An Interview with One Continuous Fight Authors Eric J. Wittenberg, J. David Petruzzi, and Michael F. Nugent
: What made the three of you decide to write this book?
EJW: I first became interested in the retreat from Gettysburg when I was researching an article on John Buford’s role in the Gettysburg Campaign way back in 1992. I then had a tour of pertinent sites with my old friend Ted Alexander, and I was hooked. The more I found out about it, the more interested I became. Then, when I discovered that there was no book length treatment of these events (this was prior to the publication of Kent Masterson Brown’s book), I decided that someday, I was going to write that book. Even after Kent’s book was published, I remained determined to use all of that research material that I had gathered and to write that book. I approached J. D. and Mike about making it a group project, and the result is One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863.
JDP: Gettysburg has long been my first love in Civil War studies, and everyone knows that the cavalry is my emphasis. The cavalry did the bulk of the fighting of the 22 battles and skirmishes during the retreat from Gettysburg, so it naturally interested me as a fascinating aspect of the Campaign. I took my first tour of the retreat route some 20 years ago, and have been hooked ever since. The three of us have been gathering source material about the retreat for many years, and the subject had never received a dedicated scholarly treatment. The three of us are just as energetic teaching each other as we are teaching ourselves, and the more we studied the retreat over the years the more we wanted to tell the fascinating stories of the clashes at Granite Hill, Monterey Pass, Funkstown, and so on, and also the enormously interesting decisions made by both Lee and Meade during those ten days.
MFN: I’ve had a long fascination with Gettysburg, especially with the cavalry actions that took place in conjunction with the battle. The more I studied the battle and visited the field the more I found myself examining some of the lesser known actions that occurred during the Campaign, chief among these the incredible stories of the Confederate retreat and the continuous series of cavalry clashes fought along the route. With so much written about the Battle of Gettysburg the story of the retreat remained largely untold and telling that story was a natural extension of the mutual interest that Eric, J.D. and I have in Gettysburg’s cavalry actions. The more we learned about the retreat the more we realized that a story of this magnitude deserved a book length, in-depth treatment.
: Rarely do books have three co-authors. J.D. and Mike, how did you three fellows “partner up” to write this book?
JDP: Eric, Mike and I are very close friends and share a deep interest in the history of the cavalry. We love anything and everything to do with the horse soldiers throughout history. Our favorite-to-study cavalry commanders, such as Jeb Stuart, Fitz Lee, John Buford, Judson Kilpatrick, and George Custer, played such prominent roles during the fights of the retreat from Gettysburg. Truly, a study of the retreat is a study of both armies’ cavalry. Eric and I brought Mike on board very early in the project because of Mike’s long interest in the Wagon Train of Wounded and also because of his unique and perceptive insights since he is a former armored cavalry officer. Our writing styles are very similar and combining our efforts on this book was a very easy and natural process. Mike also did a killer job of putting together the two driving tours that grace the book. The inclusion of GPS coordinates was his idea.
MFN: I first became acquainted with J.D. and Eric while researching my own family history and the Civil War cavalry service of my great-great-grandfather. We quickly learned that we shared not only an interest in Civil War cavalry, but specifically in some of the war’s more obscure cavalry actions. Never content with the brief, general overview that these actions received in many histories, we were always digging for more. Together, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves while tracking down some obscure cavalry history in some very out-of-the-way places. Eric and J.D. had worked together before and J.D. and I had also collaborated on a few projects so the pieces all fell into place for us to team up and tell the story of the retreat.
: Eric, when did the three of you begin writing this book?
EJW: Nearly five years ago. We actually completed about a 90,000 word manuscript, and then decided that that manuscript did not contain the level of detailed narrative and analysis we were looking for, so we then completely re-worked it into its present form.
: A highly acclaimed book on the retreat by Kent Masterson Brown appeared a few years ago. How is your book different from Brown’s?
EJW: Kent’s a friend of mine, so I was somewhat hesitant to tackle the project in light of his terrific study. However, Kent’s study has two very distinct focuses: the logistics of the Confederate retreat, and the implications of the retreat for the Army of Northern Virginia. The book has a very clear Southern focus such that the Union side of the story is neglected. Consequently, we decided to write our book as a means of complementing Kent’s book. We definitely focus on the Army of the Potomac’s role in these events, with special emphasis on both the role of the cavalry and on the decision-making process utilized by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade and the high command of the Army of the Potomac. Hence, our book complements Kent’s work. Further, our book contains detailed driving tours of the route of the Wagon Train of Wounded and of the fighting that took place during the retreat. Kent’s book does not contain anything of the sort. Consequently, our book is very different from Kent’s, both in scope and in focus.
