Gettysburg remains the greatest clash of arms ever to occur in North America. It is also the most studied battle in American history. In 1900, a historian remarked that “another history of Gettysburg may seem superfluous and presumptuous.” Nonetheless, every year, new books are published on it. A 2004 bibliography lists 6,193 books, articles, chapters, and pamphlets.
In recent times, many of these studies have been micro-histories that divide the battle into days, parts of days, or particular clashes on a specific piece of terrain, e.g., Little Round Top. This trend confirms James McPherson’s observation that historians are tending to write “more and more about less and less.” There have also been some fine recent studies of the Gettysburg campaign as a whole, the most recent of which is Allen C. Guelzo’s contribution to the battle’s sesquicentennial.
Guelzo, the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, is one of our most accomplished Civil War historians and Lincoln scholars. He is the only two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize, in 2000 for Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and in 2005 for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, the definitive treatment of that document. He is a most graceful prose writer and his work is always a pleasure to read.
Although Guelzo’s focus in the past has been on the politics of the war, his new book makes it clear that he is a master of 19th-century military matters as well: His understanding of the military dynamics of Gettysburg is equal, if not superior, to that of many specialists. He provides many insights that other writers have missed or downplayed, and he is an iconoclast concerning many issues that have become part of the standard narrative of the battle, indeed of the war as a whole.
For instance, he rejects the characterization of the Civil War as “the first modern war” or “the first total war.” He takes issue in particular with the conventional wisdom that the heavy Confederate casualties at Gettysburg were the result of Lee’s failure to understand the impact of technology or to recognize the power of the defense. Guelzo argues that the rifled musket did not have the impact often attributed to it. Improvements in accuracy and range really made a difference only under ideal conditions: Minimally trained volunteers could not load as quickly as the manual posited and, in the heat and confusion of battle, could not deliver accurate fire. “What ran up the Civil War’s enormous casualty lists,” he writes, “was not expert marksmanship or highly refined weapons, but the inability of poorly trained officers to get their poorly trained volunteers to charge forward and send the enemy flying before the bayonet, instead of standing up and blazing away for an hour or two in close-range firefights where the sheer volume of lead in the air killed enough people to be noticed.”
Guelzo also swims against the tide of the growing consensus among historians that the Civil War was won in the west and that Gettysburg and other engagements in the east were militarily peripheral. It is true that Union armies in the west were able to penetrate deep into the Confederate heartland early in the war, opening the way to Chattanooga and Atlanta on one hand and gaining control of the Mississippi River on the other. From a strictly military standpoint, this “western consensus” may be right — but war has a political goal that transcends military success. Guelzo describes the panic that Lee’s invasion caused; had he prevailed in Pennsylvania, it is very likely that the Union would have sued for peace, notwithstanding its successes in the west. The Confederacy’s best chance for independence lay in the east, with its best army under its best general.
Guelzo excels at describing the “military politics” of the two armies. The divisions within both armies were the source of many of the controversies arising from the battle. On the Confederate side, these controversies concern the failure of General Richard Ewell to exploit his success on the first day of the battle; the absence of J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry and its effect on the fight; the performance of General James Longstreet; and Lee’s decision on the third day to attack the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. On the Union side, they involve the charge leveled by Major General Dan Sickles that the commander, Major General George Meade, was forced by his corps commanders to stand and fight rather than retreat after the second day; and Meade’s failure to pursue Lee after the battle.
The Union’s Army of the Potomac was divided between, on one hand, the pro-McClellan generals and opponents of emancipation, including Meade, and, on the other, the pro-Lincoln and anti-slavery generals, as well as opportunists such as “Democrat Dan” Sickles.
