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Field of Dreams

July 1 - 3, 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, one hundred fifty years ago exactly.

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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Gettysburg: The Last Invasion
By Allen C. Guelzo
(Alfred A. Knopf, 634 pages, $35)

TO WRITE a book about the Battle of Gettysburg is as audacious an enterprise as Robert E. Lee’s Pennsylvania campaign itself. Allen Guelzo, in this book’s acknowledgments, tells us that the 2004 edition of a standard bibliography lists 6,193 “books, articles, chapters, and pamphlets on the battle,” along with a 128-page magazine, published twice yearly since 1989, entirely given over to Gettysburg scholarship.

The events of June-July 1863 have thus been as thoroughly worked over by historians as the territory of northern Virginia had been by the contending armies when Lee decided on his northward thrust. The exhaustion of that territory was indeed one of the secondary motives for Lee’s expedition. He had an army to feed, and the lush fields of southern Pennsylvania were mighty alluring. 

Civil War historians have families and reputations to feed, but no virgin state to invade for material. With the sesquicentennial upon us, however, there is a new surge of public interest. Why not tell once again the oft-told tale, and air once again the unresolved, and by now surely unresolvable, controversies? That’s what historians are for. Among historians, few are better qualified to write about Gettysburg than Prof. Guelzo, who teaches Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College.   

It even seems audacious just to review a Gettysburg book. I do not belong to that select company of, what? four score and seven? persons who know their way around those 6,000-odd items of Gettysburg literature and keep up a subscription to the Gettysburg Magazine. I am not even a professional historian, only an interested layman. It would be preposterously impertinent of me to offer an opinion on any of the aforementioned controversies. 

Interested laymen need instructing and enlightening, though; it does academics no harm to hear from us now and then; and, like Robert E. Lee and the good professor, I have mouths to feed. Let us then see what we have here. 

What we have is a crisply straightforward narrative. A two-page prologue setting the geographical stage is followed by Part 1, “The March Up,” describing the military and political considerations that led to the battle, and the movements that preceded it. Parts 2, 3, and 4 then cover the three days of the battle in turn. All four parts are roughly equal in length: 100 to 150 pages. A seven-page epilogue attempts to trace the course of Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts from his hearing news of the battle’s result to his famous address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery four months later.

In the matter of controversies, Prof. Guelzo allows his opinions to emerge from accumulated masses of factual detail, making them seem barely different from facts themselves. This diffident approach fortifies my own suspicion that most of the controversies are overblown. Homo sap. is a contentious species; if we were not, there would be nothing for military historians to write about. Where armed combat is not available, we savor the intellectual variety. 

Thus, for example, on the issue of whether cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart’s long raid around the Union army’s rear deprived Lee of essential intelligence, Guelzo provides measured skepticism. Although no fan of Stuart—he describes the cavalryman’s June 28th raid on a Union wagon train as “executed with an almost total disregard for any interest other than the self-promotion of J.E.B. Stuart”—Guelzo says:

One crime which Lee should not have hung on Stuart’s shoulders was that of depriving the Army of Northern Virginia of the intelligence the cavalry owed it. [Cavalry and Intelligence daredevil] John Mosby insisted, in Stuart’s defense, that “nobody can show that General Lee did, or omitted to do, anything on account of his ignorance of the situation of the northern Army.”

What Lee missed that Stuart’s three absent brigades might have provided was not intelligence about the enemy’s location and movements, but “screening”—the ability of one’s cavalry, with its high mobility and visibility, to confuse the enemy as to one’s own movements. This only mattered in the last day or two before the battle, though, when Lee was bringing his forces together at Gettysburg, and Guelzo does not think it critical even then.

Similarly with Lee’s day three assault on the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge—the action to be forever known as “Pickett’s Charge,” though two other generals (J. Johnston Pettigrew and Isaac R. Trimble) charged as well. The assault failed, as military actions often will, but Guelzo denies it was the egregious folly it has sometimes been portrayed. He raises encouraging precedents surely known to Lee: Lord Raglan’s successful assault on even more formidable Russian lines in the Crimea, for instance, during which:

the Russians were not only driven back, but driven away in “such a confusion as no person ever saw.” The same tactics had won the day for the French at Magenta and Solferino in 1859…. If Lee needed a rationale for the attack on July 3rd, he did not have far to look for it, [Confederate corps commander James] Longstreet’s objections notwithstanding.

GUELZO'S STRONGEST expression of opinion concerns the fight for Little Round Top on the afternoon of day two—the drama of which, our author pronounces, “has been allowed to run away with the reality.” History is proverbially written by the victors; but as this case reminds us, only by those who survive and can write.

Chief survivor at Little Round Top was Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, glamorized in Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel The Killer Angels and a subsequent movie therefrom. Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric before enlisting in 1862. He survived the war and then employed his rhetorical powers in writing “at least seven accounts” of Gettysburg.

Guelzo argues that primary credit for defending Little Round Top properly belongs to General Warren and Colonels Vincent and O’Rorke; but the latter two were killed and Warren fell afoul of military politics later in the war. “Mortality, and the ex-professor’s considerable flair for self-promotion, vaulted him ahead of the others.”

There is a good selection of photographs (what whiskers!) and 39 maps, average one map per twelve pages of narrative. I had a slight issue with the maps, though I’ll allow this is a tough thing for an author to get right. A battle narrative needs to be constantly shifting focus, from broad overviews to tactical minutiae. It’s hard to keep the maps in sync. Thus, for example, when reading on page 306 about the re-deployment of artillery by the Union 3rd Corps on day two, the most helpful map to consult is the one given 23 pages—and four maps—earlier. By day three I was running out of bookmarks. Perhaps e-books have solved this problem. I wouldn’t know; I can’t get along with the damn things. Why not a margin note directing the reader to a suitable map?

Still, I don’t see how anyone could wish for a more detailed, hour-by-hour, unit-by-unit account of this momentous, Homeric battle. I do, however, wish Guelzo had omitted that sappy epilogue, with its reverent portrayal of a nameless “tall man in the White House” mentally constructing his November address. A republic should not sanctify its politicians. The guy’s name was Abraham Lincoln. 

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About the Author

John Derbyshire writes "Shelf Life," a books column, every other week. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum).