I read a lot of military history including accounts of campaigns and battles – but Allen C Guelzo’s “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” is possibly the best single battle study I have read.
The first quarter of the book provides an excellent description of the men and the armies involved and then the manoeuvring, and the logic behind those manoeuvres, that takes place in June 1863. The battle and the account is split over the three days in July commencing with the Hill & Ewell assaults to the north-east of the town on 1st July; then Longstreet’s attack along the Emmitsburg Road towards Cemetery Ridge on the 2nd and concludes with the spectacle of Pickett’s Charge on Friday, 3rd July.
The strength of this book is that it goes from analysing the thought processes of the commanders through to the individual experiences of the men on the ground. By taking this approach, Guelzo provides strategic analysis, with numerous maps, and comment while also placing the reader in the heat of the action through use of personal accounts. The political landscape that surrounds the action is also covered providing context from Washington and Richmond.
Guelzo holds strong opinions of the combatants and is not afraid to express them, which has gone down less well with readers entrenched in one or the other camps. Lee‘s over-confidence in his own forces combined with inexperienced corps commanders under him lead to the view that “Lee lost a battle he should have won” through a premature engagement that lacked concentration of his forces, poor co-ordination of the forces available and a failure to understand how tenaciously the Army of the Potomac would hold their ground. Meade, appointed to command only three days previously, comes out of the encounter only marginally better – his subordinates act “as though he didn’t exist” seeing him as an equal – with his performance being seen by Guelzo as “entirely reactive”. Guelzo’s conclusion on the two commanders is that “Robert E Lee lost the battle of Gettysburg much more than George Meade won it.”
By the 4th July as the Confederate troops slowly retire south – and Vicksburg falls – Guelzo concludes that Gettysburg while “less than decisive in strictly military terms, it was decisive enough to restore the sinking morale of the Union”, that “the Confederacy would never be able to mount a serious invasion again” and that “the momentum of the war would from now on belong solely to the Union”. He ends with the observation that “after Gettysburg, the sun never shone for the South again.”
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author of “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President”, which won the Lincoln Prize for 2000, “Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America”, which won the Lincoln Prize for 2005, and “Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America”, which won the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize for 2008.
Very highly recommended.