Review: One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863

Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael F. Nugent. One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863. New York: Savas Beatie LLC (June 2008). 576 pages, notes, bibliography, index, 16 maps. ISBN: 978-1932714432 $34.95 (Hardcover w/DJ).

Who knows anything about Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg?  Despite copious amounts of literature dedicated to the opening portions of the campaign and the battle itself, very little has been written (and hence read) about Lee’s difficult withdrawal across the South Mountain range to Williamsport and Falling Waters, and the eventual retreat across the flooded Potomac River, all while actively facing the pursuing Army of the Potomac.  After the fact, many in the North, including President Lincoln, were deeply critical of George Meade for “allowing” Lee’s army to escape to fight another day.  In One Continuous Fight, authors Eric Wittenberg, J.D. Petruzzi, and Michael Nugent set out to reassess the performance of many generals during this little-studied section of the campaign, document the numerous small battles which flared during the retreat, and generally challenge many commonly held assumptions.

The Gettysburg Campaign was not even close to being over as the two tired and battered Eastern armies licked their wounds and glared at each other across the battlefield on July 4, 1863.  Instead, a long and tense retreat to the Potomac River lay ahead for Lee’s wounded but still dangerous Army of Northern Virginia.  The Army of the Potomac, nearly as wounded but expecting reinforcements, would follow and make that retreat as difficult as possible.  Over the next ten days, Lee’s army used several routes to retreat to Williamsport, Maryland, forming a defense line there before finally crossing the Potomac River and escaping into Virginia to fight another day.

Much has already been said about One Continuous Fight, almost all of it overwhelmingly positive.  If you are looking for that trend to be broken here, you will be disappointed.

Among the misconceptions which sprang up around these ten days is the belief that there was very little fighting done.  The authors ably counteract that belief by penning a detailed tactical narrative which completely lays this fallacy to rest.

The description of the retreat, from John Imboden’s handling of the Confederate “Wagon Train of Wounded” to the numerous skirmishes and battles are well written, informative, and entertaining.  The book reads like a novel in some places, as there was drama aplenty packed into these eleven days.

Wittenberg, Petruzzi, and Nugent obviously spent a lot of time researching this one.  The prodigious number of primary sources was especially impressive, and it shows throughout the book.  Men who were there are often allowed to offer their own insight into what had happened.  This proved especially useful while discussing the job Meade did in pursuing Lee to the Potomac.

The authors cover the various camps of thought on that topic thoroughly in the conclusion.  Some of their findings definitely go against the commonly held thought that Meade was too passive in trying to cut off Lee.  In the end, they believe Meade probably did as much as could be expected with a tired army reinforced by only very green units.

Wittenberg, Petruzzi, and Nugent instead find others more culpable for the escape of Lee’s army, especially Union cavalry chief Alfred Pleasonton.  The leader of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps receives major blame for not massing his three divisions and interfering with Lee’s retreat in a more meaningful way.  Especially egregious, according to the authors, was his failure to even involve Gregg’s Division in the pursuit.  This third of the Union cavalry never even fought in any of the engagements along the retreat route.

Sometimes you have to look at the opponent’s conduct as well, and One Continuous Fight commends the handling of the retreat by Robert E. Lee, John D. Imboden, and J.E.B. Stuart.  The authors believe Stuart’s performance made up in large measure for some of his failings prior to the battle of Gettysburg.

The book could have easily ended as most campaign studies do, with an epilogue and maybe an appendix containing an order of battle.  The order of battle is here all right, just as you would expect in a Savas Beatie volume.  But the two appendices which really add quite a bit of extra usefulness are the tour guides following the Gettysburg Retreat (Appendix A) and the Confederate Wagon Train of the Wounded (Appendix B).  The tours include detailed directions including GPS waypoints at every stop, descriptions of the importance of those stops, and numerous black and white photos of the sights to be seen along the way.  An overview map of each drive is included with each tour.  Craig Swain of To the Sound of the Guns recently used One Continuous Fight to take the Gettysburg Retreat tour.  In any case, you simply do not see tour guides of this length in a typical campaign study.  As Craig pointed out, many publishers would have chosen to print the tour guide portion in its own book simply to make more money.  I applaud Savas Beatie’s decision to include the tours within this book instead.