In the Confederates’ Army of Northern Virginia, non-Virginians and those who followed their states out of the Union despite being opposed to secession were at a disadvantage vis-à-vis Virginians and pro-secession officers. The most prominent target of the Virginians after the war was South Carolina–born and Georgia-raised James Longstreet, who was accused of losing the Battle of Gettysburg by insolently refusing to mount assaults on July 2 and 3. Longstreet suffered an ironic fate. Had he died from the serious wounds he suffered during the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, he would have been enshrined along with Lee and Jackson in the pantheon of great Confederate generals. Instead, he had the misfortune to survive his wounds and, after the war, commit three sins that were unpardonable in the eyes of southerners: He became a Republican, he renewed his friendship with Grant, who was elected president in 1868, and — most unforgivably — he dared to criticize Lee.
As a result of his post-war apostasy, Jubal Early and the Virginia-dominated Southern Historical Society unjustly made Longstreet, whom Lee called his “War Horse,” the scapegoat for the defeat at Gettysburg. Longstreet’s responses to his critics were often indiscreet and intemperate, which engendered further attacks on his character and generalship.
But despite his disagreement with Lee’s decision to attack the Union position on July 2 and 3, there is no evidence that, in mounting his assaults on those two days, he did so with anything short of a full effort. Indeed, his attack en echelon on July 2 came extraordinarily close to breaking the Union line. The assault was on the cusp of success when it broke down, just as Major General William Pender’s division from A. P. Hill’s corps was to take it up. For some reason, Pender’s rightmost brigade refused the order to advance. Despite what Longstreet called “the best three hours’ fighting done by any troops on any battlefield,” the attack ground to a halt, permitting Meade to avoid what would likely have been a disastrous nighttime retreat south toward Maryland.
On the Union side, the central controversy was the claim that Meade had to be forced to fight at Gettysburg. The accusation was leveled primarily by Sickles in conjunction with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a creature of the radical Republicans.
Early on the afternoon of July 2, Sickles, dissatisfied with his position at the base of Cemetery Ridge, advanced his III Corps without orders to a location in a wheat field and peach orchard just east of the Emmitsburg Road. In so doing, he not only formed a salient in the federal line but also created a gap between his right and Hancock’s II Corps to his north. Longstreet’s echelon attack exploited the defects in Sickles’s deployment and, as previously noted, came very close to cracking the Union position. By his actions, Sickles lost his leg, his corps, and nearly the whole Union line. While most observers have criticized Sickles’s decision as militarily disastrous, Sickles claimed that in fact he had forced Meade to fight at Gettysburg, paving the way for a great Union victory.
But Guelzo contends that John Reynolds, and not Sickles, was the true architect of the Gettysburg battle: By ignoring Meade’s “Pipe Creek Circular” (which envisioned taking up a defensive position in Maryland) and deciding to move his corps north rather than south, Reynolds — who would die on the first day — precipitated the battle. Guelzo agrees with Meade’s critics that Meade wanted to retreat on July 2 but was dissuaded by his corps commanders. (The author cites Horatio Nelson’s maxim that “if a man consults whether he is to fight, when he has the power in his own hands, it is certain that his opinion is against fighting.”) Guelzo is also critical of Meade’s decision not to pursue Lee with alacrity. But Meade was in no condition to pursue; indeed, the Army of the Potomac was in only marginally better shape than the Army of Northern Virginia.
Not everyone will agree with some of Guelzo’s conclusions, especially since he has butchered many sacred cows. For instance, those who have learned what they know about the battle from Michael Shaara’s historical novel The Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg, which was based on it, will be disappointed by his treatment of Joshua Chamberlain. “The drama of Little Round Top,” writes Guelzo, “has been allowed to run away with the reality. Credit for defending it belongs primarily to [Major General] Gouverneur Warren, [Colonel] Strong Vincent, and [Colonel] Patrick O’Rorke, and only after them to Chamberlain. . . . It was the ex-professor’s considerable flair for self-promotion that vaulted him ahead of the others.”
It is impossible to do justice to Gettysburg in a short review. Suffice it to say that, once again, Guelzo has produced a first-rate work of historical interpretation. Even those who think they know everything about Gettysburg will learn something new.
– Mr. Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center in Ohio, and the editor of Orbis, a foreign-policy journal.