Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, Allen C. Guelzo, Knopf Publisher, 652 pp, 44 maps, 22 illustrations, bibliographic notes, bibliography, index, $35.00.
1863 in the Civil War was a year of turning points, such as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the battle Gettysburg, and the sieges of Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Readers may think that publishers would overwhelm the marketplace with related books, yet it is not so. No other Civil War battlefield park is visited as much as Gettysburg and this year there is only one book that takes up the challenge to comprehensively present the battle. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion meets the challenge. Written in a style that is friendly for general readers, Guelzo’s work also meets the standards of scholars. It is a remarkable achievement.
At Gettysburg College, Allen C. Guelzo serves as the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era as Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program, and is the author of 11 books of Lincoln, emancipation, the Civil War and American Christendom. In Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, he sets forth the story in a clear, concise and compelling manner. From the conception of the campaign in the minds of Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee and Confederate Presiden Jefferson Davis through President Lincoln’s delivery Gettysburg Address, Guelzo looks at the campaign and battle from several interesting perspectives.
Those who are only familiar with Gettysburg because of a school visit or the film Gettysburg will be comfortable with Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Guelzo’s account is straightforward and does not require extensive familiarity with the battle. Those who have read Noah Trudeau’s 2002 Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage or Stephen Sears’ 2003 Gettysburg will be delighted by the amount of new information and perspectives in Guelzo’s work.
One of the enjoyments of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is the constant attention Guelzo gives to individual combat soldiers, commanders, and civilians. There is rarely a paragraph that does not contain direct remarks from participants. Describing the fighting during the morning and afternoon of July 1, Guelzo offers the testimony of many soldiers and seven civilian witnesses.
At the college, student Martin Colver watches an artillery barrage from a third classroom window and is interrupted by a professor leading blue coated signalmen with flags and telescopes to the cupola. The college’s president Henry L. Braugher resigns himself to the failure of students to maintain attention during his lecture and dismisses them; soon a cannonball strikes the cupola where the signalmen are.
Guelzo offers new and interesting remarks regarding a variety unique circumstances. He describes the non-combat duties performed by Africans Americans in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Guelzo estimates the changing fog of war by calculating the time it takes to transmit an order from the division commander to the brigade commander, then to the regimental commander. Confederate troops’ discipline included their viewing five executions for desertion after the invaders crossed the Potomac River and enter Maryland. Looting the dead and wounded occurred during the battle. After a successful attack, enemy corpses with their trouser pockets turned out immediately appeared. While being assisted away from the firing line, mortally wounded North Carolina colonel Henry Burgwyn nearly had his vest pocket watch stolen by a South Carolina lieutenant who is helping him off the field.
Overall, the author drives his narrative forward with taut observations of the soldiers. Rebels “fell all over themselves with laughter” when they discover that Pennsylvanians believe there are secret handshakes and facial expressions that will spare them the invaders’ deprivations. Federals soldiers along the roads “began to straggle and brigades leaked clots of exhausted soldiers”. Federal army commander George Meade remained cordial with corps commander John Reynolds “but privately his letters curdle with envy” when Reynolds received a promotion in 1862.
Wisely Guelzo does not attempt to definitively answer contentious problems. Did Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart lose the battle by “galloping off on a senseless joy-ride” as the invasion began? Did Confederate corps commander Richard Ewell lose the battle because he lacked the energy and the ruthlessness to drive the Federals off Culp’s Hill during the evening of July 1? The author puts forward his reply to these and other questions. Guelzo believes that both reason and self-interest contend for readers’ opinions on these questions. He is not argumentative; he states his case on moves on.
The author takes full advantage of a pair of remarkable resources. Gettysburg is the only battle to have its own magazine. Gettysburg Magazine, founded in July 1989, has published 47 issues of new scholarship on the battle and campaign. In its 24 years, it has offered troves of recently found diaries, reports, and changing interpretations on topics such as African Americans in the Gettysburg campaign, cavalry battles surrounding the main battlefield, the gathering of military intelligence and the farmstead hospitals. Also, Gettysburg National Military Park regular presents a scholarly seminar and publishes the conference proceedings which Guelzo regularly cites.
Both George Gordon Meade's and Robert E. Lee's backers may disagree with Guelzo's conclusions. He believes that Lee never had a clear grasp of the terrain and the tactics to deal with an enemy and Meade was reluctant to fight on July 1, 2, and 3. Also, the July 3 cavalry battle, Farnesworth's Charge and the advance of the the Pennsylvania Reserves brigade after the Grand Assault are described as fully as they may have been. Guelzo does provide insights into the Virginia clique in the Army of Virginia and to the Peace Democrat generals of the army of the Potomac.
Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is enjoyable, not only for its scholarship but also for its storytelling. “The sun soon came up, a dim blood-red disc behind the clouds on the eastern horizon” is reminiscent of the best writing in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Suspense is still found in the familiar story of Gettysburg. “So, rather than wait to be hunted by the Yankees . . . Lee would go hunting himself for the climatic victory he had always wanted” writes Guelzo. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is indeed a remarkable achievement.
Portions of this review appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 30, 2013.