The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: Gettysburg - The Last Invasion

Another book on what may be the worlds most covered battle gets the review treatment

Published on 13 AUG 2014 6:45am by Paul Robinson
  1. american civil war, ground combat, north america, background / research material, english

Despite having been privileged to visit the battlefield twice and having enough understanding of the American Civil War to realise the significance of the battle I have to admit to having never read a specific account of this most famous of battles!

However I do not think I could have chosen a better book to end that woeful situation.  This history of the battle by Allen C Guelzo is terrific.  One might ask at this point do we need another account of Gettysburg? It is one of those battles or campaigns, like Waterloo or D-Day, that seemingly have endless amounts of ink and paper dedicated to it.  Indeed as Mr Guelzo mentions in his Acknowledgements at the books beginning the select Bibliography of Richard Sauers’ ”The Gettysburg Campaign” lists “6,193 books, articles, chapters and pamphlets” about this single battle!  Still if they are all of the quality of this book then there is always room for one more!

In the same section of his work the author gives us the reader a timely reminder about the inadequacies of any history of a battle (especially those of the late nineteenth century onwards); no one who took part from private soldier to the commanding generals will have followed all the twists and turns of the battle or understood the key actions during the course of the day.  The account for each individual gets filled in piece by piece afterwards by talking to those who survived.  So any history of battle will always be a version of the truth and not the truth.

The book is not structured in any particularly innovative way; you have the classic introduction of the whys and wherefores and an introduction to the personalities who will figure over the course of the account.  This covers the generals and the soldiers; in the case of the latter explaining how both sides’ armies were configured (and why they were different).  And it is here that we start to see why Mr Guelzo’s account is so readable.  He moves effortlessly between the top of the army and the bottom of the army in describing the experiences of both forces.  And whilst he concentrates on the action as it were he manages to paint short but detailed pen portraits of the key figures whose interventions were key to the battles outcome.  These brief descriptions bring these characters to life rather than them being faceless and flat names on a page.

The book follows a broadly chronological narrative and indeed the battle and preceding campaign lends itself to the step by step, phase by phase approach of the author.  The author also manages to explain the internal politics of the (Union) army of the Potomac and how that affected the deployment of the Union forces on the 2nd day of the battle.  The manoeuvres of the two armies are very clearly explained and we move effortlessly between the army, corps, brigade and battalion level; so we gain a clear understanding of the consequences of the decisions made at different command levels.  The author then gives detailed and nerve jangling accounts of the action at the level of the individual company and battery with frequent vignettes of the battle as felt by the private, sergeant or lieutenant as the Minie bullets of the infantry and the shot and shell of the artillery plunged back and forth across the field.  And the text is peppered with quotes from those who were there; truly there is nothing like discovering the thoughts and feelings of those who were there.

In some ways Gettysburg is a battle that lends itself to the breathless excitement of a top ten fiction page turner.  The Confederates frequently on the cusp of victory and then last minute interventions (more often than not accidental or unplanned by the senior commanders) by the Union troops save the day.  The bravery of both sides and the friction and fog of war causing the best laid plans to go awry serve to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.   All of this is perfect raw material for an author to mine and turn into a classic.  Mr Guelzo does an excellent job in developing this into a thoroughly readable account where the action never seems to end!  He does pause from time to time to mention the impact of the battle and the campaign on civilians and the fate of those African-Americans caught up in the struggle.

The book is supported by a lot of maps.  These are not just a useful addition to the text but a vital part, enabling he reader to follow the twists and turns of the various parts of the battle.  The maps are very clear and set out the positions of individual battalions and batteries within the deployment of Brigades and Corps.  Arrows set out the movement of forces and the terrain that impacted on the combat is clearly shown.

The book ends with a rather melancholic final chapter which covers the famous Gettysburg address; this is less about the famous speech by President Lincoln which is quoted in parts and not in full but more about imagining what was going through the President’s mind when he was developing the speech and what the significance of certain parts were, particularly in the context of the immediate aftermath of the battle, rather than 160 years later.

The book is also supported by two sets of black and white plates showing contemporary artwork and photographs of the commanders, key geographical points of the battle and soldiers of the two sides.  This is the kind of thing that you would normally expect from this kind of book and add flavour to the author’s words.

As is clear I highly recommend this book.  If you haven’t read anything about Gettysburg before this is a great place to start; and I am sure that if you are already fascinated by the battle you will find something to interest you. 

 “Gettysburg” is available now in paperback from Casemate Publishing, normal price £10.99/$16.96 (ISBN 9780307740694).