Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Vintage Civil War Library) – Allen C Guelzo

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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.

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Divisional demarcation at the Battle of Loos

When researching for my chapter on the Battle of Loos – to be included in the follow up volume to “Stemming The Tide: Officers and Leadership in The British Expeditionary Force 1914”, I came across an interchange of memoranda between Major-Generals George Thesiger, commanding 9th (Scottish) Division, and Thompson Capper, commanding 7th Division, which sheds some light on the nature of the day to day relationship between divisions placed alongside each other in the frontline. The two divisions were then part of I Corps under Hubert Gough and were readying themselves for the battle that was to commence in fourteen days time.

Thesiger had sent a type-written note to 7th Division which was couched in a somewhat administrative and officious manner:
Screenshot 2014-12-20 18.05.20“As there seems to have been some misunderstanding about the new fire trench from K sap to your left sap head, I should like to point out that this Division does not recognise and has never recognised any responsibility for this portion of the line. The 120 yards of fire trench that the 9th Division has dug…has been undertaken by this Division voluntarily as a “quid pro quo” for the trench which was dug from Fontes des Marichons to Barts and afterwards handed over to us by the 7th Division and in order to work in a friendly spirit with this Division….I shall be glad if the 7th Division will undertake all further responsibility for this Section of the line. Do you agree to this arrangement?”

Capper responded by handwriting on the back of the memorandum the following: “As regards the labour of placing accessories in position, I understand you have to handle a number proportionate to those we have to handle as 3 is to 2. Under these conditions, I think the best plan would before us to completely take over the new trench…We would undertake all liabilities for the new trench…I will send a staff officer to meet anyone you delegate…and arrange the boundary mark.”
Screenshot 2014-12-20 18.05.34Both Thesiger and Capper were to be killed in action in the opening days of Loos and it is sometimes easy to get caught up in the action of the battle, thereby losing sight of the daily “management” tasks of commanders in the field. Who was responsible for which trench was simply one of the thousands of details that were under consideration by the staff at divisional and corps levels leading up to an offensive and gives a small insight into the scale of the operations these men were facing.