An Interview with Silent Sentinels Author George W. Newton
Artillery played an important and perhaps decisive role in the early July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Although many hundreds of books have been published on the battle, few have focused on the "long arm." Silent Sentinels: A Reference Guide to the Artillery of Gettysburg fills this glaring gap in the literature. Author George W. Newton recently talked to Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC about his book and how Civil War enthusiasts will use it.
: Hello, Mr. Newton. Have you always had an interest in the Civil War or is this a newfound passion?
GN: I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and when I was eight years old my parents took me to Gettysburg. My lifelong interest in the Civil War began during this trip. I remember marveling at the monuments, cannons, stone walls, and fences. While there, I purchased Gettysburg: What They Did Here, by L.W. Minnigh. I read that guidebook over and over. As time passed I naturally became interested in other battles, but Gettysburg remains my favorite to study.
: What gave you the idea to write a book on the artillery at Gettysburg?
GN: Over the years I noticed that books dedicated to artillery-particularly the artillery at Gettysburg-were in short supply. Those that were available were either too basic or too complex to interest most Civil War buffs. With a few exceptions, the organization and operation of a battery has not received a lot of attention. In addition, the guns on the field today-and their history pertaining to the battlefield as a memorial-have been overlooked. Not a single book details this to any degree. I always found that a bit odd because the guns are quite visible to every visitor and elicit a lot of questions. So, I decided that this void in the literature needed to be filled.
: And so, your book-writing journey began...
GN: Yes. While researching, I thought that it was essential to rely on primary sources, especially John Gibbon's The Artillerist's Manual and Joseph Roberts' The Handbook of Artillery. These manuals contain excellent details about organization, gun specifications, and operations (how to fire, maneuver, etc.) The diagrams in my book came from these sources. I wanted the reader to see the actual diagrams the artillerists saw and the material the men learned from.
: Why did artillery play such an important factor in the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg?
GN: Artillery was so important because both sides used it effectively. On the first day, the Confederates made better use of artillery, but the second and third days the Union army used it well. The Army of the Potomac was on the defensive during the entire battle and employed massed artillery on Cemetery Hill to protect its front and the integrity of its defensive position. On July 2, the Union used artillery well to defend against Confederate assaults in and around the Peach Orchard, as well as counter battery fire with Confederate artillery on Seminary ridge.
: Where else did the Union army use artillery on July 2nd and 3rd?
GN: The Union used artillery on July 2 to plug the gaps where there was insufficient infantry to do the job, such as along Wheatfield Road and Cemetery Ridge east of the Trostle thicket. The Union artillery on Cemetery Hill also dueled with Confederate artillery on Benner's Hill. Of course, on July 3, Union artillery returned fire from about 110 guns during the cannonade before Pickett's Charge. The artillery played a major role in defeating the attack.
: How and when did Confederates use artillery at Gettysburg?
GN: The Confederates were on the offensive during the entire battle and used artillery to soften the target area of the attack. Because the Union army was on the defensive, it fired a lot more canister than the Confederates, who fired little to none. On July 1, the Confederates massed artillery on Herr's ridge west of town, on Oak Hill north of town, and on high ground east of Barlow's knoll to converge the fire as effectively as possible. On the third day, the cannonade prior to Pickett's charge was designed to soften up the Union center. They used about 150 guns, but it was not as effective as the Confederates needed. The guns were improperly arranged and most of them were too far away to do the damage intended.
: Your book contains a lot of very useful information for both the casual battlefield visitor and the serious scholar. Would you please discuss some of the material in your book and how each reader will use the information?
GN: Sure. I think the casual visitor with a passing interest will find the arrangement of Silent Sentinels easy to follow. The book begins with a really nice Foreword by Brad Gottfried, who is himself quite a Gettysburg scholar. Brad offers a good overview of the history of artillery and its development during the war up to and through the Gettysburg Campaign. The first chapter introduces the entire subject and the campaign on a deeper and wider level, including the major characters involved (Lee, Pendleton, Meade, Hunt, and so on). In subsequent chapters I explain in some detail about the guns themselves and how they were used. Many people don't know much about artillery, and I think this will be a good introduction to the subject. Period diagrams help illustrate the various parts of the guns, their carriages, etc. How the artillery was organized, its operation (including a few paragraphs about horses), and its tactics are also explored. My writing style is rather succinct, and my intent was to provide enough information to explain the subject without being either too simple or too complex. Once the casual visitors have absorbed some of this information, touring the battlefield with an eye on the role of artillery is much easier and much more enjoyable. At least I hope so!
: It sounds like serious students will also like most of that same material...
GN: Well, I guess time will tell. I am rather surprised at how many serious historians have really overlooked the role of artillery except in the most general sense. So my hope is that many will take away a lot of new information from Silent Sentinels. The appendices, especially, are designed with the serious student in mind. These include the Order of Battle for the artillery of each army. There is also a list of batteries by state, which is unique to this book. This resource makes it simple for any reader to identify a battery when he can't remember the nomenclature, but knows the commander's name. Statistics compare brigade and battalion losses, and so on. Another pair of appendices offer the official reports penned by Union and Confederate artillery officers of high and low rank, which adds different perspectives to the story. Biographies of these men were also written and included. There is also a glossary of terms, which I think everyone will find useful.
