Avoiding the Battle of Gettysburg this summer has become all but impossible.
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.
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.
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.”
How many of us, no matter how many times we’ve watched “Glory” or Ken Burns’s 1990 PBS documentary, knew that the United States frowned on the notion of cavalry? The reluctance stemmed from the expense of horses and the three-year duration required to train riders. [This review originally misstated the amount of food required to feed a horse during the Crimean War.]
Practical problems extended to communications, too. For starters, the sheer noise of battle was deafening. Cannon and gunfire was “absolutely impenetrable by the voice to any distance,” Guelzo writes. Changing tactics and moving troops took a long time for obvious reasons: Couriers needed as much as an hour to carry orders across the battlefield.
Other interesting notes Guelzo relates from Gettysburg: The battle caused just one civilian death and no black troops fought there. Most of the free blacks left town to avoid being caught by the Confederates and sent South as slaves.
What the armies suffered still astonishes 150 years later. Guelzo details severed limbs, mauled faces, and all other manner of maiming, injury and death. On July 1, the first day of battle, the 26th North Carolina “lost 549 out of the 843 men it had lined up that afternoon; its regimental flag went through thirteen sets of hands.”
“Gettysburg” bores in on small episodes like the one above without neglecting the major issues, from the actions of Dan Sickles, the Union’s loose-cannon general who may or may not have forced Meade to fight on July 2, to the impact of J.E.B. Stuart’s disappearing act leaving Lee without a cavalry screen for his maneuvers. Guelzo even pricks the sacred balloon of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain defending the Union position on Little Round Top, arguing Chamberlain received an exaggerated amount of credit, bolstered by self-promotion.
And, of course, there is Pickett’s infantry charge on the aptly named Cemetery Ridge, the disastrous attack on July 3 by the Confederates. Here, Guelzo lets no one off easy. He defends Lee’s right-hand man, James Longstreet, for carrying out the orders from Lee — an issue of contention afterwards as Lee’s defenders shifted blame to Longstreet for the attack’s failure. Guelzo also asserts there is no guarantee that Longstreet’s preference for an extended flanking movement would have worked, either.
He dismisses Pickett as “indolent” and notes he finished last in his class at West Point. Still, Pickett’s bitterness becomes easier to understand when the carnage is examined. Pickett had about 13,000 men, including borrowed reinforcements. This for an attack Longstreet said would require 30,000 men. The Union held back its artillery fire, then hammered Pickett when the charge neared.
A Virginia soldier recalled severed heads, arms and legs flying “like feathers before the wind.” A Florida lieutenant saw “men falling all around me with brains blown out, arms off, and wounded in every direction.” Pickett lost somewhere between 2,600 and 3,400 men, according to various accounts.
Lee initially accepted full blame and told Pickett after his retreat that “you and your men have covered yourselves with glory.”
Pickett responded, “Not all the glory in the world, General Lee, can atone for the widows and orphans this day has made.”