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Gettysburg: The Last Invasion

On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln scholar Allen C. Guelzo offers a detailed account of the battle, with a focus on the human side of the history.

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Both armies underwent significant changes between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Stonewall Jackson died of pneumonia after losing an arm to friendly fire at Chancellorsville and Lincoln replaced Hooker with Meade three days before the Battle of Gettysburg began.

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Guelzo explains the Confederacy’s successes during the first two days of fighting as well as the missed chances to fully defeat the Union’s Army of the Potomac. His conclusions balance conventional wisdom with unbiased clarification and analysis. Thus he writes of Lee’s shortcomings while noting the lack of spontaneous decision-making among his subordinates. To cite one of many examples, Guelzo deems Lee’s battle-plan phrase “if practicable” a “maddening” example of vague orders.

And, Guelzo asserts, Gettysburg showed Lee and his generals guilty of “advantages not pressed, initiative not taken, and passivity and uncertainty in charge.”

Meade and the Union had plenty of troubles of their own. Many of the soldiers missed George McClellan, the dashing but feckless Northern general who exhausted Lincoln’s patience by refusing to attack Lee despite ample advantages — and chances. Meade, days after the victory at Gettysburg, came in for the ultimate scorn from the president by failing to pursue Lee’s battered troops.

“This is a dreadful reminiscence of McClellan,” Lincoln said.

He fired McClellan in November 1862, a time when Union deserters averaged 200 per day, according to one estimate cited by Guelzo. McClellan opposed the abolition of slavery and ran against Lincoln in 1864.

“Gettysburg” dismisses the antiquated notion that the North was unified in opposing slavery. Guelzo writes of officers who believed the war had become what a Wisconsin captain described as “a war for the nigger.” Draft riots exacerbated the tension. “All is dark and gloomy,” said one Pennsylvania soldier.

Slavery and anti-slavery factions divided the Northern army at the top of the chain of command and within the ranks. McClellan and Democrats worried Lincoln and the Republicans were spying on them; Republicans warned of “pro-slavery cliques controlling” the Union army.

Elsewhere, Guelzo provides instructive insight on the juxtaposition of debilitating battle injuries and the glaring inefficiencies of Civil War-era weapons.

Rifles belched smoke from the black gunpowder, leaving soldiers all but blinded as they tried to target the enemy. The rifles offered poor and unreliable accuracy. And, Guelzo notes, the lack of precision left soldiers routinely firing hundreds of shots without hitting an enemy soldier. Ramming the ammunition into the rifle to re-load chipped the barrel and further reduced accuracy.

In a typically lucid passage, Guelzo explains the butchery of the war in plain-spoken fashion:

“What ran up the Civil War’s enormous casualty lists was not expert marksmanship or highly refined weapons, but the inability of poorly trained officers to get their poorly trained volunteers to charge forward and send the enemy flying before the bayonet, instead of standing up and blazing away for an hour or two in close-range firefights where the sheer volume of lead in the air killed enough people to be noticed.”

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