: I enjoyed the trivia section also...
GN: That was fun to include. The trivia is to give both the serious student and the casual visitor some additional information to help them understand the role of artillery. This includes everything from a listing of the four Union artillerymen who received the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg to the percentage of guns in the respective armies that were rifled-and about everything in between.
: Let's get to the other major part of the book: the tour. Silent Sentinels offers a driving tour of the battlefield designed with the artillery in mind. This is a very nice and rather unique addition.
GN: Thank you. I thought it was important to include this section so that visitors can look at and touch the guns while learning about what they are seeing. For example, most battlefield visitors think that all of the guns on the field are real. They are not. Some are fakes. Visitors will learn how to identify the real ones, understand what the stamped information on the muzzle means, get a sense of why the guns were deployed where they are, what they represent, and what they did during those memorable July days. They can even learn to spot the difference in the color of the patina to distinguish between a Union-made and a Confederate-made Napoleon.
: The quotes in the driving tour are also helpful...
GN: Good, I'm glad you think so. The primary quotes help visitors see the problems and perils of operating an artillery battery under fire in the Civil War. They can read about the action at each stop to better understand what it was like to be in the artillery.
: Let's talk for a moment about the guns that sit on the field today. Were any of them used in the battle?
GN: Only one has been documented as being in the battle. It's a no. 233, a three-inch Ordnance Rifle that fired the first Union artillery shot of the battle. It sits at the base of Buford's monument along the Chambersburg Pike on the first day's field.
: So if only one of the guns at the park is known to have been in the battle, where did the others come from?
GN: After the war, guns were held in various arsenals around the country. Most of the guns on the Gettysburg battlefield today came from arsenals in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and Augusta, Georgia. Most of the major battles of the war are probably represented on the field today.
: Are there any other guns known to have been in the battle at Gettysburg but are not on the field now?
GN: There are two. One is a 12-pounder Napoleon that was disabled on the third day. Today it resides in the statehouse in Providence, Rhode Island. The other is a three-inch Ordnance Rifle that was captured on July 1 by the Confederates and recaptured at Spotsylvania. It is privately owned.
: How many guns does the National Park Service have in its collection at Gettysburg?
GN: 436 tubes. 371 of these, including the four at the base of Buford's monument, sit on the field mounted on carriages.
: Speaking of the battlefield park, I understand that you have spent a lot of time there.
GN: Yes. I'm studying to become a Licensed Battlefield Guide. It's not an easy process. A written exam is given every two years. Only the people with the top 15 to 20 scores on the written test move on to the oral exam. Typically, those who pass have had many years of interest and study-truly serious students who are passionate about the war and the battle. Thus, the level of difficulty is high and has been equated to having a master's degree in the Civil War and Gettysburg.
: Where are you in this process?
GN: I completed and passed the written exam and will test for the oral exam in September 2005. In the oral exam, the prospective guide goes out with a park ranger and a licensed guide who evaluate the presentation on a variety of issues-clarity, communication, ability to tell the story without telling a documentary, keeping it simple (most tours are for the casual visitor.) After passing the oral test, you receive a license. It's quite a process.
: What have you learned during the experience?
GN: I have learned to tailor my presentation to the visitors who have little or no knowledge so they can better understand and enjoy the battle. A guide is a historian, teacher, and entertainer, all rolled into one! This battlefield has been a lifelong obsession of mine, and I want to pass my appreciation of this time in our history on to others.
: What do you think about the new visitor center and its impact on the battlefield?
GN: I welcome the new center. It will enable the park to rehabilitate the area of the VC back to its 1863 appearance. Also, visitors will be able to see more of the very large collection of artifacts. Therefore, they can learn more effectively about the battle itself, as well as the entire war. When completed, the center will bring even more visitation to the battlefield. The impact, in my opinion, will be very positive.
: In conclusion, some believe Gettysburg has been "done to death" and that the content of books today on Gettysburg are degenerating into questionable value. Why does your book not fall into this category?
GN: I agree that many books do not offer anything new. As I stated above, the memorialization of the battlefield has received little attention, and so has the artillery as it specifically related to the fight at Gettysburg. So for those two reasons-and several others-Silent Sentinels does not fall into the category you mentioned. Silent Sentinels includes material about the guns that was not previously available to a general audience, while appealing to both segments of the market: the casual visitor and the serious student. Let me be clear, though, that my book is not revisionist history or an attempt to present some new theory. It is a reference source in an area of the battle that has not received a lot of specific attention.
: I think many people will agree with you and look forward to reading your book. Thank you for your time and good luck with your battlefield guide endeavor.
GN: Thank you very much.
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