A Strange and Blighted Land – Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a
Gregory Coco led a tour of the National
Military Cemetery and Gettysburg Address site during the
Foundation’s 2003 Symposium. His presentation led to my
purchase and read of this book, even though I am at the stage of
life in which I am trimming rather than building my library.
Mr. Coco is uniquely fitted to
describe this “strange and blighted land.” He knows the field
through his study and detailed research of countless first
person accounts – all painstakingly annotated. He visualizes
the field clearly, seeing beyond today’s well-kept natural
beauty to the bloody, muddy mess of summer-fall, 1863. He word
paints the scene graphically and meticulously.
I suspect that there is a horrible
commonality to after battle sites of any war – Gettysburg, the
Ardennes, Normandy, or Dien Bien Phu. As a twice wounded
decorated Vietnam combat infantryman, Coco has a perspective
that enables him to depict the Gettysburg scenes after the
Battle. He has been there!
He is the first to detail the depth
and breadth of the complexities of the days and months after the
Battle. His chapter headings tell the story – Battlefield in
the Aftermath; Burial of the Dead; Care of the Wounded;
Prisoners of War, Stragglers and Deserters; From Battlefield to
The last chapter breaks new ground –
Visitors, Harvest of Guns, Relic Fever, Damages and Post-Battle
Claims in Adams County. These outlines are filled with
eyewitness accounts (many hitherto unpublished). The accounts
We meet a widow who came to search for
her husband’s body. She is guided to the area in which he
fell. She watches four graves re-opened in fruitless search.
She insists the fifth grave will be his. Sadly, she was
correct. She was able to take his body home for re-burial.
There is also the story of the
Pennsylvania judge who toured the field in search of a sword.
He is dressed “to the nines” under a blistering sun. He ignores
the federal rule prohibiting removal of souvenir relics and he
finds a fine sword. Imagine his fury when he is arrested by a
mere sergeant. His political influence turns out to be useless
as he works out his punishment at gunpoint. Image this
fashionably correct jurist spending three days under the hot,
humid sun burying the rapidly decaying bodies of dead horses.
Coco’s collection of eyewitness
accounts will hold one’s interest. His own summary describes
the battle aftermath,
“Through (the eyes of the witnesses), the
horrors of a battlefield infused everywhere by the corrupting
corpses of humans and animals can be seen.”
“…if our ability to hear the cries of the
thousands of wounded is limited, then at least we can know they
screamed and thrashed about in agony.”
“…The dilemma of the many prisoners of war
and deserters, the guarding and clean up of the battle area, the
throngs of visitors se-arching for missing relatives and
souvenirs… “ all make up an interesting and colorful tableaux
for us more than 130 years later. Gregory Coco is a
fascinating historian – worth our reading and reflection. If
you read him, I guarantee that you will never again see the
Gettysburg battlefield as you saw it before. This book has had
that effect on me.
Carl Heim Greenwald