Gettysburg: The Living and the Dead, Kent Gramm with photography by Chris Heisey, Souhtern Illinois University Press, 225 pp, profusely illustrated, 2019, hardcover, $29.95.
Reviewed by Matthew A. Borders, (National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program; review published by H0Civil War, January 2020.
I knew that this work, Gettysburg: The Living and the Dead,
would be a challenge from the beginning. An artistic work, the book
looks at the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere
through a myriad of lenses, peoples, times, and writings. This is not,
nor does it purport to be, another military history of the Battle of
Gettysburg. That being said, it is set up in a manner that would
familiar to anyone who has read military histories of the battle. Gettysburg
has four distinct chapters, covering the first day of fighting
with twenty separate entries, the second day with thirty-five entries
and the third day with fourteen entries. It ends, as many histories of
the battle do, with a chapter on the aftermath, which contains nineteen individual entries.
Each entry, be it a poem or short story, is accompanied by an image.
This structure struck me not only as a familiar choice, but also
possibly a deliberate one to help the reader. As most are already
familiar with the three traumatic days of the battle, this structure
seems designed to place the reader into the right mind-set of each day
and its aftermath.
That may be the reason why I found the first chapter so jarring. Set
up as it is, even with a snippet of the famous 1889 Joshua Lawrence
Chamberlain speech just before the table of contents to set the stage,
the first chapter has little to do with the Battle of Gettysburg as the
opening poems are broad enough to describe almost any conflict. This is
not a bad thing, and in fact can bring the past and present closer
together as it reveals shared passions, fears, and sorrows. As the
chapter continues, however, Gramm also reveals much of himself. There
are numerous references to the Vietnam War in this chapter (entry 8: Blood Trail, entry 9: 'Stang, entry 18: Stayin' Alive)
and sprinkled throughout the book. The war is seen as a mistake and or
something to be protested by the author.
Some of his stories go so far
as to use the memory of historical figures from the Battle of Gettysburg as inspiration for these protests. There are
several very well-written short stories in this chapter taken from the
soldier's perspective and even one apparently real letter from a migrant
worker in 1927 who worked in the orchards around Gettysburg.
In all, this is a very scattered chapter that feels lacking in focus.
Much like the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg itself, which
saw the longest period of fighting, stretching well into the night on
some parts of the field, the second chapter is the longest. It is also
where I feel the book finds its focus. Of the thirty-five entries, again
mostly poems and short stories, the majority focus on the Battle of
Gettysburg or its participants. It is also where we start to see a large
helping of one of the subthemes of Gettysburg, the
supernatural. This had been hinted at since the beginning of the book,
but over a third of the entries of this chapter have to deal with ghosts
or spirits tied to or trapped on the battlefield, for any number of
reasons. Some are trying to communicate with the living to dissuade us
from repeating the follies of history, some are still fighting the
battle, and some are searching for fallen loved ones. This a theme that
is hard to escape in Gettysburg, as the town itself is awash in ghost
tours of dubious quality and historic accuracy.
The best aspect of Gettysburg: The Living and the Dead is
the bravery of the author to tell his stories and poems through a broad
range of voices. Both Union and Confederate soldiers are portrayed,
sometimes with sympathy towards their enemies, often with the passions
and hatreds of the war on full display. We hear the voices of
women—those caring for the wounded, watching over the dead, pining for
the lost, or educating the current generation. Veterans both old and new
are written about, as are former rangers, battlefield guides, museum
curators, and even a reenactor in one story. I will admit I was
surprised to see the author use an African American dialect in two of
his entries, a bold decision and a commendable effort to include the
whole story of the region. The story that spoke to me the most, however,
and which in today's climate of intolerance struck me deeply, comes
nearly at the end of the work, entry 85: North and South (pp.
207-09). Two fathers, one from Wisconsin and one from North Carolina,
tour the battlefield together, discussing fatherhood, loss, and the war.
Both are products of their regional bias, neither having really dealt
with anyone from the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. This story ends
with two men having a better understanding of the other and a
promise to memorialize a loss from a much more recent conflict. I
sincerely hope that this story, presented from the perspective
of a writer, is the fulfillment of that promise.
It would be a mistake to review Gettysburg: The Living And The Dead without
touching on the beautiful photography of Chris Heisey. The images are
as diverse as the stories and poems themselves, and sometimes suffer
from the same out-of-place feeling that some of the writings have. Every
poem or story has at least one image attached to it. Most of these are
dramatic shots of the battlefield landscape or the monuments on it.
Entry 31: War Means Fighting (pp. 79) is one such example of an
oddity, as it has a praying mantis on page 78 to accompany the story.
Surprisingly, almost a quarter of the images are wintry shots of the
battlefield or monuments, and there are numerous autumnal landscape
shots. Considering the sweltering July conditions in which the battle
was fought, the snow-and-ice-covered images are beautiful, if
While I had some concerns reading this work, I am glad I did. Our
cultural landscapes, even our most studied, such as Gettysburg National
Military Park, have meant and continue to mean different things to
different people. While I may not understand all of the author and the
photographer's perspectives and choices for Gettysburg: The Living and the Dead, it is obvious that they care deeply for this historic landscape, the history that happened here, and its visitors.
Citation: Matthew A. Borders. Review of Gramm, Kent; Heisey, Chris, Gettysburg: The Living and the Dead. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54316