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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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Avoiding the Battle of Gettysburg this summer has become all but impossible.

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The next few days will be especially noisy. Re-enactors, historians, and hundreds of thousands of curious Americans will wander through the path of Pickett’s Charge, survey Seminary Ridge, and try to make sense of the landmark battle of the Civil War. They will, in all likelihood, come in even larger numbers than usual, lured by the attention surrounding the 150th anniversary of the three-day battle that left Robert E. Lee’s Confederate soldiers scurrying back to Virginia in defeat and Union soldiers frustrated by George Meade’s refusal to chase Lee and finish him off.

More than 1 million people visit the Gettysburg national military park each year, most of them in the summer. This year, at least 30,000 visitors a day are expected during the 10 days surrounding the anniversary.

Between July 1 and July 3, 1863, the Union and Confederate armies each counted more than 20,000 dead, wounded, or missing men. And, as historian Allen C. Guelzo makes clear in his detailed but accessible account of the battle, tactical mistakes, near-misses, and what-ifs add to the fascination of a campaign fueled, in part, by Lee’s desire to have his men live off the Pennsylvania farm land.

On-the-fly adjustments by Union generals contrasted with the hesitancy and confusion of the Confederates, a point made by Guelzo throughout much of this battle history. He writes: “These self-starting performances became almost routine for Union officers at Gettysburg; by contrast, they are achingly absent from the Army of Northern Virginia. It is possible to say, in that light, that Robert E. Lee lost the battle of Gettysburg much more than George Meade won it.”

Guelzo, known for his biographies and expertise on Lincoln, proves to be an effective military tour guide, even for those of us prone to confuse companies with corps. Whenever military maneuvers become exhausting, Guelzo shifts gears and weaves in personal details and anecdotes to keep his history human.

Civil War buff and newcomer alike will find plenty to keep them interested. Guelzo digs into the rivalries among officers within the two armies, plucks choice diary entries from otherwise anonymous soldiers and illustrates the suffering of all involved.

Lee took his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania in June 1863. At the time, the South still held out hope of a negotiated settlement with the North, buoyed by the glory of Lee and Stonewall Jackson defeating Union commander Joseph Hooker and his larger army at Chancellorsville earlier in the spring. But, Lee believed the North would only recognize Southern independence if the war moved into Union territory and demoralized the public and troops alike, forcing Lincoln and Congress to end the fighting.

The Army of the Potomac under Meade numbered 95,000; Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia totaled 80,000, plus 10,000 to 30,000 slaves.


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