Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Unpacking the new 'Gettysburg'

Later this month I will spend nearly a week in Gettysburg. I’ve been there many times before, but the battlefield is so vast and the battle was so long that there is always something new to see and learn there.

And what better way to prepare for battlefield walks and explorations  than to read Allen C. Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion? I’ve read many books on the subject and especially admire Stephen W. Sears’s 2003 Gettysburg, which I consider the bible of the battle. But Guelzo is such a fine writer and historian that I opened his new book with great expectations. I’m halfway through – far enough along to offer some observations here.

I’ll make four points now and reserve the right to make more later:

1.  Guelzo does a solid job of integrating the experience of African-Americans into his history. Of course, they were part of that history, but they have often been absent from its telling, or nearly so.

I did not know before reading Guelzo that when Robert E. Lee’s army sacked Chambersburg, Pa., as its invasion began, Confederate soldiers took the time to seek out, capture and enslave free black people. The black population of Gettysburg expected no less, and many of them fled before the arrival of the enemy.

Guelzo also does an interesting analysis of the role slaves played in the relative strengths of the contending armies. Confederate regiments had used slaves from the war’s outset to perform menial tasks which, in Union regiments, were assigned to white soldiers. By the estimate of one observer, 20-30 slaves traveled with each rebel regiment. Guelzo figures that contrary to Confederate lore, Meade’s army at Gettysburg may well have had fewer “effectives” (soldiers shouldering arms) than Lee’s.

2. Guelzo's curiosity about the nuts and bolts of Civil War armies pays big dividends. Want to know the role of skirmishers and how they were supposed to space themselves? Want to understand proper technique for cavalry or the specifics of artillery ordnance? Guelzo pauses often in his otherwise brisk narrative to ponder and answer such questions.

3. Guelzo understands and elaborates on the political differences and personal history that caused so many bruised egos (and questionable decisions) during the war and during the battle. Politics played a huge role in the trust, or lack of trust, among general officers, and Guelzo explores the leanings and grudges of all the important ones at Gettysburg.

4. Guelzo takes on the big controversies that surround Gettysburg to this day and offers not only his best judgment but the documentary evidence behind it.

For example, he carefully debunks the postwar claim by Lee worshipers that Gen. James Longstreet was to blame for the defeat at Gettysburg. This claim rests on the assertion that although Lee wanted Longstreet to attack at dawn on July 2, Longstreet dallied, giving Meade’s army time to increase its numbers and shore up its position. Guelzo finds nothing in the contemporary record to substantiate this assertion. While refuting the smirch on Longstreet's reputation, he does not let Longstreet entirely off the hook, calling him out for exaggerating the facts in his own defense after the war.

On this and other controversies, you may buy Guelzo’s argument or not, but if you disagree, you had better bring evidence and not just passion to the debate.

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