JDP: Eric is quite correct. As Brown’s emphasis was on the logistics of the retreat, ours is the fighting and the decision-making of those ten days – so each of our works has its own specialty of purpose. Put our book and Brown’s together, and we feel readers will have the full gamut of angles regarding the retreat from Gettysburg story. In addition, the inclusion of our comprehensive driving and walking tour in the back of the book makes our book an indispensable field guide that readers can take along with them as they, too, personally study the ground, sights, and historical locations.
MFN: Kent’s meticulous research is evident in his fascinating study but as Eric and J.D. mention his emphasis on the logistical aspects of the retreat for Lee’s Army differs from our more tactical focus on the cavalry engagements fought along the retreat route. Beyond an academic exercise, our hope is that our included driving tours provide our readers the means to see first-hand where this story unfolded and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the fighting that continued well after the three day battle. Taken together, Kent’s book and ours should complement each other and tell the full story of the retreat.
: Did you discover anything “new” about the story of the retreat in your research?
EJW: Lots. We found stories that had never been told previously. As just one example, we have the first real deep analysis of the decision-making process utilized by Meade and his lieutenants. We learned that Meade really agonized over the decision to attack, more so than is normally represented. We also learned just how poor of a job Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry chief, did during the retreat. Pleasonton did a terrible job of gathering intelligence, and let an opportunity to block Lee’s line of retreat slip through his fingers, meaning that the Union army never had another chance to seize the initiative. Finally, we were surprised by the roles played by troops from other commands. These stories simply don’t get told elsewhere.
JDP: Quite a bit, yes. That enormous bibliography in the back of the book shows that we actively unearthed every primary source, and good secondary source, that we could find, and the research opened up many new stories and details for us. Let me give you a specific example. Until our book, most students of the retreat have never heard of the July 5 skirmishing at a location called “Granite Hill” between Gettysburg and Fairfield. Previously, any accounts that actually dealt with the activity at Granite Hill between the Federal 6th Corps and the rear guard of Ewell’s wagon train has been confused with accounts of the later activity in Fairfield itself. Granite Hill, until now, has not been identified as a distinct, separate fight. Our detailed narrative of the clash shows that the initial skirmishing between the armies was more spread-out and tactically broader on July 5 than previously thought. As well, our map of the fight is the very first time that the Granite Hill fight has ever been mapped by anyone, anywhere. Loads of little details and accounts went into creating that map, which was made by us entirely from scratch. We feel our Granite Hill narrative will give battlefield stompers an entirely new “battlefield” to visit and study.
MFN: We were also fortunate to uncover the personal stories of a number of people who lived along the route of the retreat. While mapping out the routes we enjoyed the hospitality of the descendants of some of these original residents, some of whom had their ancestor’s records documenting their family’s part in this saga. Almost by accident we met people like Ms. Joyce Horst who graciously shared her family’s story and the previously unpublished accounts of Deacon Michael Hege and his nephew Henry of the Hege Farm. All along the route we picked up interesting and useful bits and pieces of information.
: Many assert that Gettysburg is an over-done topic, but the retreat is one aspect that until recently has gotten very little notice.
JDP: Right. When Kent Brown’s book on the retreat appeared a few years back, it renewed interest in the retreat story. It was the first comprehensive work to address the subject in a very long time. Since we began writing this book several years before Brown’s appeared, we looked forward to it with anticipation when we heard it was coming out. As we mentioned previously, Brown’s emphasis was on the logistical aspect of the retreat, and we were in the midst of instead writing a comprehensive, detailed tactical narrative – a book that had not been done before. We literally have chapter-long accounts of the skirmishes and all-out battles of the retreat, whereas previously the most written on many of these fights were no more than a few paragraphs. A ponderous amount of first-hand accounts were out there in the forms of letters, diaries, articles and books, just waiting to be used. The process of writing this book closely paralleled the companion volume to it, Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg (Savas Beatie, 2006) by Eric and myself, in which we likewise tell the full story of another under-appreciated aspect of the Campaign, that of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry’s advance into Pennsylvania.
: Mike, you were the primary author of the wonderful driving tours in the back of the book. Describe the process of putting those together, some experiences the three of you had as you drove them yourself, and some things the reader can look forward to as they take the tours themselves.
