Book Review: “Discovering Gettysburg”

Gettysburg seems a historical anomaly. Standing at the High Water Mark near the center of the Union battle line on Cemetery Ridge, one can peer south and west. With the exception of cars zooming by on the Emmitsburg Road, barely a modern amenity meets the eye on the battlefield proper.

Discovering Gettysburg

Only monuments, many erected by the battle’s veterans, remind a visitor that they are in the 21st century–not the 19th.

Turn slightly, looking north, and, where open fields and fence rails once dotted the landscape in 1863, now sit a KFC, a buffet aptly named for George Pickett, a McDonald’s, and other modern restaurants, hotels, and gift shops. The contrast is striking–and certainly strange. Any visitor to Gettysburg sees it clearly: the earnest desire to restore one of America’s most hallowed landscapes to its wartime appearance and the hope to make a dime off the visitors.

So, what makes a place like Gettysburg tick? Look no further than W. Stephen Coleman’s Discovering Gettysburg, as he sets out to explore the ins and outs of this famous town.

Coleman freely admits–in the book’s first sentence, in fact–that this is not your standard Gettysburg book, or Civil War book, even. (Just flip through the pages to find out. You will not find oft-printed portraits of generals or detailed battle maps. Rather, Tim Hartman’s caricatures of figures from Gettysburg–known and unknown, past and present–grace the pages and only a handful of general battle maps.) Coleman’s lively and down-to-earth writing style leads readers from one point of Gettysburg to another, but there are no turn-by-turn directions here you often see in battlefield guides. Coleman, however, is never shy about pointing out buildings, stores, shops, and monuments that give Gettysburg its unique identity and does make it a unique resource to have at your side next time you visit the field.

Discovering Gettysburg is unique, and approaches Coleman’s question from all angles. Interspersed among narrations and interviews with a wide array of residents, National Park Service employees, Gettysburg guides, and more (these are a great highlight!) are three chapters narrating the ebbs and flows of the battle to provide context. But the real meat and value of the book are not the battle chapters, but those who focus on the town, the National Military Park, and reenactors, to name a few.

Ultimately, what does Coleman discover about the battery that keeps this unique town running? It’s not the granite monuments, the battlefield interpretation, the town’s residents, necessarily (though each have their role). No. Everyone claiming to have fallen under the trance of Gettysburg must view its uniqueness–and its draw–through their own eyes. It’s different for us all, yet we are all drawn by that little something we have each come to know and love about that town called Gettysburg.

W. Stephen Coleman, Discovering Gettysburg: An Unconventional introduction to the Greatest Little Town in America and the Monumental Battle that made it famous.

Savas Beatie, 2017.

274 pages, bibliography, index.