“Decisive enough.” That is my takeaway from Allen C. Guelzo’s 2013 book, which I consumed as an audiobook read by Robertson Dean, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. It wasn’t so much that George Gordon Mead and the Union “won” the battle, but that Robert E. Lee and the Confederates lost it. In that way, it’s also a play on Lee’s own motivation, whereby he sought a decisive victory, or at least something to so smother the morale of the North that the politicians, particularly the agitating Democrats, would pressure Lincoln to come to the negotiating table. And it is hard to classify the Battle of Gettysburg as a major turning point in the Civil War, per se, when the Civil War would continue its bloody fighting for another 646 days, or just under two years. Still, as I think Guelzo painstakingly explains in comprehensive nuance and context, it was “decisive enough.”
My perpetual takeaway from any book about war, and the Civil War is no different, is that nobody ever expects war to be as long as it ends up being or as costly, both in blood and treasure. It is not that wars are an inevitability; it is that wars manifest delusional men. Now, once the war is underway, the reason Guelzo goes with “decisive enough” is also because wars, like many human affairs, often turn on intangibles hard to pin down, such as “morale” and “momentum.” It is in those two areas in which Guelzo believes the Union struck a “decisive enough” blow against the Confederates. Plus, as the subheading of the book alludes to, it also was the last time Lee would try to invade the North, and by the understanding of the Confederates, they couldn’t win the War without a successful invasion of the North. Granted, as Guelzo also points out, it is interesting to consider what would have happened had former General George McClellan — a General Lincoln relieved of power amid the Civil War in 1862, and McClellan, along with others within the Union, were Democrats and more pliable on the emancipation question — won the presidency in the 1864 presidential election instead of Lincoln. Even though Lincoln won easily, it is interesting to consider if he would have won easily if Gettysburg had gone a different way. Then, the Democrats would have been in power and do they negotiate with Lee, Jefferson Davis and the Confederates? It seems feasible, Guelzo argues.
American wars also seem to follow a similar pattern: Unpreparedness giving way to an underdog comeback of sorts. In the case of the Civil War, in the decade or so leading up to it, former newspaper editor and representative, Horace Greeley, thought it indefensible to have a standing army. The very idea of it was incompatible with American democracy. In fact, Guelzo said the United States federal government spent more money on federal judges than federal armories and arsenals at the time. Both the lack of a standing army and judges usurping the army in monetary allocation is inconceivable in our modern era. Another pattern is that when war occurs, American wars are often fought by the seemingly unlikeliest of individuals: Immigrants, and they do so espousing the highest ideals of American freedom and democracy. In reality, the throughline makes perfect sense; immigrants are motivated to come here for precisely what we offer as a country and thus, they tend to understand its value and the need to safeguard it better than native citizens.
Trying to convey the Battle of Gettysburg, especially through an audiobook, is a monumental task. Admittedly, I was lost at times trying to picture where the battalions were, like chess pieces on a bloody board — and perhaps reading the book would have elucidated Guelzo’s tale better — but what did come across plainly was the feel of the Battle of Gettysburg. The descriptions of what the Minié ball fired from the rifles were doing to the men on the battlefield was intense, tearing off their jaws and limbs, or the shrapnel lodged in men’s groins, or how woefully, tragically unprepared the medical system was to handle the influx of causalities, much less the medical knowledge of the time being inadequate. The feel of the atmosphere described was intense, with black gunpowder smoke covering up the battlefield and concealing troop movements, which both had the positive effect of concealment, but in terms of your own side, it could be dizzying and dangerous. And I could hear the men groaning and screaming in agony with their open, festering wounds, and the amputations … the level of amputations occurring is hard to fathom. Speaking of hearing, don’t forget that we are talking about thousands of shells being fired at close enough range, so much so that one man is described as bleeding out of both ears from the noise. Finally, there is the issue of the corpses left to rot and bloat in the July Gettysburg heat. As one can imagine, that created a putrid smell that carried with the wind, to where the residents were forced to use what they could to counterbalance the smell. I also appreciated the other side of it Guelzo mentions, the dark gallows humor the soldiers necessarily used to keep a hold on their sanity during the fighting, like the use of profanity, or a more sweet example, touching elbows to know their brothers in arms were still next to them.
