Sunday, May 12, 2013

Gettysburg: The Last Invasion – A Review

Reprinted courtesy of Three Days at Gettysburg  blog, author W. G. Davis

Gettysburg College Professor Allen C. Guelzo has written a book about the Gettysburg Campaign called Gettysburg: The Last Invasion [Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2013.  ISBN 978-0307-59408-2], due for release on May 14th, 2013.  Professor Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, and Director of Civil War Era studies at Gettysburg College, is a Lincoln Prize winner, lecturer and published author of books and articles about American History, many about Abraham Lincoln.  The Last Invasion is the natural result of where he teaches and is certainly exceptionally well researched and well written.

Make no mistake, this book is not for the beginner, nor even the casual student of the Civil War.  Professor Guelzo is an erudite communicator both with his lectures and the written word.  The Last Invasion fulfills the expectation that it will meet his reputation for high vocabulary, exhaustive research, logic and common sense, and at times an acerbic wit.  This is a very learned book written by a very learned historian.

Many readers will compare this with Edwin Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign, long considered the authority on the entire Gettysburg Campaign.  It is a natural comparison, yet those who eventually will have read both books will see an enormous difference.  Although both books cover the same ground, Professor Guelzo finds much more ground from which to reap a far richer and more detailed description and interpretation of the campaign and the battle.

The Last Invasion starts at the top and works down to the richly and sometimes amusingly couched quoted tidbits from the actual soldiers who fought here.  But with him, context is everything.  In his acknowledgements, he clears the field of those with an antiwar agenda, including many of his peers, saying, “This book will not offer much comfort to those persuasions if only because we cannot talk about the American nineteenth century without talking about the Civil War and we cannot talk about the Civil War without acknowledging, even grudgingly, that the Civil War era’s singular event was a war, and that all other issues hung ineluctably on the results achieved by large numbers of organized citizens attempting to kill one another.” [p. xvi]

Along with context, he makes ample use of comparison, for example, pointing to the similarities and differences between the American and European histories, fighting styles, advances in weaponry and the resulting reshaping of tactics.  Adding to the commentary on the political landscape of the time, he depicts American liberalism as the response to the nagging stain of slavery on the American experiment.  Even the British of the ante bellum era mocked the U.S. for its hypocrisy of espousing freedom and slavery in the same breath.  While explaining that the war was about emancipation and the Battle of Gettysburg was singularly lacking in connection to that effort [no Blacks fought here, but as many as 30,000 slaves were here with the Army of Northern Virginia, and even Lincoln, in his grand address in November, 1863 made no reference to slavery at all, only to the war], he logically explains the argument that the war was necessary to emancipate the slaves:  there could be no emancipation if the slaves were in a foreign country called the Confederate States of America, therefore, reunification was necessary to accomplish emancipation.  [p. xviii]

He writes about American liberalism as the outcome of the liberal democracy created by the collection of liberal activists we now reverently call ‘The Founders.’  [Indeed, never before in the nation’s history had the government been led by a liberal president [Lincoln], and a liberal Congress – headlined by the rabidly abolitionist ‘Radical Republicans,’ who were farther to the left than was Abraham Lincoln.  By the end of 1864 the Republican Salmon P. Chase was the Chief Justice of the United States.]

In the opening chapter, he sets forth a description of the American soldier.  “For most in the Union Army,” he writes, “the war was a campaign to save liberal democracy from a conspiracy to replant European-style aristocracy in America.” [p. 14]

Drilling down toward the Battle, he creates another contextual layer in the history of the war up to the start of the Gettysburg Campaign.  In succinct details he shows the strategic goals of the Confederates.  He paints a picture of Robert E. Lee as perhaps the only one of Jefferson Davis’ commanders who could dissuade him from a plan, such as the plan to transfer some of James Longstreet’s Corps west to the defense of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Lee opposed that, and after a two day conference with Davis and CSA Secretary of War Seddon, Lee was finally unfettered enough to begin his campaign.  Thus he hoped to end the war by capturing Harrisburg, perhaps, but hopefully defeating the Army of the Potomac soundly enough to gain foreign recognition for the Confederacy, and to sway public opinion in the North to force Lincoln to accept a peace with an independent Confederacy.

