Another book on Gettysburg?
Yup, another book on Gettysburg, which is the largest battle ever fought on North American soil, and one which, no doubt, changed the course of American history. But this is a book well-worth tackling regardless of how much, or how little, you've read on the subject before.
Allen Guelzo is a capable historian and an interesting writer. He has a knack for laying out established facts, which he then fleshes out in light of the opinions and observations of the participants (Guelzo makes extensive use of personal correspondence from the period). Guelzo also has a knack for making very sane judgments (judgments which won't please revisionists) about the events he's just discussed. And where applicable, he teases out the ramifications of these events for subsequent American history.
If you've read Michael Shaara's Killer Angels or have seen the glue-on beard marred epic movie "Gettysburg" (which actually isn't bad, except for Martin Sheen's horrible portrayal of Robert E. Lee as some sort of Eastern mystic), then you probably believe that the South's failure to capture Little Round Top toward the end of the second day (July 2) was the turning point of the three-day battle. Not true.
Guelzo makes a compelling case that while a serious Confederate effort to turn the Union flank at Little Round Top nearly succeeded, and was indeed thwarted by the heroics of the 20th Maine (led by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain), the real turning point of the second day was the failure of Longstreet's men to break through the Union line just south of Cemetery Ridge at dusk--largely due to the long forgotten suicide charge of the Union's 1st Minnesota (who don't appear in Shaara's novel or the film).
The near-success of Longstreet's corps (which ultimately was staved-off by the Union because of fatigue, loss of daylight, and due to communication issues among Confederate reserve units--if only someone had a cellphone!) was precisely why Lee attempted to do the same thing again on the third day with the infamous Pickett's Charge. This is the very moment, perhaps, when the South lost all chance to defeat the Union army and end the war in victory (a negotiated surrender). Lee was not making a "chips all in" move of desperation. Rather, in light of the Napoleonic tactics of the day, he was attempting to exploit a weakness in the Union line which gave way the day previous. The South had come very close to victory and following up was the obvious thing to do. As for the manner in which the orders for the third day were executed, well, that is a different matter.
Guelzo also contends that it was Union general John Reynolds (a capable Pennsylvanian, who did not want to see foraging Confederate Army rob the people of Pennsylvania blind), who advanced on his own initiative to Gettysburg to engage Lee, which, in turn, forced the newly appointed and cautious Union commander George Meade to likewise advance with the entire Union army from his defensive position along Pipe Creek in Maryland. Meade, reluctantly at first, marched the Army of the Potomac more than thirty miles up the now well-known roads from the south to north to prevent Lee from overwhelming Reynold's First Corps at Gettysburg, along with the two corps following him (Howard's and Slocumb's).
Reynolds, as you may know, was killed early on the first day (a major loss to any army when a corps commander is killed). Lee very nearly defeated the discombobulated Union Army seriatim as the three Union corps advanced one by one, trying in vain to get into position to prevent the Rebels from occupying the town. Since Meade had seven corps, however, it was only a matter of time before the Union armies occupied Cemetery Ridge and took up defensive positions, which meant it was Lee who would be forced to attack, not Meade.
Guelzo's treatment of the famous Lee-Longstreet spat over battle tactics (on days two and three) is also insightful. What amounted to a difference of opinion on the day of battle, became a full-fledged feud after the war only because of the wounded pride and fierce loyalty of those who served together under these two generals--even though there was no major dust-up between Lee and Longstreet on the day of battle as claimed. The blame game often distorts the historical record, as it has here.
Guelzo's discussion of the plight of the civilians of Gettysburg, who were so terribly impacted by the battle which landed on top of them, reveals much about an important though overlooked element of the battle. Can you imagine having 80,000 men land in your small town, killing each other, stealing your food and property, and then leaving their dead and wounded men and animals behind? Barns and fences, field crops and orchards, were completely destroyed. The citizens of Gettysburg suffered as much as the armies did--perhaps more.
I had no idea Union scouts could identify and track the Confederate Army from distance simply by smell. The point is gross enough, but speaks to the fighting readiness and condition of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in July of 1863. It is utterly remarkable the Confederates fought as well, and relentlessly as they did, when they were so ill-equipped for an invasion.
Simply put, Allen Guelzo's Gettysburg a great read, and I highly recommend it. I'm thankful we have another book on Gettysburg--especially this one.
Order it here: Gettysburg