Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Cloth, ISBN: 0307594084. $35.00.
When I received my review copy of Allen C. Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, I asked myself, “does the world need another one-volume history of Gettysburg?” Recent fine monographs on the Civil War’s most studied campaign by Noah Andre Trudeau and Stephen Sears complimented Edwin B. Coddington’s magisterial The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command so well that my first instinct was to view Guelzo’s book as simply the product of a commercial press’s desire to cash in on the marketing potential of the Sesquicentennial. The book’s title heightened my anxiety, as characterizing the Army of Northern Virginia’s 1863 foray into Pennsylvania as an “invasion” does not comport with the traditional connotation of that military endeavor…and if it does, Jubal Early and Sterling Price might deserve that distinction.
My fears were misplaced.
Gettysburg: The Last Invasion deserves to be included among the finest campaign studies of our generation. It earns this distinction with smart and vivid writing, innovative organization, and insightful analysis that manages to synthesize the Gettysburg story in a way that will appeal to the literate novice and the seasoned Civil War history reader alike.
Guelzo, the Henry C. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, belongs to that class of academic historians who, Guelzo accurately notes, consider studies that deal with battles as possessing “a reputation close to pornography” (xvi). His Acknowledgments serve primarily as fair warning to his scholarly colleagues that they are unlikely to approve of this book because it dares to commit almost purely military history.
And he is right. Although readers will enjoy small sections describing the ways the campaign effected civilians in its path, the bulk of the text provides a brilliantly crafted saga of the origins, conduct, and consequences of the Gettysburg Campaign as it happened on the ground.
Seasoned readers may not (indeed how can they?) emerge from this book learning a great deal new about the general outlines of the epic contest between Robert E. Lee and George Meade during the first three days of July 1863. Guelzo confined his research to a dizzying array of primary published and secondary sources, and his extensive notes only rarely cite manuscripts. He confesses that he lends credence to many memoirs, recollections from veterans’ magazines, and regimental histories, a decision some skeptics might challenge. Perhaps some of the anecdotes Guelzo repeats may be fabricated or enhanced by the men who conveyed them in the pages of the National Tribune or the Southern Historical Society Papers but in its totality Guelzo’s writing maintains an unimpeachable credibility.
Indeed Guelzo’s prose provides one of the book’s great joys. His writing approaches poetry in places and the narrative is always clear and articulate, only rarely descending into vocabulary masturbation. Campaign studies possess the inherent problem of organization, particularly with a topic such as Gettysburg where multiple events unfold simultaneously. Guelzo handles this task with aplomb so that readers, utilizing the large number adequate if less than ideally crafted maps, may follow events without becoming lost in the boulders of Devil’s Den or the agricultural endeavors of the Sherfy, Bliss, Rose, or Trostle families.
Writers are bound to quote Guelzo’s remarkably entertaining and insightful personality profiles provided for every one of Gettysburg’s primary players, as well as many of the supporting cast. Whether utilizing his own pen in describing Richard Ewell as having a “peculiar pop-eyed look and a bald, domelike head which gave him something of the appearance of a nervous pigeon,” (22) or finding the words of others to provide insight into the men who managed the Gettysburg Campaign, readers will surely gain an understanding of the personalities whose names are synonymous with the Gettysburg story. There is no better example than George Templeton Strong’s aversion to Daniel Sickles, whose participation in New York’s seedy political milieu rendered him, in Strong’s view, as “belonging to the filthy sediment of the profession [as] one of the bigger bubbles of the scum” (245).
No Gettysburg book worth the cost of its binding can avoid rendering judgments regarding the battle’s numerous command controversies. Guelzo tackles this task head-on—a literary Pickett’s Charge that is bound to fail, at least in the view of some. Partisans of J.E.B. Stuart, George Meade, and Robert E. Lee may not be altogether pleased with Guelzo’s interpretations. James Longstreet emerges much more intact than many readers might be willing to digest while Oliver O. Howard receives the credit that too many students of the battle have denied him. Guelzo crafts a strong case that the political composition of the senior commanders of the Army of the Potomac influenced command decisions and takes the Army of Northern Virginia to the woodshed for its failures to coordinate its attacks in a battle it should have won. Thus Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is bound to elicit debate at Civil War Round Tables and during battlefield tours if not in university faculty lounges.
Although Guelzo’s study aspires to tell the entire Gettysburg operational story and thus must take a broad brush to its canvas (the cavalry action on July 3 barely warrants a mention), there is raw meat here for those Gettysburg savants who want to creep down into the weeds of the armies’ micro behavior. Did Pickett’s Division approach Cemetery Ridge on July 3 in column rather than line of battle? What hill did Captain Samuel Johnston ascend on the morning of July 2 if it was not Little Round Top? Where did Alexander Schimmelpfennig seek refuge on July 1?
It is certain that some readers will hesitate to forsake Coddington as the premier volume on Gettysburg. Others will probably turn more often to Steve Sears or Andy Trudeau. But with the appearance of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, Allen Guelzo takes his place among the very elite chroniclers of the Civil War’s most enduring military drama. Can anyone win a third Lincoln Prize? Maybe, just maybe….
A. Wilson Greene is the Executive Director of Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Petersburg, Virginia.