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Book Review: Gettysburg – The Last Invasion

By (July 6, 2013) No Comment

Gettysburg: The Last Invasiongettysburg the last invasion

by Allen C. Guelzo

Knopf, 2013

Always in the back of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s mind, writes Allen Guelzo in his magisterial new account of the Battle of Gettysburg, “had been the possibility of the so-far-elusive Napoleonic battle, the winner-take-all, annihilating victory which would shut the entire war down at once.”

Fresh from his military successes at Chancellorsville, Lee thought he had found the opportunity for such a battle in the precincts of that Pennsylvania hamlet in early July 1863. The fight that erupted there was bigger and more pivotal than he – or anybody else – had anticipated; Lee faced the Union’s Army of the Potomac under General George Gordon Meade, and amidst furious fighting key ground was lost and gained, signal slaughters were enacted, and events telescoped to that one famous assault on the fortified Union center by rebel soldiers who had to walk through hell to reach it. “The American Civil War,” Guelzo writes, ” – and the battle of Gettysburg in particular – were conducted with an amateurism of spirit and an innocence of intent which would be touching if that same amateurism had not also contrived to make it so bloody.” Even today, in the peace and quiet of the battlefield museum-ground, that walk seems impossibly long.

Guelzo takes his readers right back into the thick of it – not just that climactic march but every clash on every day of the battle, seamlessly melding participant memoirs with his own strong narrative line for a result that makes for page after page of good reading:

What made [Gouverneur K.] Warren’s blood pool when he gained the peak of Little Round Top was the spectacle unfolding beyond the Emmitsburg Road: “From that point I could see the enemy’s line of battle,” fixed bayonets glinting in the sun. Four big Confederate brigades were coming out of the woods like a pack of ravenous wolves, then four more on their left flank, and then still more, on and on up the line, with enough weight of numbers to crash through Sickles’ corps as though it was a dead hedge: “The whole Confederate line was sweeping from out of the woods in which it had formed,” wrote a junior officer in the 5th Corps, “far outflanking the left of the Third Corps line, where Smith’s battery, in air and almost unsupported on the rocks of the Devil’s Den, gallantly waited their doom” And not only theirs. The rebels farthest to Warren’s left were moving first; they would have to cover almost a mile of ground to reach Devil’s Den and Ward’s pitiful little brigade, but once they did, they would flatten everything in their path, spill over the stony ridge, and either swarm unopposed up the west face of the Round Tops, or plow right into the rear of the 3rd Corps.

The many longstanding controversies of Gettysburg – was Lee’s General Longstreet guilty of negligence? Did Confederate cavalryman Jeb Stuart’s “joyride” around the Union forces deprive Lee of vital reconnaissance? Did General Meade – only recently put in command by President Lincoln – display indictable timidity? – crop up early and often in The Last Invasion, and Guelzo has firm opinions on all of them. He’s equally firm on the propriety of writing this kind of a book at all:

Books about battles are not in high fashion, since they frequently engender suspicion in prominent places that an interest in war – even a war as distant as the American Civil War – panders to an unhappy streak of destructiveness in the American psyche, and by rights should be stuffed into some genie’s bottle lest it entice more of the naive to serve it … A century and a half later, the lure of the Civil War remains strong, but dealing with its battles has acquired among my academic peers a reputation close to pornography.

This is Gettysburg-style period hyperbole, of course; forty-five Civil War battle-books have been published just since this morning. But not all such books are created equal, and Guelzo has written one of the best. Certainly it’s the most important Civil War book of 2013.

In the end, Gettysburg was indeed the Napoleonic battle Lee had envisioned, although it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that such battles have losers as well as winners. It was dashing Union Brigadier General Alexander Stewart Webb (late of New York but of good solid Boston extraction) who later observed that “Gettysburg was, and is now throughout the world known to be the Waterloo of the Rebellion.” Webb knew whereof he spoke; he was one of the Union commanders who met that Confederate wave head-on and refused to be swamped by it. If you’re ever up at 135th St. in Harlem, you can go look at the pretty statue of him on the campus of City College, one of thousands of such statues honoring Gettysburg combatants North and South that have sprung up in the 150 years since the battle was fought.

If it’s not too hot, you can sit in the shade near any such monument and read this book, in which, for a quick-feeling 500 pages, all those men live and curse and fight again.