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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 The high casualty rolls were not the result of outdated tactics facing modern weapons, but the result of inexperienced, amateur soldiers and officers.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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Gettysburg 2017: Pickett’s Charge

In this installment of my video blog documenting my recent trip to Gettysburg National Military Park, I explore the main Confederate attack on July 3, 1863: Pickett’s Charge. Longstreet’s attack on the Union center at Gettysburg is stuff of legend, but even at the time most observers knew it wouldn’t succeed, including Longstreet himself. Years later, when asked why the attack failed, George Pickett replied, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Gettysburg 2017: The Town

In this installment of my video blog documenting my recent trip to Gettysburg National Military Park, I explore the Borough of Gettysburg. While Gettysburg is noted for its history, and I certainly spent a lot of time on the battlefield, it’s also an interesting destination itself. Shops selling antiques and memorabilia line the streets, and of course there are several historical and haunted tours. I can’t imagine a more picturesque town, keep alive by over one million visitors to the battlefield each year.

High Tide at the Angle

Gettysburg National Military Park, 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 17325. (717) 334-1124.

Gettysburg 2017: Little Round Top and Sickle’s Salient

In this installment of my video blog documenting my recent trip to Gettysburg National Military Park, I explore key sites of the fight on July 2, 1863: Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, and Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet’s attack on the Union left flank at Gettysburg is probably one of the most famous of the war. It was only quick action by Union commanders that saved the day.