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Stephen Recker On:
Reading Gettysburg

The first book I ever read about the Battle of Gettysburg was Coddington's "Gettysburg Campaign". To this day it remains my favorite book on the battle. That may be, in part, because it was my first. But the truth is that I really like how Coddington not only explains decisions that were made within the context of the limited options available to the commanders, but he explains what those limited options are. I've never been in the military so all of this was new to me.

There is a great story about how Coddington found some fresh information for his book. Here is a passage from the Introduction to the Bachelder Papers, published by the Morningside Bookshop: "The Bachelder Papers remained in the New Hampshire Historical Society for decades, unknown to and unused by historians of Gettysburg. They were rescued from obscurity by Dr. Edwin B. Coddington, a professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Coddington had an abiding interest in writing a fresh history of the battle. He began work in the late 1950s by searching out manuscript collections that had been little-used by previous authors.

"Like other historians, Coddington did not know anything about Bachelder. In a NY antique shop, Coddington's daughter found one of Bachelder's pamphlets. Coddington wrote to the historical society and received a reply two months later: Yes, the Bachelder papers were housed with them, but no one seemed to have ever used them, and the librarians had no idea how much material they contained. Dr. and Mrs. Coddington eagerly drove to Concord and spent three weeks examining boxes and bound volumes. There, they found every historian's dream - an unused manuscript collection of vast importance to the subject at hand. The collection includes correspondence he received from veterans of both armies on various aspects of the battle, comments on his maps and isometircal drawing, arguments regarding the marking of Confederate positions, and other questions related to Gettysburg." I could read that story a thousand times.

I've been collecting books for a few years now and I always enter rare book shops with the anticiption of finding some obscure book about Gettysburg for next to nothing. I did have one particularly exciting find back in 1995. I was in Atlanta on a rainy day, map in one hand, book store list in the other. I had found some rare books about Confederate currency in one shop, but in general it was a slow day. Then my luck changed.

I happened upon a really quaint book shop and asked them to point me to the Civil War books. (In Atlanta you don't ask if they have Civil War books, you ask where.) I was looking through some shelves for something that looked Civil War-esque when I spotted a complete set of the Official Records of the Rebellion. I wasn't sure exactly what I had found, but they had so much energy coming off of them that I had to catch my breath.

After the North won the war, the U.S. government compiled the correspondence and reports from both sides and published 10,000 copies of what came to be known as the Official Records of the Rebellion (OR) - 128 volumes released by subscription over the course of twenty years, from about 1880 to 1900. Two thousand of the copies were done in red morrocan leather, embossed with the name of the dignitary to whom the set was given.

The set in the shop is was in mint shape, so I was surprised when the bookseller said that they had been sitting in the shop for a while. My confusion turned to amusement when my I learned that the volumes were embossed with the name of a Republican Senator from Wisconsin who had served in the 12th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. The South couldn't forgive Longstreet for becoming a Republican, so I guess a Republican Senator from Wisconsin didn't stand a chance. And this was in the days before eBay, so you had to walk into the shop to know they were for sale. All of these elements worked in my favor and I was able to negotiate a great deal. But the best was yet to come.

When the books arrived at my home I was particularly interested to see what kind of shape the three Gettysburg volumes were in. They were in fine shape, but I observed that the volumes numbered right before the Gettysburg volumes, the ones about Vicksburg, were the only ones that showed any wear. Then it hit me. Wisconsin Senator Michael Griffin, the man whose name is on every volume in that set, served - under Grant - at Vicksburg.

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