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Gettysburg and the Testing of Democracy
on 1 June 2013
The sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 -- July 3, 1863) offers the opportunity to reflect upon the battle and its significance. Although every aspect of the battle has been written about extensively, attempts at understanding continue, as with any historical subject of complexity and moment. Allen Guelzo's new book "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" (2013) offers a detailed, insightful, and beautifully written history of the Gettysburg campaign that has much to teach both readers new to the battle and readers who have studied it in detail. Guelzo, Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, has written broadly about the Civil War and about Abraham Lincoln. His writings tend to show an interest in ideas, including broad philosophical and religious questions. (He has also written about the early American theologian, Jonathan Edwards.)
The strength of Guelzo's book lies in its discussion of the political and philosophical importance of the Battle of Gettysburg in the preservation of American democracy. Guelzo also has interesting things to say about the battle itself. The remainder of this review elaborates these matters.
Guelzo understands the Battle of Gettysburg, and Lincoln's subsequent Gettysburg Address, as a testing of democracy first. Guelzo writes: "Gettyburg was almost univocally a battle for the Union, and it was made all the more so by Lincoln's famous address, which contains no allusion to slavery and casts the battle entirely in the context of the preservation of liberal democracy." On the underlying background, Guelzo reminds the reader at the outset that "[t]his is a book about a nineteenth century battle". He places the battle, and the Civil War, in the context of the political and military history of the times, which results in insights often missed. For example, Guelzo qualifies the understanding many readers will bring to the book about the impact of the use of the rifle and the minie ball on battlefield strategy and on tactics. He denies that the Civil War or Gettysburg was an instance of "total" war as that term came to be understood in the twentieth century. He states succinctly that there are "few things more humiliating than the bewildered, small town incompetence with which American soldiers addressed themeselves to the task of managing, directing, and commanding the mammoth citizen-armies they had called forth." Guelzo also points to and rejects the tendency of post-Vietnam scholarship to downplay the importance of military history and the story of battles. His book is valuable in its unapologetic endorsement of the study of military campaigns as part of historical understanding.
Especially as it involves the Army of the Potomac, Guelzo's book offers political insights that are easy to overlook. He goes into great detail into the political leanings of the generals in the army's high command and their relationship with McClellan. Many McClellan followers remained among the generals of the Army of the Potomac and they had an uneasy relationship with their republican or abolitionist peers. George Meade, who became the commanding general just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg had a close relationship with McClellan and his military and political inclinations were heavily influenced by those of his predecessor. Guelzo shows, more than other Gettysburg studies that I know, how political considerations heavily influenced the generals in the Army of the Potomac and their approach to the battle.
The book is organized into four large parts which consider, respectively, the beginnings and goals of Lee's Gettysburg campaign and the approach of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac towards what would become the battle during June, 1863. This is followed by a chapter on the first day of the battle, July 1, 1863, culminating in a discussion of the Confederate Army's failure to attempt to occupy the pivotal sites of Cemetery and Culps Hills. The discussion of the second day focuses on Longstreet's charge and how close it came to success together with the Army of Northern Virginia's attempts to take the hills they might have tried to take the prior day. Guelzo's treatment of the third day centers, as it must of Pickett's fateful charge against the Union center.
Guelzo has read and thought about many sources, primary and secondary, and his book covers the feel of battle from the high levels of command to the foot soldier on the ground. The military movements may not be described in as much detail as in some studies, but they are lucid and easy to follow. Guelzo also makes his account exciting rather than overly technical as he captures both the heroism and the large human suffering and pain occasioned by the battle.
Students of the battle will know of the many questions that surround it, such as the effect of J.E.B. Stuart's absence, whether the decision to refrain from attacking Cemetery and Culps Hills on July 1 was wise, whether Longstreet dragged his feet in implementing orders on July 2 and 3 and several others. Guelzo addresses the questions and issues and sometimes answers them in ways against what is probably the consensus of opinion. He is critical, for example, of Meade's leadership, finding him broadly too defensively minded and concluding that Meade did indeed intend to retreat from Gettysburg the night of July 2 until dissuaded by his Corps commanders. Guelzo also criticizes, in the company of President Lincoln but against considerable modern scholarship, Meade's failure to pursue Lee after the battle and to inflict further damage before Lee's retreat across the Potomac. Guelzo's strictures against General Meade will not convince every reader, but sifting through conflicting opinions is part of the purpose of history.
Students also disagree about whether the Army of Northern Virginia could have won at Gettysburg and if so how close it came to success. Some students believe that the Union position was virtually impregnable. Guelzo argues that it was a mistake for Lee to fight the battle, but having decided to fight, the battle could have been won on several occasions. The missed opportunities include the charge on Cemetery Ridge late on July 2, and the attacks on both Cemetery Hill and Culps Hill late on July 2. Guelzo finds that northern troops seemed always available and willing to take the last heroic step to avoid disaster, while southern leadership was often uncoordinated and did not make the final aggressive. timely push that might have led to victory at critical moments.
The ultimate lesson of the battle, for Guelzo, was that a democracy could have the strength and the will to defend itself and win a war. He writes: "It was not merely that Gettysburg finally delivered a victory, or that it administered a bloody reverse to Southern fortunes at the point and in the place where they might oterwise have scored their greatest triumph, or that it had come at such a stupendous cost in lives. It was that the monumental scale of that bloodletting was its own refutation to the old lie, that a democracy enervates the virtue of its people to the point where they are unwilling to do more than blinkingly look to their personal self-interest." Guelzo teaches a poignant lesson about the strength and fragility of American democracy that is both historically based and of current importance.
Guelzo's study combines attention to fact with historical thinking and with a sense of purpose and meaning. It will be a thoughtful consideration of the Battle of Gettysburg in this sesquicentennial year and beyond.