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The Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) was the largest ever fought on the American continent and the pivotal battle of our Civil War. Following the battle, with the retreat of Lee's Army and the pursuit by Meade's, there was a pressing need to take care of the dead, wounded, and destroyed that the armies left in their wake. There also was, and remains, a need to reflect upon the significance of the Battle and the lessons to be learned from it.
Gregory Coco's book, "A Strange and Blighted Land" (1995) gives a comprehensive account of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg. Mr. Coco is a Park Ranger at Gettysburg, and he has written extensively and well about the battle. He is also a Vietnam veteran. His history in this book stresses eloquently, the carnage of war, its terrors and pain, and its irreplaceable cost in human life and treasure.
The book is arranged in five rather lengthy chapters. In the first chapter, Mr. Coco offers his readers a tour of the Battlefield in which he presents eyewitness accounts of the death and destruction evident over the 25 mile square Battlefield. The second chapter discusses the dead of Gettysburg and their burials. There is excellent historical material here about the establishment of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. In his next chapter, Mr. Coco discusses the Gettysburg wounded, both North and South, the medical and surgical practices of the day, and the camps set up in haste to care for the masses of grievously wounded soldiers. In his fourth chapter, Mr. Coco discusses the treatment of prisoners of war, and the fate of the many stragglers and deserters which followed in the wake of the battle. In his final chapter, Mr. Coco discusses preservation efforts for the Battlefield, culminating in the establishment of the Gettysburg National Military Park in 1895.
I have read several other accounts of the aftermath of Gettysburg. Mr. Coco's book is by far the most thorough. He has the factual details at his command and presents them in a convincing manner. He shows great familiarity with the Battle itself, and discusses well the controversies and issues in determining the numbers of the killed, wounded, and missing.
But there is much more to this book than a factual recounting of the aftermath of a battle. The book is written in an appealing, personal, sometimes buttonholing style in which Mr. Coco seems to be at the readers side offering observations and commentary on the significance of the events set forth in his story. He offers opinions on a variety of topics emanating from his reflections on Gettysburg and on war. (Specifically, Mr. Coco shows a healthy skepticism in matters of religion.) Mr. Coco focuses on the meaning to be drawn from Gettysburg and from our Civil War. His own perspective is clear. Mr. Coco is opposed to efforts to glorify or romanticize war. Again and again, he stresses the horrors of war and tries to impress upon his readers that the greatest lesson to be learned from Gettysburg is -- to try to prevent such things from happening. Thus his book concludes (p.373)
"Let us now leave behind the aftermath story with this hope: that for each and every attempt to parade the 'pomp and circumstance' of war, we give equal time to the corrupt and merciless monster shielded smugly within, because, 'if the bugler starts to play, we too must dance.'"
This book is both an excellent history and a deeply-felt attempt to think about the meaning of Gettysburg.
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