Gettysburg: The Last Invasion

Allen C. Guelzo, Knopf, 2013, $35

William Faulkner famously wrote, “For every Southern boy fourteen years old…there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” In this masterful work, Allen Guelzo points out that the time of attack, like everything else we claim about the Battle of Gettysburg, was an approximation. Precisely when events occurred is not known because synchronized time did not exist. Other facts are likewise subject to conflicting testimony. For example, separate observers described Pickett’s Charge as a single line, two lines and perhaps even three lines or four, if Union Gens. Abner Doubleday or John Gibbon are to be believed.

By having mastered the vast primary and secondary sources, and writing with clarity and force, Guelzo gives coherence to a story that, by its nature, is fraught with contradictions. He is also not shy about offering his judgments.

Neither Robert E. Lee nor George G. Meade comes off well. Guelzo blames Lee for not overriding Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, who had prematurely brought an end to the fighting on July 1 and, worse yet, for not pressing Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell to take Culp’s Hill on that first day. Guelzo faults Lee’s uncoordinated command style for the failure to follow up the attack on Cemetery Hill on July 2, and suggests that Jeb Stuart’s absence did not have the baneful effect attributed to it afterward.

He is harder on Meade, cast as an unrepentant McClellanite who was “strangely negligent” about the threat to his left flank on July 2, favored withdrawal to Pipe Creek later that evening, and, in the immediate aftermath of July 3, failed to pursue the decimated and vulnerable Army of Northern Virginia.

Guelzo keenly observes just how close Lee came to a smashing victory only to “end in agonizingly near misses for the Army of Northern Virginia,” and concludes, “Robert E. Lee lost the battle of Gettysburg much more than George Meade won it.”

One veteran described Pickett’s Charge as “the shadow of a cloud seen from a distance as it sweeps across a sunny field.” The cloud burst, but the war did not end. What ended was the Confederate invasion and the belief that Lee was invincible.

 

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.