Leading up to the campaign were the [mostly] foibles of the previous Union commanders, like George B. McClellan, who while being directly and indirectly disloyal and disobedient to Lincoln, was also attempting on his own to conduct peace negotiations with the Confederacy under the cover of prisoner exchange talks.  With a nod to Ambrose Burnside, saddled with some disloyal staff left over from McClellan, he spends a good deal of time discussing ‘Fighting’ Joe Hooker.

Avid students of the American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg will need to read this book to see if Professor Guelzo does indeed answer the questions about the Battle that he outlines in the acknowledgements:
  • “Did J.E.B. Stuart lose the battle before it even started by galloping off on a senseless joyride with the Confederate Cavalry, and thus deprive the Confederates of intelligence- gathering capacity?
  • “Did Richard Ewell lose the battle because he lacked the energy and the ruthlessness to press his successes on July 1st to the point of driving the battered Union forces off Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill?
  • “Did Dan Sickles force George Meade to stay and fight at Gettysburg on July 2nd, as Sickles claimed after the war?
  • “Was James Longstreet criminally negligent by insolently refusing to mount the Confederate attacks on July 2nd and 3rd with the appropriate spirit Lee demanded?”
“These are only the most prominent  of the Gettysburg controversies, and I put forward the answers I do with the resigned confidence that neither reason nor reasonableness is guaranteed certainty of success over self-interest and braggadocio.” [p. xv]

Thus Professor Guelzo reminds us that we are left, in most cases, to the reminiscences and official reports of those involved to provide the whole picture of events.  Those reports and reminiscences very often are full of verbiage that either covers over a bad performance, or falsely raises the importance of a performance, or sometimes both.

More than one historian has fallen prey to those practices as the lessons of the Lost Cause Mythology have shown us.

Not since Jeffry Wert’s Gettysburg: The Third Day has there been a book so full of rich detail about the Battle of Gettysburg.  Frankly I was moved to tears at the anguish displayed in the most complete recounting [by Sir Arthur Fremantle, a British Military Observer with the Army of Northern Virginia] I've ever seen, of Lee's encounter, not just with George Pickett, but with many other officers and men returning in defeat from Pickett's grand assault; and then with a swelling of pride when reading that General David Birney ordered the band from the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry [Collis' Zouaves] to the front of the line of battle on July 4th.  “They played the usual ‘national airs, finishing up with the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. At that moment the rebels sent a shell over our lines.’  It was the last shot of the Battle of Gettysburg.”[pp. 427 ff, p. 434]

I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey through time to garner new insights into the Battle of Gettysburg.  Professor Guelzo has a unique style of prose that takes some getting used to, yet after one catches the flow of it, the going is easy.  At that point one finds himself stopping to go back and see if he read that part correctly, and say, “Is that the way it actually happened?  Well, of course it did, it makes all the sense on the world!”  And each of the many, many times that happens in this book, the reader is thus enriched.  It is a sensible book, and an honest look at mid-nineteenth century American politics, mores, society, government and of course, most of all, war.

I heartily, ineluctably, endorse Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, as a must-have in any serious Civil War library.  And kudos to Professor Guelzo for a job exceedingly well done.  There has long been a need to have a single volume, concise, yet insightful telling of the Gettysburg Campaign and Battle, and the Professor's book is that and more.

I would like to thank the Alfred A. Knopf Company for sending a review copy of the book and inviting this review.  It was very kind of them.  It has been a pleasure and an honor.

For those who are close by, or who know someone close by, Professor Guelzo will be signing copies of his book at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor’s Center on Tuesday, May 14th, 2013 between the hours of noon and 3 PM.

W. G. Davis


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