MFN: First of all we were extremely fortunate to have experts like Ted Alexander and Dean Shultz willingly share their encyclopedic knowledge of the retreat and the area with us and accompany us as we developed the tours. Their help was invaluable in sorting out the routes and pinpointing some key locations and events. Along the way we experienced nearly a sense of discovery in identifying the correct location of places like the Monterey Springs Hotel. I was also struck by how much of the history is “hidden in plain sight” along the route. One can read the diaries of Jacob and Milton Snyder, but their recollections take on a whole new perspective when you’re able to stand in front of their farmhouse and imagine the wounded, retreating Confederates begging for water and something to eat as they passed by. In Smithsburg, new condominiums dominate Gardenhour Hill, but looking back towards South Mountain you can still almost see J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry approaching along Raven Rock Road. In Hagerstown, hundreds of cars pass over the same streets where onlookers on rooftops watched mounted cavalry charges. Incredible stories unfolded all along these routes and our hope is that the driving tours allow our readers to relive these little known and mostly unmarked events.
: Eric, the book contains very detailed accounts of the battles at such places like Boonsboro, Funkstown, and Williamsport. The way these battles unfolded and ended had important implications on the outcome of Lee’s efforts to safely cross the Potomac River. Describe some of them and why they are so important to the tactics and the result.
EJW: Indeed they did. Williamsport, fought on July 6, was the critical moment of the retreat. Had John Buford’s troopers punched through John Imboden’s makeshift lines, they would have interdicted themselves between Lee’s army and Virginia, capturing all of the Confederate army’s wagon trains in the process. Imboden’s stout defense of Williamsport—clearly his finest hour of the war—meant that the Army of Northern Virginia would not have to fight its way through to the river crossings. The stand made by the Union troopers at Boonsboro prevented Jeb Stuart’s vaunted troopers from pushing their way through to interdict the concentration of the Union army, and the amazing stand by the First Vermont Brigade at Funkstown gave Meade an opportunity to punch a hole in the Confederate line before it was ready, but that opportunity slipped away before it could be exploited. These fights are tactically fascinating and strategically significant, and we’ve given them their first really detailed tactical treatments in this book.
: Similar to your Plenty of Blame to Go Around book, you’ve focused on many human-interest stories in One Continuous Fight. They are always an enjoyable aspect to read about. Do any of these vignettes stand out for you?
EJW: I have long been fascinated by the stand of George Emack’s little band of Maryland cavalrymen at the mouth of the Monterey Pass on the night of July 4, when less than 100 men held off an entire division of Federal cavalry for hours. I’ve often wondered whether I could have done as well under such terrible conditions as those faced by the men of both sides that awful night.
JDP: There are a plethora of accounts of events from the citizens of Gettysburg, and from citizens all along the route of retreat, but I became especially interested in the story of Lt. Col. Benjamin F. Carter of the 4th Texas Infantry. Carter was wounded leading his regiment on the July 2 charge on Little Round Top, and he was taken along, very badly wounded, during the retreat. Along the old Pine Stump Road near Marion, he was taken into custody by Federal soldiers and local citizens, and transported to Chambersburg along with many more of Lee’s wounded. He was cared for, for a time, by a local woman who turned out to be the mother of a mortally wounded Federal soldier who Carter himself had actually cared for during the 2nd Battle of Manassas. This “circle of fate” was simply fascinating to us. Carter was initially buried in a church cemetery in Chambersburg, but was later exhumed and moved to another local cemetery to an unmarked grave. Until we began research this, no one knew the present location of his grave. We reveal the details of what we found in the book, and it turned out to be one of the more fascinating human interest stories I’ve ever run across in my decades of research about Gettysburg.
MFN: Certainly the personal recollections, diaries and records like those kept by Deacon Michael Hege of the Hege Farm help to put a human face on the story. For example, Hege family history relates a humorous story of Deacon Hege managing to hide several barrels of whiskey from the foraging Confederates. Along with the vivid descriptions recorded by Hege’s nephew Henry and others like Chambersburg residents Rachel Cormany and Jacob Hoke, these accounts add a human element and make the story something personal.
: Generally, do you think that Federal Commander George Meade receives too much criticism for “allowing” Lee and his army to escape from Gettysburg and prolong the war for two more years, or do you think some of the criticism is unwarranted? How do you address it in your book?
EJW: Far too much unwarranted and undeserved criticism. When you understand the terrain, the state of the Union army, and what Meade really faced, you come to a very different conclusion about the wisdom of the decision not to just pitch in blindly. Let’s consider just this one aspect: Meade had lost three of his seven corps commanders at Gettysburg, including the two he most trusted in Reynolds and Hancock. By the time of the retreat, Meade had only one corps commander—Slocum—who had been in command of a corps for more than three months. Consider that for a moment, and then ask yourself whether Meade was right to be cautious under those circumstances. I’m actually quite sympathetic to Meade, who wanted to attack but faced resistance from his subordinates.
