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From July 1 to July 3, 1863, the fields around the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, were the site of an intense battle involving more than 160,000 men from the Union and Confederate armies, almost one-third of whom did not survive the campaign. Although the war continued for two more years, in the minds of many analysts past and present, Gettysburg marked the turning point of the conflict. Any schoolchild has heard of—perhaps been required to memorize—President Abraham Lincoln’s memorial address to the fallen, delivered on November 19, four months after the battle.
George Stein’s Sing before Breakfast: A Novel of Gettysburg (George Stein, 2012) explores the experience of living through those three cataclysmic days from the perspective of Reis Bramble, a twelve-year-old Pennsylvania farm boy who finds himself caught between the battle lines with his horse and his dog. General Meade asks Reis to serve as a scout for the Union Army, since the boy’s knowledge of the local area gives him an advantage over the invading troops. Reis accepts without hesitation, but the reality of war soon undermines his boyish enthusiasm for the fight. Years later, Reis, looking back on the notes he took during and right after the battle, reflects on the lessons he learned about war, peace, and humanity. Like so many who lived through the Civil War, Reis Bramble realizes that the brutality he witnessed in July 1863 has marked him in ways that he can never erase.