I will begin by declaring myself to be the second most Civil War history-engaged graduate of my college, now named Cairn University – a small school in the Philadelphia suburbs known more for producing religious leaders, musicians, and social workers than historians. And perhaps there is someone I am unaware of who should rightly rank between myself and the foremost Civil War scholar, but there is no doubt that Allen Guelzo has the top spot by a great distance.
Guelzo is the author of the recently released “Gettysburg: The Final Invasion.” As the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era, and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, he is particularly well-positioned to pen this most recent summary work on the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania.
The book is especially commendable because of its excellent summaries – not only of the complex actions on the three days of the Battle proper, but also of the many varied themes leading up to this critical point of the War. Guelzo maintains a balanced and thoughtful approach throughout, deftly walking through the decades-old controversies, while reasonably and dispassionately rendering best opinions and analyses upon the time and placements of events.
Though our mutual time in college only overlapped one year, and though we have never been connected in any way beyond the most distant acquaintance, I do remember Allen as a colorful college personality – oft on display in the dining room. This too I have observed in lectures in recent years, where his humor and mordant dry wit rise to the surface. The written expression of this trait makes the pages turn more easily and provides something much beyond yet another recitation of the most studied and researched battle of the Civil War. By way of illustration, consider his initial description of my favorite general Abner Doubleday (of whom I’ve researched and written much) as a man “with a large Johnsonian face that sagged like a sinking battleship …” I could be offended and take a defensive posture about my beloved biographical character, or I could simply admit that the statement is hilariously true! But this is actually less demeaning than the description of the Confederate General Richard Ewell, a fellow “with a peculiar pop-eyed look and a bald, domelike head which gave him something of the appearance of a nervous pigeon.” (See picture for the apt description!) I could jocularly point out that Guelzo himself looks like some sort of library-incarcerated professor of Civil War studies at a historic institution of higher learning, but in the rare event that he might actually read this and retaliate with his more creative verbiage, I’ll stop there!
The narrative is especially enlivened by Guelzo through the device of embedding a plethora of actual words of veterans in a majority of all sentences. This is not a rare historical writing modality, though I’ve never seen it so universally deployed, and the result is an energetic authenticity. Portraying the pinnacle moment of Pickett’s Charge, “To James Crocker, in the 9th Virginia, it seemed as though ‘men fell like ten-pins in a ten-strike.’ The thickening banks of powder smoke darkened the air ‘with sulphurous clouds,’ and even the sun, ‘lately so glaring, is itself obscured.’ Garnett’s brigade ‘had to climb three high post-and-rail fences,’ or else crowd through ‘at the openings where the fences had been thrown down,’ temporarily making superb targets for Union cannoneers. In the 53rd Virginia, “every man of Company F’ was ‘thrown flat to the earth by the explosion of a shell from Round Top,’ and the 19th Virginia was struck end-on by shells ‘which enfiladed nearly our entire line with fearful effect …’” (Forgive me for especially liking quotes with “enfilading” in the sentence!)
The abundance of snippets and quotes also adds a continual human element to the drama, lifting the script above being just another detailed manual of battlefield logistics. The same 9th Virginia fellow – James Crocker – returns to the narrative near the end in a description of the Battle’s aftermath. Captured and but slightly wounded in the final charge, he strangely obtained a pass and walked into Gettysburg unattended. As an actual graduate of the Pennsylvania College, he was visiting his old college town and happened upon the son the school’s president Dr. Henry Baugher, amazingly receiving an invitation to dinner. Guelzo writes, “Given that ‘old Dr. Baugher’ had buried another son in the Evergreen Cemetery who died of wounds at Shiloh, the unannounced appearance of an unrepentant Confederate might have made for a highly indigestible meal. But <quoting Crocker> ‘the venerable Doctor saw before him only his old student, recalled only the old days, and their dear memories.’”
Here now with less than four weeks until the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg, I strongly commend Guelzo’s book that provides either a refreshing and vivid view for veteran Civil War enthusiasts, or an accessible, yet detailed study for those delving into this Campaign for a first time. And it is important to understand and honor this history of the preservation of the Union and the emancipation of American slaves, for as Guelzo writes in his Acknowledgements, “neither would be possible without the triumph of the Union armies. And Gettysburg would be the place where the armies of the Union would receive their greatest test, and the Union its last invasion.”