Sometimes, the best books are written for kids but read by adults. My top pick for the simplest ever introduction to Gettysburg goes to MacKinlay Kantor. Originally written in 1952, this little classic for middle-school children survives as an accurate, high-level summary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As a former teacher and life-long student, I get really excited when I find a good, clear, and simply written book that appeals to a very wide audience of readers. And so, it is my pleasure to introduce:
Kantor, MacKinlay. Gettysburg. New York: Landmark Books, 1952, 1980.
The Simplest Ever Introduction to Gettysburg – A Book Recommendation
Why is the Kantor book “the simplest ever introduction to Gettysburg”? Answering that question is the purpose of this post. If you would like to review your other options, Civil War Cycling’s annotated bibliography on the Battle of Gettysburg contains a list of my favorite books. Not surprisingly, the Kantor book is on that list.
As an aside, please note that if you purchase the Kantor book through my Amazon Affiliate link, then this website may receive compensation from Amazon. My review is independent and my opinions my own, however.
I recommend MacKinlay Kantor’s book, Gettysburg, for several reasons. Here are three:
First, it reads like a novel.
Gettysburg reads like a novel without compromising historical accuracy. That is to say, Kantor wrote a book that remains accurate today, decades after its first publication. And if you find mistakes in the book, they are minor and pose little risk of throwing you off-track.
Kantor tells the battle story in chronological order, but without introducing mind-numbing details. That’s partly what makes it novel-like. Although he recounts details at a high level, he includes the main actor’s names and briefly describes their contribution to the battle. Kantor also weaves short, human interest stories into his narrative. And he includes the perspective of Gettysburg citizens and youth alike.
In other words, Gettysburg reads like a novel that happens to be “true.” … Maybe that’s what history is all about?!
In fact, Kantor’s descriptions are so clear that the text can stand on its own. Three basic black-and-white maps help the reader to understand the story, but their use is not essential. This feature makes the Kantor book very appealing: The words make sense on their own, which means that the reader can follow the narrative without having to look-up information elsewhere. That’s what a novel does.
Surprisingly, Gettysburg does not offer any photos. After all, it is marketed as a children’s book. And yet the lack of photos does not hurt the book’s ability to describe the Battle of Gettysburg in an understandable way.
Second, it is short and sweet.
The book measures 5″ x 7.5″ and is about one-quarter-inch thick. At 149 pages, most adults can read this book within a couple hours.
Third, it is a springboard for more learning.
I am guessing that most adults drawn to Kantor’s book have had a frustrating experience trying to understand the Battle of Gettysburg. Repeatedly frustrated, even.
If my guess is correct, then I share that same frustration. In my opinion, for example, many books and tour guides swamp new students with numbers, jargon, times, names, places, and other things. This is not helpful; often, it is a blow to peoples’ self-confidence. Ordinary people generally want to learn the basics without having to wade through volumes of detail.
In my opinion, Kantor’s book is the near perfect springboard for adults who want to learn more, but want a smoothly paved path to get there.