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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.

Robin Friedman
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VINE VOICEon 29 July 2014
I would not try emulating the comprehensive and enjoyable review by Robin Friedman, this is simply me just giving in to the urge to add my own modest endorsement of this book and say from a ‘Brit’s point of view why it is a book a student of the American Civil War should possess.

There are many worthy volumes written about Gettysburg (I have a few), where this ranks is that aside from an excellent and detailed account of the fighting the author caught my attention by raising a few thought provoking issues which had not occurred to me before. To cite three examples:

The political composition of the Army of The Potomac.
Allen Guelzo explains quite clearly how the influence of and loyalty to McCellan still remained amongst many of the senior officers and in turn the latent hostility or suspicion of officers who displayed Abolitionist tendencies. Thus raising the notion that the whole officer corps of that army must have seemed to Lincoln and troublesome factor in the conduct of the war. In this context Lincoln’s removal of Meade for the failure to pursue Lee’s retreating army can be judged as a political reaction to ‘another McCellan’; whether this was a fair assessment is worth a book in itself, but until I had read this account it had always seemed an act of ingratitude; however Guelzo has given another dimension to Meade’s dismissal.

The soldier’s battle.
Fictional accounts, the epic film Gettysburg and other accounts have highlighted the action at Little Round Top by the 20th Maine under Chamberlain, and by inference that this action alone was the running point in the battle Although Guelzo gives the 20th Maine its fair due, he is also careful to cite this as one of many small scale actions which played a vital role. In turn he highlights the enormity of trying to control such large armies with the minimal staffs Civil War generals had at their disposal.

Removal of The Romance.
Whereas other works have recorded with a certain nostalgia as to the chivalry of the confederate forces as they marched through Union lands Guelzo does not paint such a rosy picture. Despite Lee’s insistence on appropriate behaviour looting and pillaging took place on a large scale and officers were disinclined to stop this. More soberingly there are the heart rending accounts of the capture and heartless removal south of both southern fugitive and long established free African-Americans into slavery, treated as simple pillage.
Guelzo does not let this rest throughout the book, returning to the ugly question of slavery through the eyes of both southerners and often indifferent or unsympathetic northerners, reminding us very much of this horror.

The author has a verve in his description of battles to the extent that although I knew the outcome of the battle I was still held in awe at the descriptions of successive and remorseless Confederate breakthroughs…..’Of course they are stopped. But when?!’. All credit to Guelzo for keeping one on edge, even in the predictable.

Highly recommended.
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on 20 October 2013
An intensely readable account, I have already read it twice, making sense of the complex event with much background I was unaware of. Guelzo's scholarship is always impeccable but this is the account of someone who has walked and absorbed the battlefield and understands its confusing topography and the significance it imparted to the events. The maps are very good and on Kindle the references can be found so easily. One caveat is that JEB Stuarts role on the 3rd day, which would explain so much, is passed over.
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on 15 May 2014
I originally bought this book as it contains excerpts from the diary of my great great grandfather. But this book was so much more as it was wonderfully interesting and descriptive. It's a book that's hard to put down-and I admit that surprised me as it wasn't a subject I was particularly interestedin and only bought and read it because of the fact it includes a family member of mine.
I would highly recommend this book.
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on 15 July 2015
The Civil War is one of the most engaging periods in US history and Guelzo covers it's most significant battle here in detail. This is not just a simple retelling of the clash of Union and Confederate forces in southern Pennsylvania during the hot summer days of 1st-3rd July 1863, it's a history of how the battle of Gettysburg was to change the fortunes of the causes of both North and South and, indeed, the course of the war entirely.

The author begins with a brief situation of the war at the time in question. Again, this isn't just a simple narrative history of the war up until 1863. Guelzo details the state of the armies and how they evolved from state militia to national military forces. Guelzo highlights the differences between the two sides; logistical, geographical, military and also politically. There's a very interesting chapter on Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his role, not just as a military commander, but also on his symbolic significance to the Southern cause. The author also highlights some fascinating details concerning apparent tension between the states of the south; Resentment at the preference for Virginia and Virginians to form the hierarchy of the military (Army Of Northern Virginia); suspicion among the states of the commitment of North Carolina thanks to their being the last state to secede in 1861. Finally, Guelzo illustrates how and why Gettysburg became the place where the South were to 'invade' the union.

The book is divided into three sections, each dedicated to the three days the battle was fought. Naturally there is a large amount of data describing the battle tactics of both armies. Each movement of troops, each attack, repulsion, counter-attack and conclusion is covered. Casualties, military idiosyncrasies, cultures, politics and logistical issues also go to provide a very enjoyable and informative account of the battle which determined the course of the war. After initial incompetency and uncoordinated attacks by the Confederates, the Union soldiers were forced to fight off repeated attacks from the Southern forces. The battle was to be close, both sides taking the initiative yet repeatedly misjudging their opponents intentions. On day three, the Confederates withdrew south. History was subsequently made.

