Books

Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo

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 The high casualty rolls were not the result of outdated tactics facing modern weapons, but the result of inexperienced, amateur soldiers and officers.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.

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Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage by Noah Andre Trudeau

The Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, is the most well-researched battle of the American Civil War. In the 1990s, Noah Andre Trudeau began synthesizing decades of research to produce the first comprehensive book on that battle since The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command (1968). Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (2002) is the result of his effort. It is a sweeping narrative of that three day struggle, which resulted in approximately 48,000 American casualties.

Although Trudeau summarizes the entire campaign from beginning to end, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage is primarily about the battle. It is also not strictly a military history. Like his book The Last Citadel: Petersburg, the author weaves the civilian experience, including townsfolk and journalists, into his narrative. It strikes just the right balance between anecdote and explanation, and never gets bogged down in minutiae.

The book is organized chronologically, which is helpful for keeping track of events across such a large battlefield. Unfortunately, it isn’t consistent. Events on July 3 are broken down practically hour by hour, whereas the entire attack on July 2 is given one section, from 4:10 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. I understand it’s difficult to determine when events occurred with one hundred percent accuracy, but breaking up that six hour period into smaller bits would have been helpful.

Trudeau is unique in arguing Richard S. Ewell, not Henry Heth, was responsible for initiating the Battle of Gettysburg. By mid-afternoon on July 2, Heth had withdrawn his division out of enemy contact in conformity with General Lee’s order. It was Ewell who decided to “come to Heth’s rescue” and bring on a general engagement. I see the merits of this unconventional argument. Trudeau continues to focus on Ewell’s actions, and the bizarre sideshow around Culp’s Hill, an often neglected aspect of the battle.

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Gettysburg: The Second Day by Harry W. Pfanz

In Gettysburg: The Second Day (1987), Harry W. Pfanz charts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg’s second day, July 2, 1863. July 2 was the Confederacy’s last, best hope for winning a decisive victory on Northern soil. Like the previous day, it started badly for the Union Army of the Potomac, yet ubiquitous action by generals George G. Meade and Winfield Scott Hancock staved off disaster and won what became the most famous Union victory of the American Civil War.

This book is far superior to Pfanz’s later works on Gettysburg, but it only focuses on the action on the Union left flank and not on Culp’s Hill or Cemetery Hill. That received its own book-length treatment. The omission was a relief to this reader, since its grueling 624-page length already pushed the limits of my attention span.

As a micro history, Gettysburg: The Second Day almost entirely focuses on the tactical, rather than strategic, aspects of the battle. It would be unfair to say the author never engages in higher level thinking about the events, but he devotes the lion’s share of text to describing what happened and not how or why.

The maps were helpful because in addition to giving readers a visual representation of the verbosely detailed text, they featured a chronological summary of events. That helped put everything into context.

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Gettysburg: The First Day by Harry W. Pfanz

In Gettysburg: The First Day (2001), Harry W. Pfanz charts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg’s first day, July 1, 1863. July 1 went badly for the Union Army of the Potomac, yet quick thinking by generals like Winfield Scott Hancock staved off disaster and set the stage for what would become the most famous Union victory of the American Civil War.

While the author’s strategic overview falls flat, Pfanz shines in his detailed tactical descriptions of the engagements in McPherson Woods, at the Railroad Cuts, Oak Ridge, Seminary Ridge, Blocher’s Knoll, and the subsequent Union retreat through Gettysburg and rally on Cemetery Hill.

Gettysburg: The First Day is not a linear history. Though it is roughly arranged chronologically, the narrative jumps back and forth from events leading up to the battle to the battle itself. As Union and Confederate units appear on the field, Pfanz pauses to reflect on how each unit arrived, sometimes across the span of several days. In such a long narrative, this has a tendency to cause the reader to lose track of how events tie together.

Pfanz’s attempt to describe the armies’ approach to Gettysburg is particularly sloppy. The writing is so awful I briefly wondered if the book was self-published. The author lacks the strategic depth and understanding of Stephen W. Sears, and for a masterful retelling of the entire campaign, read Sears’ Gettysburg (2004). Pfanz focuses almost exclusively on what occurred, not why.

