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Posted on May 20, 2013 in Books and Movies

The Graphic History of Gettysburg – Book Review

By Gerald D. Swick

The Graphic History of Gettysburg: America’s Most Famous Battle and the Turning Point of the Civil War. Written and illustrated by Wayne Vansant. Zenith Press. Paperback, 96 pages, 400 illustrations. $19.99

A few months ago, I reviewed Normandy: A Graphic History of D-Day, which uses a graphic-novel format to tell the story of the Normandy invasion and events of the subsequent weeks in France. It was a well-researched, nicely done book.

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Now, the same publisher, Zenith Press, and same author/illustrator, Wayne Vansant, have tackled the famed Civil War battle at the little crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1863. Once again, they’ve turned out a useful summary, one that is accessible to younger readers but with meat enough for grownups. Some readers will automatically be turned off by the graphic-novel approach and/or Vansant’s rather cartoonish style, but those willing to give the book a chance will applaud the amount of detail worked into the narrative.

Particularly useful are the pages that introduce the commanders of the corps and divisions of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. Readers not overly familiar with the major players in this battle can refer to those pages if they start to become confused by all the names in the narrative. These pages would have been even more useful had they been placed at the beginning, before the narrative starts, in order to make them easier to find if a reader needs to reference them. As it stands, they are on pages 9 and 15.

Right up front, however, is a chart for each side that breaks down by state the total engaged strengths, the number of infantry and cavalry regiments, and number of artillery batteries. Georgia, for example, is shown as having 13,185 total engaged, 37 infantry and two cavalry regiments, and six batteries. Maine had 3,752 engaged, 10 regiments of infantry, one of cavalry, and three batteries—but does anyone remember any of them except the 20th Maine?

The first chapter, in just five pages, presents the background against which the Gettysburg Campaign was planned and initiated, starting with the funeral of Lee’s “right arm,” Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and touching on such things as: U.S. Grant’s threat to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the western theater; the potential effect of “Peace Democrats” in the North; the supply situation in Dixie; and the demoralization present in the Army of the Potomac after yet another whuppin’ of one of their commanders at the hands of Bobbie Lee—this time at Chancellorsville.

In addition to the action scenes Vansant depicts, there are maps scattered through the book’s pages, showing the position of the troops as the battle develops.

There are also short vignettes (very short, due to the format, but effective nonetheless) that provide micro views to complement the overarching story: 72-year-old Gettysburg resident John Burns shouldering his old flintlock and marching to the sound of the guns; the Irish Brigade receiving absolution from their priest, William Corby, before charging in to fill a gap in the Union lines; the First Maryland (Confederate) Battalion losing half of its men and its mascot, a small mongrel dog, on the slopes of Culp’s Hill.

As previously noted, Vansant’s style is rather cartoonish compared to the more realistic illustrations found in graphic novels like Watchmen, Sin City, V for Vendetta, etc). That is, perhaps, an asset here, allowing him to provide a sense of action and of the battle’s intensity without heaping on the gore. Parents are going to be more inclined to hand a pre-teen a work of this type than one that revels in showing bodies being blown apart.

And this book serves as a very good introduction to the Battle of Gettysburg. Reading it, I found I was having an odd experience: I was feeling the excitement I felt when I first read about Gettysburg, lo, those many years ago. I kept turning pages, enjoying the story, instead of focusing on digesting facts and statistics as I am wont to do when reading traditional histories of the battle. The graphic-novel style lends itself to telling a ripping good yarn while communicating worthwhile information.

Vansant repeats the well-worn notion that Henry Heth’s division was going into Gettysburg to get shoes but without presenting it as fact: “Some would later say that there was a rumor of a warehouse full of shoes in Gettysburg … Heth would later claim that he went into Gettysburg that morning to get those shoes.” This phrasing avoids telling readers shoes were the reason the fight occurred at Gettysburg (which has been pretty much debunked) while still acknowledging the rumor. He avoids the oft-made error of claiming John Buford’s men were armed with repeaters and gets right the fact they were armed with breechloading Sharps carbines. We can quibble over the statement, “The 20th Maine … had held the far left flank of the Army of the Potomac”—other units in the brigade that included the 20th Maine deserve credit, too, but the role of Hiram Berdan’s sharpshooters is included, and Vansant’s account doesn’t emphasize the 20th Maine’s role any more than Michael Shaara did in Killer Angels.

In short, Vansant did his homework. The Graphic History of Gettysburg is an excellent choice for introducing younger readers to the battle, with information presented in an exciting manner within a format they are more likely to accept. It is a worthwhile read for anyone wanting an overview of the crisis at the crossroads. And for old grognards like myself, it can remind us of why we got interested in history in the first place.

(Sample pages 24–25 and 52–53 appear below.)

Gerald D. Swick is an aficionado of history and well-written graphic novels. He has written about Civil War events for publications that include The West Virginia Encyclopedia and ABC-CLIO’s online Civil War encyclopedia, and most recently for one of ACG‘s partner publications, America’s Civil War.

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