Too often, military histories of well-known battles focus on parts of a battle or parts of parts. This is especially true of Gettysburg, where histories or stories focus on the fight at Little Round Top (the wooded hill at the far left of the Union line on the second day) or at Culp’s Hill (the extreme right of the Union line) or on the effects of artillery in the battle (important especially on the third day). Allen C. Guelzo’s new volume, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, the endnotes of which reference plenty of these more narrowly focused studies, gives an account of the whole battle, where the parts and parts of parts take on their proper subordinate place in the greater battle. He combines military history and political history to great effect.

Gettysburg: The Last Invasion
Reviewed Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo, Random House (2013)

A popular context for the battle at Gettysburg was the South’s desire—and specifically Gen. Robert E. Lee’s effort—to demonstrate that the North could not win the war, even though, in a larger sense, things looked grim for the South. As May turned to June in 1863, the Union army in the East was in disarray, after its humiliating defeat at Chancellorsville. Grumblings against the Army of the Potomac’s head general, Joseph Hooker, had reached the very top level of the government. President Abraham Lincoln and his Chief of Staff, Henry Halleck, were, as Guelzo recounts, attempting to get General Hooker to resign by tying his hands with orders that diminished his ability keep check on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Days before the clash at Gettysburg, Hooker finally resigned and Lincoln, in search of a successor and repeatedly turned down by devotees of fired Union General George McClennan, ordered Gen. George Meade (himself a friend of McClennan) to take over in the last days of June. Meade would not have the experience or cachet to provide much leadership in the battle. In these respects, things looked up for the South.

In the West, General U.S. Grant was laying siege to the South’s largest Western army at Vicksburg and Union armies were heading to the heart of Tennessee as well. The Union’s blockade had proven effective and it had become increasingly clear that the South’s hope for foreign recognition, a Holy Grail of sorts, would not be realized. The effects of this are, in my view, overstated.

Desperate, Lee suggested to the Confederacy’s political leadership that taking his army to the North and threatening or taking Washington, D.C., would relieve the threatened parts of the South and force the Union to take itself out of the war. Guelzo calls into question the strategic and political genius of Lee’s policy: Would a Southern victory at Gettysburg have meant a Union surrender? I doubt it, and the way that Guelzo tells the story confirms this conclusion. The determination of Union foot soldiers suggests to me a staying power in the North that was there also in the South. The North would, in my view, have been increasingly desperate and determined with the South on its soil. Union surrender was possible though. This is one of the sources of the fascination with the battle: the Union came close—perilously close—to losing this battle on the second day, as Guelzo relates.

I visited the battlefield this summer with my family while reading Guelzo’s book, and we listened to the fantastic audio tour sold by the National Park Service (for $25 or so). Having read Guelzo brought everything alive. We saw the ridge on the northeast of town where General John Reynolds was shot and killed rallying the Union troops on the first day of the battle. Reynolds thought that this area would be much more favorable to the Union arms than the parts of Northern Maryland favored by Meade, and in this way was the true architect of the Union victory. We saw Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top and walked where the Union heroes walked. We sat in the Angle, where on Cemetery Ridge the South broke through the Union lines during Pickett’s Charge only to be thrown back by the heroic actions of the Pennsylvania brigades. The battlefield is wonderfully preserved and reconstructed, so that the fences, trees and farmhouses sit as they sat in July 1863. These are Guelzo’s landmarks too, and seeing them while he described the action around them did more to bring the battle alive than anything in 2013 could.

One of the most surprising things about the topography to me was that the rise from Seminary Ridge (from which the South attacked) to Cemetery Ridge (where the Union had dug in for days two and three of the battle) was not very steep at all. I might even say that neither ridge is much of a ridge because neither hill is much of a hill. The ridge does not even approach the smaller Boise foothills in height or steepness. Yet, at Gettysburg it is a long ways from one ridge to the other and crossing the ridge under fire must have been horrendous. That anyone made it is a testament to the inaccurate weapons of that day—a topic that Guelzo explains with sufficient clarity for the layman.

Little Round Top was surprising too. Here Guelzo’s guidance, matching what we see with our eyes, proved invaluable. The Southern attack on the second day focused on this hill and it came narrowly close to success. Guelzo does not buy the lore that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain saved the Union left, in part because he questions whether the South gaining Little Round Top would have allowed the South to roll up the Union left with artillery from the narrow spine of that wooded hill and in part because the effort to save Little Round Top forced the Union to strip itself of a much more valuable position between Little Round Top and the Cemetery Ridge where the South nearly won the battle on the second day. Guelzo writes, “Chamberlain’s charge was indeed a beau geste, but it was only one of several such spoiling attacks that day, and Little Round Top was more of an outpost than the real flank of the Union line. Mortality [i.e., the death of the other authors of spoiling attacks] and the ex-professor’s considerable flair for self-promotion, vaulted him ahead of the others” (p. 275). Seeing the field is believing Guelzo on this matter. Killer Angels, the book glorifying Chamberlain’s charge, is, after all, a work of fiction!

Geulzo slaughters other sacred cows of Gettysburg lore as well. The idea that the Confederates were unsuccessful because of the absence of General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry Guelzo finds unconvincing in part because Gen. Lee had all the intelligence he could have had throughout the battle and in part because the role cavalry played in this and most other Civil War battles was screening rather than fighting and it would not have been much use in this battle. The idea that Gen. James Longstreet dragged his feet in the battle and cost the South the day is also unconvincing. Geulzo traces the genesis of this idea to post-war finger pointing—efforts to shield Gen. Lee of responsibility for strategic and tactical blunders; Longstreet had, famously, turned Republican during Reconstruction and was an easy scapegoat at whom other generals could aim their ire.

The Union was essentially leaderless at Gettysburg. General Meade was absent the first day, as the field was being chosen. Meade seemed interested in re-positioning the Union Army of the Potomac after the near disaster of the second day, where Meade’s subordinates improvised a barely adequate defense. Meade expected the South to attack on the edges on day three, but his subordinates prepared for Pickett’s Charge in the center. General Lee affected the outcome with his choices, but it is possible to say, Guelzo concludes, “that winning the battle had less to do with Meade then it did with a bevy of otherwise minor characters… who stepped out of themselves for a moment and turned a corner at some inexpressibly right moment.” Meade also failed the follow up on his victory with any vigor—in much the same way his friend George McClellan had continually let Lee and his army off the hook. The story of Gettysburg can almost be told without including General Meade.

Guelzo’s book appeals to the head and the heart, just as a visit to Gettysburg does. No scene is more moving than the scene at the Bloody Angle where you can imagine the fortitude of those attacking and the resiliency and moral courage of those defending the Union. Few scenes are as awesome as the famous spots on the Union left during day two of the battle—the wheat field, the peach orchard and Devil’s Den. Gettysburg is the best place to take in the American experience in a “new birth of freedom.” Guelzo’s book is an indispensable guide to knowing why.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.