This heavily illustrated approach to history offers a concise and readable overview of "America's most famous battle and the turning point of the Civil War." Although the target audience is older children and young adults, the book provides a nice visual summary of the Battle of Gettysburg for almost any reader.
Author and illustrator Wayne Vansant bookends the fighting at Gettysburg with some helpful background material on the military and political situation in both the North and South in the months leading up to the battle. He concludes appropriately with the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg and Lincoln's famous address. The brevity of that speech is aptly brought home by the realization that the entire text—less than 300 words—fits nicely in little more than a quarter of the final page in this book.
As expected from the title, the bulk of the material focuses on the three days of the battle itself: July 1-3, 1863. There are maps and diagrams of troop movements to provide a frame of reference for the military action, but the book's focus is on the illustrations—all in color—which are used to portray the battle primarily from the viewpoint of individuals or small groups of soldiers.
The book's approach—heavy on illustrations and light on text—is also indicated by the title, The Graphic History of Gettysburg. In this case, "graphic" refers the number of illustrations, not an undue emphasis on violence. However, parents of younger readers should know that the author doesn't gloss over the realities of a bloody and often tragic conflict.
The llustrations Inside Are Better Than The Cover
The quality of the illustrations is quite good for a work of this type and price, and no slight is intended by describing the style as "top-quality comic book art on slick paper." You wouldn't expect to find fine art in nearly a hundred pages of color drawings for well under twenty dollars—and you shouldn't judge the quality of this book by its front cover. I felt almost every other drawing in the book was better than the one used on the cover. Well-known historical figures such as Lincoln and Lee are easily recognizable in the artwork.
The text is offered in small bites, usually a sentence or two at a time, normally placed as captions for each of the three to five illustrations that appear on most pages. In some cases, both factual information and brief dialogue by individual characters are included in "balloon captions."
Battles such as Gettysburg that involved such large numbers of troops and so many names of people and places present a challenge for both authors and readers. It's easy to lose track of whether Generals Howard, Hancock and Heth were fighting for the North or the South, but because this book relies more heavily on visuals than text, the blue and gray uniforms in the colored illustrations help keep things sorted out.
Tidbits and Quotes Help Humanize the Story
In any account of a major battle it is also easy to overlook the countless individual stories that are wrapped up in the larger action. Vansant uses a number of historical tidbits and interesting quotes from participants in the action to humanize the narrative. For example:
• General Longstreet wanted to delay launching an attack until all of his units were in place, and offered a terse explanation: "I never like to go into battle with one boot off."
• Upon learning that he had unexpectedly been given command of the Army of the Potomac shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg, Union General George Meade remarked, "Well, I've been condemned without a hearing ... and I suppose I shall have to go to the execution."
• Readers will learn some basic facts about the only civilian killed in the battle.
• A widespread problem after the battle was the number of unidentified bodies, but a photograph of three children carried by one anonymous casualty set off a widespread media campaign in the North to try to identify the soldier and his family. The result was a poem set to music ("O Father, Guard the soldier's wife / and for his orphans care...") and eventual identification of Amos Humiston of the 154th New York. The book tells a bit more of this story, and how proceeds from sales of the printed music benefitted orphans of the battle.
• Finally, the author uses a quote in a balloon caption to inject a bit of wry humor into an otherwise serious subject. When Confederate Lt. General Richard Ewell was hit by a stray bullet, he shrugged off the incident by noting, "It doesn't hurt a bit to get shot in a wooden leg."
I don't claim to be a serious student of Gettysburg history, so I haven't tried to validate all of the author's facts and figures. I did check on several of his quotes, and they all appear in other credible sources. James M. McPherson, a "Pulitzer Prize-winning historian," provided a solid endorsement on the book's back cover.
Perhaps a good description of this book might be a heavily illustrated Cliff's Notes version of the Battle of Gettysburg. It's being released right on time for the 150th anniversary of the battle, which will be commemorated this summer at Gettysburg National Military Park.