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Jim Cullen: Review of Allen C. Guelzo's "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" (Knopf, 2013)

Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. His next book, A Brief History of the Modern Media,will be published next year by Wiley-Blackwell.

I didn't expect to see a book about Gettysburg from Allen Guelzo. His early work focused on religious history; in recent years he has emerged as a Lincoln scholar of first rank on the strength of work like Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Shaped America (2008).  Making a typical move for a senior historian seeking to bolster his credentials, he published Fateful Lightning, a survey of the Civil War and Reconstruction, last year. But Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is a work of straight military history.  I had my doubts that an essentially intellectual historian could really master a distinct subgenre. But the recent sesquicentennial prodded me to pick up this sizable tome, which I read during the anniversary of the battle. I'm glad I did.

Guelzo delivers the goods you expect with a book like this: an overview that sets the stage, a blow-by-blow account of the fighting, thumbnail sketches of the principals, counterfactual assessments of the might-have-beens. We get lots of active verbs: regiments and brigades don't simply attack; they "lunge," "bang"or "slap" each other. In his recent review of the book in the New York Times, David Blight criticized Guelzo for this, invoking the great John Keegan's complaint about a “'Zap-Blatt-Banzai-Gott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts' style of military history." I take the point. But overall I have to say that Guelzo's approach animates his narrative without really trivializing his subject. Indeed, Guelzo uses numbers to suggest the gravity of the three-day battle, noting that in the most conservative estimate, the damage sustained by the Army of Northern Virginia was equivalent to two sinkings of the Titanic, ten repetitions of the Great Blizzard of 1888 and two Pearl Harbors -- and two and a half times the losses taken by Allied armies in Normandy from D-Day through August of 1944. Union losses were comparable.

In sifting through the massive documentary record, Guelzo, who teaches at Gettysburg College and whose command of the landscape is evident, also has an eye for the colorful quote. He describes a slightly wounded soldier screaming "I'm dead, I'm dead," and the reply of his colonel to two stretcher bearers: "Go and take that dead man off -- if you can catch him." He offers a Union prisoner lying on the ground observing General George Pickett bracing for his fateful charge and speculating that "in looking at his cheeks and nose, we divined that their color was not caused by drinking sodawater only." Guelzo is no worshipper of Robert E. Lee -- like a lot of observers, he concludes that Lee badly overplayed his hand at Gettysburg -- and he's particularly critical of what he regards as Lee's passive-aggressive way of blaming subordinates and soldiers by saying he asked too much of them (in other words, they let him down). But he still manages to capture the understated essence of what made the man appealing to so many people. When one of his division commanders, reputedly Jubal Early, says of the the Yankees, "I wish they were all dead," Guelzo notes Lee's reply: "I wish they were all at home, attending to their own business, leaving us to do the same."

Of course, this is all pretty much standard issue stuff when it comes to a military narrative. But Guelzo has a series of interpretive statements to make as well. Among the most important is his rejection of the conventional wisdom that the Civil War was the first modern war. What he emphasizes instead is how backward looking it seems in terms of what came later, not just in the usual ways (like medicine), but in the lethargy, confusion, and technology of the armies -- Gettysburg was more like Waterloo than the Somme. Yes, rifles could fire a lot further. But that didn't make them any more accurate. Artillery shells moved so slowly through the air that soldiers could see them approach. That hardly made them less deadly, of course. But the rhythm of the fighting was different.

Guelzo also emphasizes the political intrigue that laced through the high command of both armies. In the case of the Confederates, it was the perception that Lee favored Virginians over others. In the Union army ideological conflict was sharper; many senior officers remained loyal to the recently sacked George McClellan -- and shared McClellan's anti-abolitionist views. Guelzo feels that in some cases, such perspectives had important military consequences in terms of how vigorously these people were willing to prosecute the war. Though it's clear that temperament and a concern for personal reputation were also important variables in shaping the conduct of soldiers, it's no accident that stalwart Republicans like Oliver Otis Howard were among those who nudged the recently appointed Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, George Meade, to engage the Confederates. Meade, a McClellanite, was motivated primarily by a fear of making a mistake, and was dragged into a confrontation with Lee in Pennsylvania against his instincts.

On the other hand, it was another McClellanite, John Fulton Reynolds, who forced Meade's hand. Thanks to works like Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, Reynolds has long been recognized as one of the heroes of the battle for his far-sighted recognition on the value of the high ground outside of Gettysburg. But Guelzo emphasizes there was a political dimension here, too: a native Pennsylvanian, Reynolds believed it was necessary to protect Pennsylvania from being ravaged by a hungry army (Guelzo emphasizes that northern Virginia had largely been picked clean by this point) and to drive invaders from native soil.

Guelzo engages in subtle revisionism with some other familiar figures as well. Yes, J.E.B. Stuart made a serious mistake by going off on his own to raid the Pennsylvania countryside rather than stay near the main body of the army. But that's not because his absence meant Lee was flying blind, as has often been asserted, but rather he wasn't around to screen the Confederate army as it sought maximum tactical advantage.  Guelzo clearly believes that Captain Joshua Chamberlain, the Bowdoin College professor who led the valiant defense of Little Round Top, has gotten too much attention from Shaara and others. He has no interest in denying that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine regiment's valor, but he thinks that other figures, notably Meade's chief engineer, General Gouverneur Warren, and Pennsylvania Colonel Strong Vincent were more pivotal in recognizing the crisis caused by the actions of General Daniel Sickles (a scoundrel whom Guelzo finds endlessly entertaining) in Sickles's abandonment Little Round Top and in taking the necessary action to shore it up. As is evident by the space he assigns to it, Guelzo clearly feels the battle was decided on the Cemetery Ridge.

My chief complaint with the book is something that's not Guelzo's fault: inadequate maps. There are plenty in the book, and they're very good -- at the highly localized level. What we never get, and desperately need as we wade through the minutiae, is an understanding of the bigger geographic picture. There's no map that situates Gettysburg strategically relative to places like Philadelphia, Washington, or New York. Nor do we get an overview map that encompasses the town of Gettsyburg and major sites of fighting like Cemetery Ridge, Culp's Hill, and the like. In a book with a $35 list price, it would have been nice to have some endpapers that a reader could refer to throughout. 

My minor complaint is a certain truculence of tone that Guelzo reveals early on. "The lure of the Civil War remains strong," he notes, "but dealing with its battles has acquired among my academic peers a reputation close to pornography." Guelzo attributes this in part to "a generation of professional historians whose youth was dominated by the Vietnam War." If it was ever fair, such a perception is dated; indeed, military history is by some standards thriving. Of course, Guelzo is hardly going to warm many academic hearts with a book that bears a jacket endorsement from Newt Gingrich.

But all of this is largely beside the point. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is the work of a consummate professional, and an excellent one-volume treatment for novice, fan, and scholar alike.