Review: Summer Thunder

Matt Spruill, Summer Thunder: A Battlefield Guide to the Artillery at Gettysburg, University of Tennessee Press, 2010, 326 pages plus index, b/w photos and maps.  ISBN-10: 1572337273.

When I first heard of this book, my thought was “yet another book for an already full section on my shelf.”  Readers are probably familiar with The Artillery of Gettysburg by Bradley Gottfried and Silent Sentinels by George Newton.  Both works cover the topic from different approaches. Spruill’s new offering perhaps splits the middle of the two earlier works.

Spruill starts with eighteen pages of introduction and prelude.  I mention the introduction, as the author includes several technical and organization details, in addition to discussing sources and honoring supporters, which follow into the prelude.  From the start, Spruill sets a tone – his work looks at the battle with an eye to how the weapons were employed and why they were employed in that manner.  I particularly enjoyed the tables and discussion focused on the provisioning of Confederate batteries.  Spruill provides hard data to support the well known premise that Confederates suffered because of mixed battery composition.  

In the next three chapters, Spruill provides a tour of Gettysburg with thirty-five stops (not counting sub-stops).  Each chapter covers a full day of the battle.  Each stop narrative begins a short description of the terrain, forces, and situation.  Spruill includes first hand accounts of the action that occurred at the stop, mostly pulled from the Official Records.  Then he provides his own interpretation, including details not offered in the chosen first hand account (particularly the movement of infantry formations). Directions between stops are clear and concise.

Spruill spends about two pages in the last chapter discussing the retreat from Gettysburg, then provides his conclusions about the artillery employment in the battle. He provides four elements that gave the Federals an advantage over the Confederates in the battle – organization, application of the artillery reserve,  leadership, and logistics and maintenance support.  None of these are groundbreaking observations, and may be found in many general histories of the battle.  Spruill devotes the pages to covering the points in detail.

The rest of the book, about forty pages, contains appendices with the artillery order of battle, distribution of weapons, and technical details about the cannons used by both sides.  The last appendix is a tour of Benner’s Hill, which, to my confusion, was not included in the main tour.

In the technical section about the cannons, I noted some details that only a cannon-nut like myself would pick out.  One photo provided for the Blakely Rifle is instead a James Type 3.  Photos for the 24-pdr field howitzer are of the Austrian type on display at Gettysburg, not the regulation US production for which the data is provided.  Both are minor issues.  And I would note that even cannon enthusiasts considered the James Type 3 some sort of Blakely until more research demonstrated its American origin!

Maps and illustrations provided complement the text without overdoing things.  The maps are without a proper scale, but visitors should have no problem picking out landmarks in relation to unit positions.  In addition to portraits and wartime illustrations, Spruill includes many modern views of the battlefield.   While these are good for perspective, in some cases providing a visual cue telling the reader where to stand while on tour, I find black-and-white photos lack the detail for the fine details.   This limits their usefulness to readers outside the battlefield.  However, I feel photo decisions like that are more often made by the publisher, not the writer.

Summer Thunder is not just a tour guide with artillery related stops!  In comparison to the other works on this subject mentioned above, Spruill offers a closer examination of the topic, and in that way a more direct handling of how artillery was used on the battlefield.  The size and weight of Summer Thunder makes it a good “carry along” book.  I find the book a useful addition to my ever growing library.

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