Gettysburg 1863—Seething Hell is a very different sort of Civil War book. It has the look of a coffee table book with the large size and many pictures. However, many of the pictures are likely not the kind of thing you want to peruse over coffee and a tasty dessert with guests. The “Seething Hell” part does not focus on General Lee’s strategy, General Meade’s defense, or the brave charge by General Armistead and all the others in “Pickett’s Charge.” This is a soldiers’ book, and it tells the story through their letters for the most part, with some added material from reminiscences. The numerous photos, all in black and white, are, for the most part, of reenactors, and many of them are absolutely gory. There are a few originals, which will be familiar to students of the battle.
The story opens with the soldiers on the march towards destiny. Before things get really serious, the boys are writing loved ones at home describing the scenery on the way North, which is almost universally described as a beautiful land of plenty by Southern boys used to flatter lands with more pine trees. One Texan described discover of a still and the resulting “Southern enthusiasm hightened by Maryland whiskey.” This quote points out the obvious—Mr. Pero deliberately left the spelling, and some of it awful, as written, which definitely adds authenticity to the accounts. Although Union soldiers (William Ray from Wisconsin and Waters Braman from New York) thought the northern girls along the way were quite attractive, the Southern soldiers commented that Pennsylvania ladies were decidedly unattractive. Tally Simpson of South Carolina declared that he had “not seen a really pretty girl since I have been in Penn.” George Buswell of Virginia was even more explicit, writing to his brother near Chambersburg: “Surely the girls of Sharpsburg are as sour as vinegar & and as ugly as any set of girls I ever saw.” This was obviously one of the favorite subjects of the young men in both armies.
The “boys” were tourists on he move, albeit without the comforts we have today on vacation, and they described land, people, crops, accents (in particular the German people in Pennsylvania) and just about anything else that caught their fancy. Unfortunately, too soon those powers of description turn to the three famous days of battle, and the soldiers are writing home (or remembering) deaths and wounding of loved ones in great detail. The author tries to follow the writers of multiple letters (such as Tally Simpson) and he provides background on the soldiers’ lives before the war and their lives after it (or, if killed, the details of their demise) in many cases. One Confederate, named Decimus et Ultimus Barziza, because he was the 10th and last child in the family, described the “irregular and terrible Confederate yell” as they went into battle. In addition to the blood and guts and the sad letters of men who knew they were dying from their wounds, there are “Richard Kirkland stories” of men risking bullets to succor the wounded on the battlefield. Lieutenant Robert Rogers of a NY artillery unit describes his won efforts to help the wounded on p 237. Another account, by Thomas Galway of Ohio, describes a Confederate soldier doing the same.
Author Thomas Pero accomplished what he set out to do—letting the men in the ranks who were at the epic battle tell the story of the fight. He did a wonderful job. In addition to the battle reenactment photos, the book contains maps of each day’s action but with the names of contributors to the book added at the point where those soldiers were posted along Confederate and Union lines. All in all, when I though not too much more could be done on Gettysburg, Mr. Pero has managed something very different and very good.
Attorney Edith Elizabeth Pollitz of Tallahassee, Florida, has been involved in activities relating to the study of the American Civil War for over 30 years. Her novel, Sadly Breathes the Song (2003), is the culmination of a story originally written when she was 15 in 1972. With Dr. Robert O. Neff, Ms. Pollitz is coauthor of The Bride and the Bandit (1998), a biography of Martha Ready, Civil War bride of Confederate cavalry raider John Hunt Morgan. Ms. Pollitz has reviewed books for The Civil War Courier specialty newspaper since 1991.