New novel brings the Gettysburg retreat to life

With his historical novel Leaving Gettysburg (Casemate Publishers, 2022), author Curtis Crockett has written a compelling account about individual Confederates and Yankees participating in a long-overlooked aspect of the Gettysburg campaign: the July 4-14 Southern retreat and Northern pursuit to the flooded Potomac River.

As Leaving Gettysburg opens, Pvt. Asa Helms of the 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment reaches Seminary Ridge after surviving Pickett’s Charge. His eyes and ears conveying the battlefield’s chaotic din and motion, Asa searches amidst the butternut-clad human flotsam and jetsam for any survivor of Company B, which he joined in his native Union County, North Carolina.

Helms finds his good friend, Pvt. Justin Chandler, also uninjured and just as stunned from the horror he witnessed. Together the two young soldiers will soon leave Gettysburg as Robert E. Lee withdraws his battered army toward the Potomac.

Joining the retreat are the wounded Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew (to whose brigade the 26th North Carolina belongs) and his loyal-to-the-South aide, Capt. Louis G. Young. Temporarily commanding the wounded Henry Heth’s division, Pettigrew leads his men up and across South Mountain.

The novel’s second main character (after Asa), Young experiences the withdrawal from an officer’s viewpoint. Pettigrew keeps him in the saddle, riding on various errands that bring Young into contact with Southern soldiers struggling to maintain their discipline and, sometimes, humanity.

Irish Catholic emigre and successful lawyer Col. George Gray commands the 6th Michigan Cavalry Regiment, assigned to the all-Michigan 2nd Brigade now led by George A. Custer. The novel’s third main character, Gray dislikes Custer’s martial impetuosity and aloofness and voices that discontent to junior officers, including the trusted Maj. Peter A. Weber (a historical figure like Gray, Pettigrew, and Young).

The novel’s Union viewpoint begins with the July 3 cavalry fight’s aftermath, with Gray irritated that his officers bestow praise on Custer. Soon believing Custer favors another Michigan regiment, Gray finds himself limited in access to his new brigade commander; although he seldom physically appears in the novel, Custer lingers just off page wherever Gray rides.

Crockett weaves a tale of pouring rain, muddy roads, disintegrating shoes and men and horses, and battles at strange place names like Monterrey Pass and Williamsport. The novel particularly portrays very well Williamsport, devolving into a charnel house as weary, hungry Confederates and dead-on-their-hooves horses and mules converge in its streets.

Asa and Justin convey the Southern enlisted man’s nightmare of marching on execrable roads in incessant rain and deep darkness. The young infantrymen are sympathetic figures, Asa often thinking about his wife, Hester, and both soldiers wondering what their army accomplished at Gettysburg. The reader will likely hope (as I did) for the best for these men.

Dedicated to the Confederacy, Young is initially the least likable character (except for Company B’s top kick). He plays the martinet with a soldier commanding a burial detail. Suddenly realizing he has overplayed his hand, Young gradually softens his edges afterwards, but he remains the one character who could be shot, and nobody would miss him.

But history dictates the dying in Leaving Gettysburg. Humanity wraps around Pettigrew, placed too often (like other Civil War generals) on a pedestal. The reader will empathize with Pettigrew while he approaches Falling Waters; as with the 6th Michigan Cavalry’s Peter Weber, that particular fight (told by Asa Helms and George Gray) is a finality — but one more character also gets shot there.

Author Crockett hooked me on page 1 with Asa emerging safely from Pickett’s Charge. By focusing on a few particular characters and eschewing listening in on Lee or George G. Meade, Crockett brings the Gettysburg retreat to life as if the reader marches alongside Asa and Justin or rides with Gray.

I could not put down this book and wished for more of the story when it ended. Civil War authors like Eric Wittenberg are detailing the Gettysburg retreat’s historicity in non-fiction. Curtis Crockett brings the retreat to life in fiction, and I recommend Leaving Gettysburg is a must-read for everyone interested in the Gettysburg campaign.

Leaving Gettysburg, 218 pages, $22.95

“Swartz delves into the personal stories of sacrifice and loss…” — Civil War News

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Available now: Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Civil War, released by Savas Beatie.

This new book chronicles the swift transition of Joshua L. Chamberlain from college professor and family man to regimental and brigade commander and follows him into combat at Shepherdstown, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and the Petersburg and Appomattox campaigns.

Drawing on Chamberlain’s extensive memoirs and writings and multiple period sources, historian Brian F. Swartz follows Chamberlain across Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia while examining the determined warrior who let nothing prevent him from helping save the United States.

Order your autographed copy by contacting me at

Passing Through the Fire is also available at or Amazon.


Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at