The year 1863 was a turning point in the Civil War: the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the sieges of Vicksburg and Chattanooga and the Battle of Gettysburg, where Union forces stopped the Confederate army's last major invasion of the North.
Readers may think publishers would overwhelm the marketplace with related books, but that has not happened. No other Civil War battlefield park is visited as much as Gettysburg, yet this year, the 150th anniversary of the battle, there is only one book that takes up the challenge to comprehensively present it.
"GETTYSBURG: THE LAST INVASION"
By Allen C. Guelzo
"Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" meets the challenge. Written in a style that is friendly for general readers, Allen C. Guelzo's work also meets the standards of scholars.
At Gettysburg College, Mr. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of Civil War Era Studies. He is the author of 11 books on Abraham Lincoln, the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans, the Civil War and the history of Christianity in America.
In "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion," he sets forth the story in a clear and compelling manner. From the conception of the campaign in the minds of Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis through President Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address, Mr. Guelzo looks at the campaign and battle from several interesting perspectives.
Those who are only familiar with Gettysburg because of a school visit to the battlefield park or from seeing the 1993 film "Gettysburg" will be comfortable with Mr. Guelzo's book. It is straightforward and does not require extensive familiarity with the battle. Those who have read Noah Trudeau's 2002 "Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage" or Stephen Sears' 2003 "Gettysburg" will be delighted by the amount of new information and perspectives in Mr. Guelzo's work.
One of the enjoyments of "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" is the attention Mr. Guelzo gives to individual soldiers, commanders and civilians.
Describing the fighting during the morning and afternoon of July 1, for example, Mr. Guelzo writes of a student at Gettysburg College, Martin Colver, who watches an artillery barrage from a third-floor classroom. Suddenly a professor arrives, leading blue-coated signalmen with flags and telescopes upstairs to the building's cupola. The college president, Henry L. Braughern, resigns himself to the fact that students won't pay attention to his lectures, so he dismisses them. Soon, a cannonball strikes the cupola where the signalmen are.
Mr. Guelzo offers new and interesting remarks regarding a variety of unique circumstances that arose during the battle.
He describes the non-combat duties performed by African-Americans in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He estimates the changing fog of war by calculating the time it takes to transmit an order from a division commander to the brigade commander, then to the regimental commander.
To maintain discipline, Confederate troops were forced to watch the execution of five of their fellows who deserted after the army crossed the Potomac River into Maryland.
While being assisted away from the firing line, mortally wounded North Carolina Col. Henry Burgwyn nearly had his pocket watch stolen from his vest by a South Carolina lieutenant helping him off the field.
Overall, the author drives his narrative forward with taut observations of the soldiers. Rebels "fell all over themselves with laughter" when they discovered that Pennsylvanians believed there were secret handshakes and facial expressions that would spare them from mistreatment at the hands of Southern troops.
Gen. George Meade, the federal army commander, remained cordial with corps commander John Reynolds during the Gettysburg campaign "but privately his letters curdle with envy" when Reynolds received a promotion a year earlier in 1862.
"Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" is enjoyable not only for its scholarship but also for its storytelling. "The sun soon came up, a dim blood-red disc behind the clouds on the eastern horizon" is reminiscent of the best writing in Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage."
Suspense is still found in the familiar story of Gettysburg. "So, rather than wait to be hunted by the Yankees ... Lee would go hunting himself for the climactic victory he had always wanted," Mr. Guelzo writes.
"Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" is indeed a remarkable achievement.
Rea Andrew Redd is director of Eberly Library at Waynesburg University, where he also serves as an adjunct instructor in the history department (firstname.lastname@example.org). He is the author of "The Gettysburg Campaign Study Guide, Volume One" (2012). First Published June 30, 2013 4:00 AM