JDP: Much of the criticism of Meade comes with the territory and is unavoidable and expected. On the face of it, he won a battlefield victory by repulsing Lee’s offensives, but yet he doesn’t – to put it in simple terms – “finish the job” as many say. We address this issue fully in our Conclusion, punctuated by a plethora of comments and remarks from participants, many appearing for the very first time in our book. From my perspective, I understand the criticism that Meade receives today, and I have often been harsh on him myself. There have been some very good, insightful articles written about this subject in recent years. As the army commander, the buck stops with Meade to be sure. But when you take the issue to the subordinate level over the first few crucial days after Lee begins his retreat, you have to consider the actions of such individuals as Cavalry Corps commander Alfred Pleasonton. Instead of keeping most of his cavalry together in a cohesive strike force once Lee’s retreat was discovered, Pleasonton parsed out his horsemen, each unit too small to retard or stop Lee’s retreat momentum. One of Pleasonton’s three cavalry divisions, in fact, was a complete non-factor during the retreat – they hardly were called upon to engage Lee’s forces at all. Instead of commanding from the field, and personally observing the conditions, Pleasonton characteristically chose to stay close to Army headquarters. And once Lee’s army entrenched itself along its defensive lines from Falling Waters to Williamsport, Meade, in my opinion, faced a daunting task of assaulting the southerners – and such an assault likely would have come to grief. Several of Meade’s commanders were against the idea, and once Meade finally did decide to attack Lee on the morning of July 14, the southerners’ crossing had already been effected. It was too little, too late. In addition (and something that few consider) Meade lost many of his troops due to expiration of their terms following the battle. The controversy surrounding everyone’s conduct and decisions during the retreat from Gettysburg, especially that of Meade, will provide fodder for discussion for years to come, and our extremely detailed exploration of it in our book will give readers many, many new factors to consider as they form their own opinion.
MFN: My study of the retreat leaves me absolutely convinced that the criticism of Meade for not mounting a more aggressive pursuit of Lee’s Army, or for not attacking Lee’s position at Williamsport is largely unwarranted. As Andy Trudeau says in his preface, “History is not an armchair pastime.” Our driving tours will hopefully reinforce that lesson as walking the actual ground of the Williamsport – Falling Waters positions reveals what a formidable obstacle it was. No doubt the debate will continue, but an attack against the Confederates at Williamsport may well have ended in a Fredericksburg like disaster, negating Meade’s victory at Gettysburg.
: The misery suffered by so many of Lee’s wounded along the Wagon Train of Wounded’s retreat is very graphically told in your book.
EJW: It is. It’s a critical part of the story of the retreat, and we tried to capture it in as graphic terms as possible in order to be sure that the reader gets a real sense of why it was described as a seventeen mile long wagon train of misery.
JDP: We dedicated an entire chapter to the story of Lee’s wounded, partly because we found so much material on it, and partly because it deserved to be told in order to give the reader an appreciation for that very basic, human aspect of the suffering of the men. Every time I drive along the route of Lee’s wounded from Gettysburg to Williamsport, I can’t help but think of the suffering they endured – we look at it in a sanitized fashion in our comfortable cars on good roads, but the wounded went through torture in those rickety wagons on very bad roads that we just cannot imagine today.
MFN: The untold misery endured by those Confederates traveling in the Wagon Train of Wounded is an important story to tell. Accounts of men with ghastly wounds, begging to be left along the road to die, contrast with the romanticized version of war that is perhaps too common in many military histories. The story of the wounded Confederate’s agonizing journey home drives home the message that “war is all hell” and emphasizes for the casual student of Gettysburg that the battle was far from over on the afternoon of July 3rd.
: Mike, it was your idea to include the Global Positioning (GPS) points for each important location in the driving tours. It’s a novel idea, and enhances the tour experience immensely. Take us through the process of doing that for these tours, and do you see this added feature as a “wave of the future” for such historical tours?
MFN: I’m something of a technological dinosaur but was quickly sold on the value of using GPS to explore Civil War battlefields. GPS can provide definitive answers regarding locations, distances and lines of sight when maps, photographs and historical accounts sometimes differ. As GPS devices become more commonplace and user friendly, I think they’ll be widely used for these kinds of tours. By following the pre-programmed coordinates, our hope is that our readers will have an easier, safer and more enjoyable experience and be better able to follow the events along the route without having to worry about navigation.
: Thank you, all, for sharing this information. I know readers will be anxious for the book’s release.
ALL: You're welcome, and thank you.
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