The author’s grasp of history shines through at the tactical level. When Pfanz describes the gritty events of July 1, 1863 in all their gruesome detail, he brings to life the men who fought that day, from the lowliest private to commanding generals. While most authors focus on the exploits of commissioned officers, Pfanz’s narrative includes enlisted men and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). NCOs form the backbone of the U.S. Army and many of the best officers, both North and South, began their careers as enlisted men.

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The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern

the-battles-for-spotsylvania-court-house-and-the-road-to-yellow-tavern-may-7-12-1864-by-gordon-c-rheaIn The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the maneuvers and battles from May 7, 1864, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant broke convention and flanked Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of the Wilderness, through May 12, when his attempt to break Lee’s entrenched army by frontal assault reached a chilling climax at what is now called the Bloody Angle.

Drawing on previously untapped materials, Rhea challenges conventional wisdom to construct a detailed and thorough account of Grant and Lee at Spotsylvania, including the rise of Union cavalry commander Philip Sheridan and death of the legendary J.E.B. Stuart. This is the second of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.

In the aftermath of the Wilderness, General Grant learned from his mistakes, but familiar problems still shadowed his army. At Spotsylvania, Ambrose Burnside continued to conduct the IX Corps at a glacial pace. His failings “… were so flagrant that the army talked about them openly.” While Sheridan’s ride south in pursuit of J.E.B. Stewart earned him fame and resulted in Stewart’s death, it also deprived Grant of the eyes and ears of his army at a critical time. The result was eight days of brutal combat, with little to show for it. Once again, Grant’s divided command was a hindrance.

The Battle of Spotsylvania showed Grant’s stubborn determination and persistence, but Rhea puts the blame squarely on Grant for his failure to decisively defeat Lee. Grant’s impulsiveness and impatience undermined what was otherwise a sound strategy. He imposed unrealistic timetables and gave little time for preparation, so plans that looked good on paper failed miserably in execution. As the battle progressed, Grant took an increasingly active role and sidelined Maj. Gen. Meade. Meade was unable or unwilling to temper Grant’s more aggressive tendencies.

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The Battle of the Wilderness by Gordon C. Rhea

the-battle-of-the-wilderness-may-5-6-1864-by-gordon-c-rheaIn The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the first meeting between Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the darkened, tangled forest west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, which ended with high casualties on both sides but no clear victor.

Rhea clarifies and explains a battle that even its participants found confusing and hard to comprehend. With its balanced analysis of events and people, command structures and strategies, The Battle of the Wilderness is a thorough and meticulous military history. This is the first of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.

Prior to 1864, the Eastern Theater had mostly been a war of maneuver. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia jockeyed back and forth with the Union Army of the Potomac with little to show for it. In April 1864, both armies sat facing one another across the Rapidan River, almost exactly where they had been one year earlier.

General Ulysses S. Grant was determined to change that, and the Battle of the Wilderness proved it. This chaotic struggle touched off the Overland Campaign, a brutal grind toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Rather than retreat to lick its wounds, as Army of the Potomac usually did after a major battle, Grant ordered it around Lee’s flank to the southeast. Finally, President Abraham Lincoln found a General who was not afraid of Robert E. Lee.

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Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears

In Gettysburg, Stephen W. Sears 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, nothing was gained except these men added to the casualties rolls.

No two armies could have been more similar and yet more different than the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia. For the first time, the two armies neared manpower parity. While Lee’s army was supremely confident, even contemptuous of its opponents, George G. Meade’s army had no illusions about the coming fight. Its men were eager to prove they could win a victory.

Where Lee’s command was rife with disagreement, miscommunication, apathy, and poor decision making, with some exceptions the leadership of the Army of the Potomac had its finest hour. Sears convincingly demonstrates that the Union army’s leadership simply out classed their counterparts, at least on this battlefield.

Much has been made over the years of Confederate cavalry commander Maj. General J.E.B. Stuart’s absence during the critical days leading up to the battle. Sears in some ways exonerates Stuart. Stuart was following Lee’s orders when he rode around the Union army, capturing supplies and disrupting communications.

“The very concept of Stuart’s expedition was fueled by overconfidence and misjudgment at the highest command level,” he argued. While frustrated with Stuart’s absence, Lee made no effort to rectify the situation until after the battle was underway.

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