GETTYSBURG by Allen C. Guelzo

According to Allen C. Guelzo, as of 2004 6,193 books, articles and pamphlets have been written about the Battle of Gettysburg. Now in the 150th anniversary year of a battle that has been seared into American memory we have another prodigious volume that describes and analyzes the battle, the leading characters, as well as the soldiers who were involved in the fighting. Guelzo’s work GETTYSBURG: THE LAST INVASION may be the best one volume account since that of Bruce Catton’s appeared in 1952. In summarizing the Civil War as “large numbers of organized citizens attempting to kill one another,” he has also captured the essence of Gettysburg which he describes in particular were “conducted with an amateurism of spirit and an innocence of intent which would be touching if that same amateurism had not also contrived to make it so bloody.” (xvi) It seems that every aspect of the battle was discussed, be it, strategy before, during, and after the fighting ended, to the political and military recriminations that appeared soon after. In addition, Guelzo describes the problems that the battle created including damage to the town’s infrastructure, people’s capacity to earn a living, along with the lack of quality medical care for survivors including the issue of how thousands of corpses were to be buried.

At the outset the author puts to rest the idea that the Civil War was a modern total war. Guelzo correctly argues that technology and military strategy had progressed since the Napoleonic Wars but not to the degree that the fighting involved society in its totality. Another point raised at the outset is that Gettysburg does not really touch on the issue of emancipation because as Lincoln said many times it was a war for union. The plight of slaves is mentioned in the context of freed blacks who resided in the battle area who were seized as property by the Confederates, but not as part of the overall concept of emancipation. For Lincoln the preservation of the union was the key to the success of liberal democracy which was not possible without a Union victory. For Guelzo, “Gettysburg would be the place where the armies of the Union would receive their greatest test, and the Union its last invasion.” (xix)

The book is organized into a number of sections. First, themes are laid out in the Acknowledgements and the reader is provided with a glimpse of the arguments that Guezlo employs throughout the book. A background chapter follows and then each of the three days of battle is broken down into larger chapter groupings. The book concludes with a few chapters that discuss responsibility for events, the immense cost in lives and property, and an analysis of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The author employs diaries and letters of all the major participants, including the foot soldiers and officers that provide the reader an intimate look at their state of mind as it related to what was transpiring on the battlefield as well as the decisions that led to the fighting. The topography of the battlefield is not left out as Guelzo describes the importance of hills, ridges, and peaks, how muddy the roads were, as well as the obstacles of fenced in farms presented for the soldiers. For example the discussion of Cemetery Ridge as it related to artillery with its broad flat plateau and uncluttered view of the area provided an elevation that could block attackers from 600 yards away. (124)

Early on Guelzo asks the question of what motivated the ill led, ill equipped, and ill trained soldiers to fight. According to the author, for the most part the Union army fought to save liberal democracy from a conspiracy to replant a European style aristocracy in the United States. They fought in obedience to duty and patriotism not hatred for the Confederacy. The southern cause was not as noble since their soldiers fought for slavery. Their motivation was tied to home and country represented by sectional and personal financial interests, as one out of every three southern soldiers owned at least one slave. They assumed they were god’s aristocrats and had the utmost confidence and adulation in Robert E. Lee and would follow him anywhere.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the mini-biographies the author presents for all the major participants in the battle. The reader is privy to the intra-military rivalries that existed on both sides and the major disagreements pertaining to battle strategy. Robert E. Lee is presented as a person who sees slavery as a moral and political evil that would end sometime in the future. He also viewed the southern fire-eaters as a political cancer, but he was a slave owner who felt a strong loyalty to Virginia for personal family reasons. Perhaps the most important conclusion Guezlo comes to deals with what he terms “Lee’s invisibility” during the battle. Lee’s decision to invade the north as a vehicle to stirring up Democratic Party pressure in Congress to foster a negotiated settlement is discussed in detail as is the military planning before the battle. However, Lee was the type of commander who allowed his officers a great deal of leeway in implementing his plans. This could be seen each day and particularly on July 3, 1863 in dealing with George E. Pickett’s charge into the center of Union lines. Lee’s relationship with James Longstreet is reviewed as is Lee’s anger toward J.E.B. Stuart who Lee would later argue might have cost the Confederacy a victory through his actions.

Guelzo reviews the McClellan-Lincoln relationship as it relates to the internal politics of the Union military and how it created a schism between pro and anti-McClellan factions. This schism greatly affected the overall conduct of the war, though to a lesser extent at Gettysburg. Guelzo’s presentation of a George Gordon Meade is extremely important to our story in a number of ways. Meade was a supporter of McClellan and eventually Lincoln would compare his inability to pursue the enemy when victory was at hand as he previously had done with McClellan after Antietam. Meade was placed in a very poor situation as he was made commander of Union forces following the firing of Joseph Hooker on June 28, 1863. Meade did not want the command and was the most surprised man in the army to receive it. Meade favored compromise to end the war and Radical Republicans in Congress saw him as a McClellan Democrat and a supporter of the man who would run against Lincoln for the presidency a year later. Because of good intelligence Meade had a pretty good idea were Lee’s army was located. However, Meade’s situation highlighted a problem for both sides, the poor communication that existed between commanders. For example Meade really did not know exactly where his own army was as the first evidence of the battle trickled in and after General John Reynolds who was in command of half the army at Gettysburg was killed Meade did not know who was in charge. In addition to poor communication Meade was unsure of how many troops were available to him. It was assumed he had about 112,000 men on July 1, but muster reports placed the figure at 95,000 because of how troop strength was determined (it included all soldiers who had non-combat missions, for Lee this was not a problem because he had 10-30,000 slaves for non-combat roles). After Day two of the battle Meade was strongly considering retreat. Though he vehemently denied the charge, why did he call for a war council that night? Most of his generals did not favor pulling back and Meade did not favor the advice he was given and said so, “Have it your way gentlemen, but Gettysburg is no place to fight a battle.” (356) By Day Three Lee had decided to soften up Union forces with a massive artillery barrage, but due to a misjudgment of the strength of Union artillery and Lee’s uncoordinated command style and poor communication when Pickett’s Charge finally occurred it was repelled and created a major Union victory. The question remains how much credit should Meade receive for a victory that seemed to fall into his lap, and why after Lee began retreating didn’t Meade pursue him? Lincoln described McClellan as having a serious “case of the slows,” a description that could also describe Meade.

For the author no detail pertaining to the battle is insignificant. I found his attention to the average foot soldier very insightful as it placed the reader in the middle of the fighting and the deprivations that each combatant had to endure. Discussions of rationing ammunition, the large amount of foraging of the area, the poor medical care, and the emotional ups and downs of battle reflect the torturous situation thousands of young men from all over the country had to endure. The author’s chapter on medical treatment of soldiers after the battle is excellent. At a time when our soldiers are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I cannot imagine the mental turmoil the survivors of Gettysburg had to cope with when the fighting was finally brought to a close.

Guelzo brings the book to a conclusion by discussing the “blame game” that took place after the battle, and for years following the Civil War. Reputations were on the line and the testimonies of witnesses during Congressional hearings changed over the years and still today historians and partisans argue the same issues. Upon completing such a detailed military history I wondered who the audience for this work would be. I concluded that the time I spent reading the book was well worth it, and though at times the military minutiae was a bit much, Guelzo’s overall approach to his topic and his writing style allows for a broad audience including the general reader and the academic. My plan was to read this book right before visiting the Gettysburg Battlefield National Park, hopefully our representatives in Congress will allow me to do so next week.

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