For historians, and for much more casual students of the Civil War, the battle of Gettysburg 150 years ago holds seemingly limitless fascination — a search for "Gettysburg" on Amazon turns up over 7,500 books — and similarly limitless opportunity for debate. Did the Confederacy's iconic commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, bring defeat to his own army by reaching too far in ordering Pickett's fateful — and disastrous — charge? Did Gen. George Meade, President Abraham Lincoln's newly minted commander of the Union's Army of the Potomac, fail to exploit victory at Gettysburg by declining to pursue and destroy Lee's dispirited and retreating army? Did the dandy Union Gen. Daniel Sickles, a man who had gotten away with murder in civilian life, endanger the federal forces by disregarding orders? Did Confederate Gen. James Longstreet turn in a "criminally" lackluster performance because he opposed Lee's strategy? All are questions with no certain answers, inviting historians to write even more books about Gettysburg and readers to welcome them to their shelves — or e-readers, as the case may be.
Allen C. Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War era and director of Civil War era studies at Gettysburg College, explores those questions and makes the arguments all the more compelling — and all the less easily settled — with Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. In this determinedly fair chronicle of Lee's march north, the three days of battle and the Confederate retreat back to Virginia, Guelzo refuses to accept any easy or conventional answers to the enduring questions from the battle that claimed more than 40,000 casualties and left over 15 square miles of south central Pennsylvania a ruin of devastated farmland, orchards, campuses, homes and lives. As Guelzo cautions in his "Acknowledgements," referring to the many conflicting accounts of the battle written by those who fought at Gettysburg, "The further in time from the battle these recollections were written, the less reliability is sure to be attached to these reminiscences."
Long before taking readers to the battle, Guelzo details the chess pieces who will oppose one another on the first three days of July in 1863. He enumerates the underlying political and military forces at play on Lee as he planned the invasion: Lee's desire to force a negotiated settlement to the war by invading a Northern state and the challenges Lee faced in reconfiguring command of the Army of Northern Virginia following the death of Stonewall Jackson, Lee's trusted and accomplished field commander, in the closing hours of the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. On the Union side, Guelzo sets out the political and military challenges of simply finding a suitable commander for the Army of the Potomac. Not a single corps commander at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg had held a comparable post a year earlier. In an army so politicized that Lincoln's choices to command were limited to Democrats who sympathized more with the president's principal nemesis, former Army of the Potomac commander Gen. George McClellan, than with the president himself.
Once Guelzo gets the armies to the battleground, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is exhaustive, sometimes to the point of exhausting. Details of troop movements at all levels, from company to regiment to brigade to corps to the entire armies, are often so dense as to become more confusing than illuminating, but those details add up to a credibility that allows Guelzo to harbor no sacred heroes in his pages. Perhaps most telling is Guelzo's account of the fight for control of Little Round Top on the second day of the battle. He gives due credit to Union Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain for leading an impromptu bayonet charge against determined Confederate attackers, but Guelzo is quick to note that other heroes of the skirmish died in the fighting and never had the opportunity to render their own accounts, while Chamberlain went on to glory on more Civil War battlefields, received the Medal of Honor, served as governor of Maine, president of Bowdoin College and authored "at least seven accounts of Gettysburg, giving himself the starring role of Little Round Top." Credit is also conscientiously given where it is due. In his summation of the Battle of Gettysburg, Guelzo notes the essential role played by Union Gen. John Reynolds in forcing the battle to be fought at Gettysburg, compelling Meade to abandon his own more cautious plans for confronting Lee.
Guelzo largely avoids imposing his own judgment on the lingering questions, small and large, from Gettysburg, preferring instead to lend perspective and depth of understanding to the great decisions of the determining battle of the Civil War. This is welcome given that the answers, driven by biases and loyalties, will never be definitively settled, assuring there will be no end to the writing and books about the battle — but Gettysburg: The Last Invasion goes a long way to leveling the battlefield for all concerned, and makes for an invaluable addition to any American history reader's library.
Stu Seidel is the managing editor for standards and practices for NPR News.