Clarity out of (near) Chaos - A Review of Gettysburg's Peach Orchard from Savas Beatie
James A. Hessler and Britt C. Isenberg, Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard: Longstreet, Sickles, and the Bloody Fight for the “Commanding Ground” along the Emmitsburg Road (Savas Beatie, 2019).
I’ve been to the Gettysburg battlefield precisely one million and six times and I think I have a pretty good handle on drums and bugles portion. Meaning: for the most part, I can trace the course of the military action on the field and effectively lead students though the events as they unfolded on July 1-3, 1863…more or less.
Things always get a little cloudy when I get to the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field. I get the gist and can explain the ground both strategically and tactically. But when it comes to the fighting…well, let’s just say the action is a little beyond my area of expertise. One might hear me utter the words on the field such as “chaos ensued…” or “the action at this point is extremely confusing…” You get the picture.
This is why I am so happy about this recent publication from Savas Beatie. Generally speaking, I dig micro-histories - especially when they deal with Gettysburg. But this one is an particularly welcome addition to my ever-growing library. To begin, the authors do a beautiful job of contextualizing the Peach Orchard fight on July 2. We learn Dan Sickles’s (Union III Corps) rationale behind positioning his troops in advance of the Union line and the interpersonal dynamics of the Army of the Potomac command structure. We learn of James Longstreet’s (Confederate I Corps) skepticism of Lee’s plans and his reasons for moving slowly into action.
But just as important, in my estimation anyway (for what it’s worth), the authors do a great job of following the day’s action as the two armies slugged it out in the Peach Orchard…and in the process, the reader will better (or at least should better) understand just how vitally important the fighting in the area was on July 2…fighting that is often overshadowed by the much more famous (and less confusing I suppose) scrap on Little Round Top.
AND…to round things out nicely, the authors do us the favor of situating the fight among the various structures in the region (barns, houses, etc), some of which still exist on the battlefield - with details on 1863 (and modern) roads and farms and the civilians who had to deal with the clash of two giant armies on their property. In the end, I think even the expert on the battle will come away with a more comprehensive understanding of the action as it took place on July 2.
Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard comes complete with period and modern images, maps, and an appendix featuring a select order of battle (to help with the who commanded whom and all the corps/division/brigade/regiment complications, which can get confusing at times). For the real ambitious go-getter types, might I recommend reading this book alongside another excellent Savas Beatie publication: The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3-July 13, 1863 by Bradley M. Gottfried. Seriously, this is a great companion piece to the whole campaign…for a (sometimes) minute by minute mapping of the action.
One last thing…I hope the authors are encouraged to write a follow-up volume on the action in the Wheat Field. Because sheesh. It would really be a big help.