GETTYSBURG: THE LAST INVASION
By Allen C. Guelzo
Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 632 pages
On July 1, Civil War historians and enthusiasts will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.
Over the course of three days of intense fighting, the Union Army defeated the Confederate States Army on the bloodstained battlefield. It has become widely known as a crucial turning point in this tumultuous period of U.S. history. The loss of human life was extensive, families were torn apart and the country would never be the same again.
Allen C. Guelzo, one of America’s pre-eminent historians of this period, has written a superb account of this battle. He is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War era, director of Civil War-era studies at Gettysburg College and an author of numerous books on Abraham Lincoln. His book “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” is a stirring compendium of personal stories, passionate observations and blow-by-blow details of each excruciating day. It is also the story of “two great armies, bound for the greatest and most violent collision the North American continent had ever seen.”
The Civil War was fought for different reasons from both sides. As noted by Mr. Guelzo, for “most in the Union Army, the war was a campaign to save liberal democracy from a conspiracy to replant European-style aristocracy in America.” The Confederates, meanwhile, “saw themselves as fighting for home and country, or for ‘sectional and financial interests,’ and some ‘for the inestimable right of self-government.’” The twin issues of slavery and freedom obviously played significant roles in the break between the Northern and Southern states. Many unique historical figures, including Robert E. Lee and George Gordon Meade, also emerged from the shadows to play vital roles in this civil war and incredible battle.
In particular, Lee was a highly respected individual and well-decorated soldier. He wasn’t a perfect fit with the Confederate mentality on specific issues. Although he owned slaves, he thought as early as 1856 that in this “enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any Country.” When war broke out, President Lincoln gave Lee an “offer of high command” for the Union Army — but he chose to defend the “kith and kin” of his beloved Virginia when it sided with the Confederacy. The fact that he was offered high-ranking positions for both armies remains one of the great Civil War stories.
Lee’s army of Northern Virginia — the premier Confederate military group in the eastern theater — had successful battles in Fredericksburg (December 1862) and Chancellorsville (May 1863), and a bad loss at Antietam Creek (September 1862). They kept pressing northward and gaining strength. In contrast, the army of the Potomac was fighting a difficult personal battle as morale shifted between wicked highs and lows. Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was relieved three days before Gettysburg by Meade, who had led “the only near-successful Union attack at Fredericksburg.” He took command of an army with few takers. As noted by Mr. Guelzo, “people may not have liked Meade’s brimstone manner, but no one could gainsay the man’s marvelous contempt for physical danger.”
The scholarly assessment of July 1-3, 1863, in “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” could stand the test of time as one of the finest descriptions of a military battle. With impeccable research full of quotes and finite details of each day, little is left to the imagination. That puts this battle into greater context and gives readers more clarity when it comes to the military leaders and their decisions. The roles of history’s lesser-known figures, including the Union’s George Sears “Pap” Greene and the Confederates’ John Fulton Reynolds, are explored in a more vivid fashion. Even the troop movements come to life in this book, making you feel that you are a part of every step, leap and gunshot fired.
Mr. Guelzo suggests Meade’s military behavior was “entirely reactive, a matter of responding to critical situations as they were thrust upon him.” History shows that while he may have won the battle, it “had less to do with Meade than it did with a bevy of otherwise minor characters.” Although Mr. Guelzo doesn’t insinuate that “Lee’s decisions were foolish,” he thinks it’s “possible to say, in that light, that Robert E. Lee lost the battle of Gettysburg much more than George Meade won it.”
The battle of Gettysburg didn’t end the Civil War, which tore apart the fabric of society as it raged for two more bloody years. Yet it was an important military victory that changed a war as well as the face of a nation. The last invasion was, therefore, the first moment that American democracy shone brightly once more.
Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a contributor to The Washington Times.