Top positive review
A fresh coat of paint on an otherwise well-worn topic
Reviewed in the United States on January 31, 2018
Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (2013) by Allen Guelzo charts the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 to July 24, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North during the American Civil War. The campaign culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, in which approximately 48,000 Americans became casualties. In the end, the two armies settled into camps in roughly the same place they started.
The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 covers the march to Gettysburg, and the others cover each subsequent day of the battle. It’s a linear history from beginning to end, and focuses on the big picture. There’s nothing new to read about the fighting, but Guelzo draws from extensive sources to explore how the battle was fought and the politics of both armies.
Guelzo compares the Battle of Gettysburg with battles from mid-nineteenth century European conflicts to argue that the American Civil War was a decidedly pre-modern war. The high casualty rolls were not the result of outdated tactics facing modern weapons, but the result of inexperienced, amateur soldiers and officers. Instead of driving their opponents away with bayonets, they stood and blasted away at each other at close range. This poor training erased any advantage the rifle might have offered, with some estimating that only one in 500 shots actually hit their target.
Politics also played a role in how the armies fought. The Union Army was roughly divided into two camps: pro-McClellan and anti-McClellan, or moderate pro-war Democrats and radical abolitionist Republicans. Guelzo makes an interesting case that George G. Meade, who took command of the Army of the Potomac days prior to the battle, was a McClellanite who promoted his fellow partisans over their ideological opponents. Meade is usually described as non-political, so this is a fresh perspective.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia wasn’t immune to political divisions either, and this is where Gettysburg: The Last Invasion gets really interesting. In Lee’s army, Virginians were trusted and promoted over officers from all other Southern states, especially North Carolina. North Carolinians were seen as not sufficiently enthusiastic about secession. Likewise, there were Southern generals who were against secession but fought out of loyalty to their state. This dynamic helps explain the Army of Northern Virginia’s lack-luster performance while fighting an offensive campaign in the North.
My one objection is Guelzo’s glaringly inaccurate subtitle, which he never attempts to explain or justify. Why is it called Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, when the Gettysburg Campaign was not the last Confederate invasion of the North? In July 1864, a year after the Battle of Gettysburg, Major General Jubal Early took his corps north, won a battle at Monocacy, near Frederick, Maryland, on July 9th, menaced Washington, DC, and burned the city of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on July 30th. That was the last invasion.
Still, Guelzo’s account of the Gettysburg Campaign is rich and complex. His understanding of nineteenth century politics and military history add a fresh coat of paint on an otherwise well-worn topic.