Geography is easily understood to be crucial in the outcomes of battles and campaigns. When one thinks of the American Civil War; there are many important battles; Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Antietam. On each of them is that particular feature that we gravitate towards. There is The Angle, Pittsburg Landing and Burnsides Bridge. While we have plenty of books on the strategic, operational and tactical levels of these and other battles, James Hessler and Britt Isenberg took a different approach; to look at a geographic location on the Gettysburg battlefield and treating it like the biography. This biography is on Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard.
The authors takes the reader on a tour of the area surrounding the Sherfy farm, including notable sites from the battle like the Sherfy barn, Wentz farm, the Stony Hill and the Peach Orchard. This tour is in depth conveying to the reader the importance to the community that lived near the site of the Peach Orchard and soldiers that fought there by using references from the individuals present. For many the Peach Orchard was crucial to the ever developing farms in the area.
On the 2nd of July 1863, General Sickles commanding the III Corps from the Army of the Potomac and General Longstreet commanding the I Corps Army of Northern Virginia moved their forces toward each other with the focal point being the Peach Orchard. Both thinking the Peach Orchard an important artillery position for their army’s flank positions, yet in the end it was not as crucial as initially thought. Both sides paid heavily during the battle and afterwards there was criticism for Longstreet on how he followed his orders and Sickles taking liberties with the orders received by General Meade. This battle of words is carried forward to this day in both this book and many others.
This book looks at command at the brigade and regimental level. While leadership in an American Civil War battle is normally at the front, there are defiantly different levels of competence for the leaders at the regimental and brigade levels during the battle. This book shows the confusion within the battle with regiments and batteries showing up at the same location trying to locate their positions while under artillery and rifle fire. This happens many times in and around the Peach Orchard for both sides. In the end the terrain that was thought to be crucial at the Peach Orchard and along the ridge that follows the Emmitsburg Road was less successful as an artillery position then initially hoped.
This story also shows off Gettysburg’s colorful characters, among them Sergeant Henry Wentz, an artilleryman with Captain Osmond Taylor’s Battery CSA. Henry Wentz had grown up in the area and it does not appear that this local knowledge was put to use by either his brigade or his Corps command planning the Confederate attack on the second day. Latter on July 2nd his battery was firing on Union positions that he once called home.
For the reader there are many inspiring stories. There are the troops quickly marching past on July first to get to the developing battle north and west of Gettysburg. On July 2nd there is the skirmish between the lines involving the 1st Massachusetts and the 1st US Sharpshooters and the advancing Confederates. Later in the day there is Barksdale’s attack on the orchard and General Kershaw’s engagement at the Rose Farm. The Peach Orchard was also to see fighting on July 3rd with artillery on the ridge supporting Pickett’s Charge with infantry from the nearby Lang and Wilcox Brigades taking part.
In the post battle portion of the biography, the Sherfy farm and the greater community was to take time to heal. In latter years both Union and previously Confederate troops were to return to Gettysburg and the Peach Orchard for reunions. Hessler and Isenberg write about this and how the community and veterans interacted. Both during and after the reunions the area continued to support the tourist industry, as first trollies and latter cars made it easier to get to the battlefield. The authors even cover the tacky aspect of having a chain store called Stuckey’s on the battlefield proper near the Peach Orchard, which luckily for us was removed in 1972. Battlefield preservation is never easy.
I end with Lieutenant Colonel Levi Bird Duff on General Birney’s staff that wrote, “In times yet to come and long after we have passed away, many pilgrims will visit this battlefield.” This is true and after reading Hessler and Isenberg’s book I agree with them that, “At the battle of Gettysburg, no other single terrain feature can claim such far-reaching impacts as the Peach Orchard.” We can only hope that other authors will look to do a similar treatment to the many other import geographic locations on other battlefields for tourists and armchair generals that will refight the battles be it at the pub afterwards or on the battlefield tour.
**Thank you to our listener Jon who wrote this review. If you would like to be a guest writer on our blog, please send us an email: email@example.com**