Guelzo has done very well here. I enjoyed his battlefield descriptions very much and found them informative and clearly described. More importantly, I thoroughly enjoyed his accounts of military politics, the tensions between the generals. Sickles and Meade, Longstreet and Lee, Lee and Ewell. All are described in detail and provide a curious backdrop to the battles' conclusion when allegations began to be hurled and blame assigned. Above all, the author captures the true significance of Gettysburg and its contribution to US history. According to the author, the South were to lose Gettysburg more than the North were to win it. Maybe if the Union lost the battle, the outcome of the war would have been different?? Maybe. However, the resources of the South were much more limited and Guelzo goes on to state how even the failure to successfully invade the North had an ecological impact on the South's continued ability to fight (poor soil, crop failures).

An excellent addition to the vast library already available on the American Civil War. A must read.
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on 3 September 2015
The magic ingredient of this brilliant book is Guelzo's skill in taking an immense amount of detail and context and making it so fast flowing and readable. Ranks alongside "Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Killer Angels" as must reads.
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"Colonel. If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy, or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our efforts pretty certain, I would prefer that you not advise Gen. Pickett to make the charge." ‒ from GETTYSBURG. General Longstreet's message to Chief of Artillery Colonel Porter Alexander prior to Pickett's Charge

"... the individual soldier's experience in battle becomes ... tightly concentrated into an immediate semicircle in front and beside him. Isolated from sight by one another, as well as by fear for survival, it was the other senses that became the nineteenth-century soldiers' chief inlets of information, beginning with the variety of bizarre sounds which dominated the nineteenth-century battlefield ‒ the weird harmonic ring of bullets striking fixed bayonets, the clicking of the locking ring on the bayonet when fixed on the rifle's muzzle, the deceptively harmless sound of rifle volleys ... the thud of rounds striking flesh or the metallic clink when the struck bone or the dropped-china crack when they hit teeth." ‒ from GETTYSBURG

"Standing in the line of battle, the Civil war soldier needed to know one thing above all others ‒ that the men on either side of him would not run." ‒ from GETTYSBURG

"Lee and his men had given what Porter Alexander later called 'the best we had in the shop'." ‒ from GETTYSBURG

GETTYSBURG by Allen Guelzo has received so many accolades from the previous 378 Amazon U.S. reviewers that I doubt I can add much in the way of substantive praise. The book, for me, was simply one of the most gripping and comprehensive accounts of a Civil War engagement that I've read. (One other of particular note is Champion Hill.) After reading the narrative, I want to travel across the width of the country and visit the battlefield for a second time with the new realization that this three-day collision of armies was a close-run thing for both sides; the Army of the Potomac could easily have lost and the Army of Northern Virginia could just as likely have won.

Since I'm not inclined to hero worship, I'll not join the ranks of those relatively few detractors of the book who think Major General George Meade was given a bad rap by the author.

I was particularly impressed by the chapter entitled "I Have Never Been in A Hotter Place" in which the author describes what the Civil War soldier experienced on the battlefield on a personal level.

GETTYSBURG isn't a perfect work. I wish it had contained an Order of Battle for the two armies inasmuch as the maneuvering on the field is described from corps down through division, brigade and regimental levels. Also, the maps are not always clearly illustrative of what is described in the text. (For the best battlefield mapping ever, see yet again Champion Hill.)

Finally, the photo section was as adequate as most. I was puzzled, however, by the absence of any image of Major General George Pickett.

GETTYSBURG is a lengthy volume in small print that took me several weeks to read. It was worth every minute of time spent.
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on 4 November 2013
A Civil War history very much in the style of Shelby Foote which, for me, is the highest of praise. Guelzo delivers an evocative re-telling of the undoubted turning point of the Civil War in a manner that manages to be both languid in pace and even in coverage. While I don't believe there are any ground breaking ideas here and I may not completely agree with the assessment of all his subjects, (Longstreet in particular comes in for a rough time!) he clearly identifies the majority of his sources to support his conclusions.

In short I don't think any Civil War library is complete without it.
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on 26 August 2014
Forty books read on Gettysburg and I thought that all had been pretty much said, but Allen Guelzo still found new and interesting material. Cited by "The Civil War Monitor" as one of the ten best Civil War books of 2013, it's worth taking a look at whether it is your first book, or your 41st, covering these three days in July 1863.
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on 22 February 2016
Tough reading as a fan of the Queen's version of English rather than that employed by our American friends. Would recommend it on balance as I was looking for an easy intro to this time
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