If you have read any book by Eric Wittenberg, you know the man does his research.  One Continuous Fight does not disappoint in this regard.  The book, containing nearly four hundred pages of text, is solidly backed by fifty-four pages of notes and nearly forty pages of sources!  The numerous manuscript sources are located all over the United States, and the sheer number of primary sources used tells the reader that the authors are not content to simply rehash old findings.  They prefer, as it ever should be, to find out the answers to their questions by looking back to the original information.  The index is serviceable and works well.  Eric once remarked he hates doing the indexing on his books, so I always laugh when it comes time to take a look at the index of a Wittenberg-penned tome, wondering if he slaved away at it on his own or simply paid the publisher to take care of the distasteful task for him!

As is almost always the case with books published by Ted Savas, the maps in One Continuous Fight are numerous and helpful.  Sixteen maps in all cover the area in which the retreat occurred, the various skirmishes and engagements fought during the retreat, and tour maps of the area.

I am sure some of the more well-read Civil War bookworms out there are wondering how this book compares to Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign.  Interestingly, the authors touch on this in the Introduction to the book.  I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting the relevant passage here as it gives readers an answer far better than this reviewer could:

So how does the book you hold in your hands differ from Kent Masterson Brown’s?  Whereas Brown’s book masterfully details and highlights the complex logistical aspects of the Retreat, the main subject of this book concerns the fights and skirmishes, both large and small, that erupted as predator chased still-dangerous prey back to and across the Potomac River.  With a combined forty-plus years of studying those ten days following the Gettysburg carnage, we had uncovered scores of “new” untapped resources that much more fully told the stories of the men whose fighting was not nearly finished.  It is our humble belief that the combination of these two books gives the reader the full story of the Retreat, with each providing its own specialty of purpose.

One Continuous Fight sets out to correct some long held notions about Meade’s performance in the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit of Lee after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Authors Wittenberg, Petruzzi, and Nugent succeed marvelously in this endeavor.  In the process, they also managed to shed some very detailed light on a much-neglected series of little-known battles for the first time.  Researched in great detail, well-written, and entertaining, One Continuous Fight is a book all Civil War readers will want to have in their collections.  This is the type of book you get when you mix dedicated, knowledgeable authors with a dedicated, intelligent publisher.  At $34.95, the book is competitively priced as well.  Buy early and buy often from these authors, and make sure you take a look at the many other Savas Beatie offerings available.

I mentioned earlier in the review that much has already been said about One Continuous Fight.  In that vein, I’d like to point readers to some of those reviews here at the end of my own look at the book:

  1. Drew Wagenhoffer’s Review at Civil War Books and Authors
  2. Craig Swain’s “Trip Report” on the Gettysburg Retreat Tour from Appendix A at To the Sound of the Guns
  3. Paul Taylor’s Look at the Signed Limited Edition of the Book at With Sword and Pen
  4. Dimitri Rotov’s Glowing Praise of the Book over Several Posts at Civil War Bookshelf
  5. Midwest Book Review’s Take On The Book
  6. The Authors’ Official Web Site for One Continuous Fight

Lastly, Eric Wittenberg recently blogged about a third book in the authors’ Gettysburg “trilogy”, which will focus on the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac from July 15 to August 1, 1863.

I would like to thank Ted Savas and Sarah Keeney at Savas Beatie LLC.

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2 responses to “Review: One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863

  1. Richard Raymond, III Avatar

    Some day, when I can finally get it published, my blockbuster novel “Pursuit from Gettysburg” will write a new chapter in what might have followed had Meade gotten off his duff and on his horse. Lee’s army was badly hurt, but moving, and overcautious Meade took counsel only of his fears. Jackson once said, “When the enemy is broken, pursue as long as one man can move his feet, and the smaller force can destroy the larger.”

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