result makes for poor scholarship.

Approximately a decade after Wheeler's book, a solid piece of historical scholarship on the Little Round Top defense was published by Thomas A. Desjardin, entitled "Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine." It is a five star piece of writing by a historian with his feet firmly planted on the ground. The title is drawn from Gerrish's stirring words quoted by Wheeler and made famous by Ken Burn's adoption of them for his own, now famous, PBS series on the civil war. The full text is: "Stand firm ye boys from Maine, for not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibility for freedom and justice, for God and humanity as are now placed upon you." Well written, but never uttered on a battlefield under fire, certainly never uttered in the late afternoon of July 2, 1863, at Vincent's Spur on Little Round Top amidst the heat of battle.
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