Less viscerally, but still interesting, Guelzo also paints a picture of just how difficult it was to move thousands of troops in the mid-1800s. It wasn’t easy! For example, when they created an encampment, battalions would have to ensure they had 12 miles around the encampment to forage for wood and water. Or how time-consuming and difficult it was to use the cavalry because of the time it would take to not only train people on horses, but due to the expense (and the horse could die for reasons unrelated to actually being shot). One of the most vexing problems, however, was the information flow or lack thereof. Guelzo does contradict the idea that the armies of Lee and Mead stumbled into each other and Gettysburg was more or less a happenstance battle. But still, it was difficult to know troop movements and communicate effectively.
What I am about to say might seem obvious to some, hopefully many, but given the revisionism for decades up to, and including the modern era, around the Civil War, you can’t be so sure: The Confederates seceded from the Union in order to “safeguard” a slave empire. They enshrined their newly formed government on the basis of maintaining the institution of chattel slavery. It wasn’t about self-government, self-determination, state’s rights, or the federal government usurping the will of the states. Slavery. That was the stated goal. What is rather fortunate about the Civil War is that we have myriad primary documents that make that clear. As such, my contempt for the Confederacy is boundless. That said, I still learned new things about their evilness and depravity while listening to this book. For example, when the Northern Virginia Confederates invaded Chambersburg, they started kidnapping freed blacks — blacks who had been free for generations, mind you — and fugitive slaves, and returning them to the South. Guelzo notes that we still don’t know what became of them.
Fortunately for us, the Confederates were not just evil, but stupid. They thought they won the Battle of Gettysburg initially, and instead of pushing the matter to take Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, they rested for the night. Which, to be charitable, Guelzo explains how they had been on the march for nearly the entire day. However, it wasn’t merely a matter of exertion, but of philosophy. In one of the few mentions of Ulysses S. Grant, Guelzo explains how Grant was progressive in the innovating and adaptability sense, whereas Lee was conservative, sticking to what worked before. The latter mentality wouldn’t serve him well to finish the job in Gettysburg.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg is its direct aftermath: Lincoln and others within the army accosting Mead for not going after Lee as the Confederates retreated back across the Potomac. I can’t remember if it was Mead or not, but someone suggested to Lincoln that the Union was driving the Confederates “from our soil,” and Lincoln smartly retorted, “The whole country is our soil!” Plus, of course, one can’t speak of Gettysburg without referencing Lincoln and his address; I get fired up every time I hear Lincoln’s Gettysburg address at the dedication to the cemetery created for the fallen soldiers, especially at a time when we are discussing the fate of our own democracy now. (An aside, but I love the contrast that the then-famed orator, Edward Everett, spoke before Lincoln for nearly two and a half hours and Lincoln spoke after him for barely two and a half minutes. Who is more remembered? Guelzo explains in a great post-book author interview that Lincoln’s speech is obviously more remembered because he gave a summation of what the war meant in a few sentences and used metaphor to make you feel something, along with giving a directive to the audience listening, whereas Everett’s speech was technically impressive, but filled the listener with facts.)
Lincoln saw the Battle of Gettysburg, in Guelzo’s explaining, as affirming that men under democracy, contrary to what the elites of their time in Europe thought, could believe in something bigger than themselves. That men didn’t need to be born of the “crown or the saddle.” That monarchy wasn’t the natural, necessary organization of men. And those who died on the very battlefield where Lincoln spoke his words were a testament to that and were communicating that to the living, thus, “we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain.”
And, “That the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That is the fundamental understanding one ought to have about the wider context of the Civil War and its resulting Emancipation Proclamation, keeping the Union together, and the Reconstruction Amendments: It all represents a second founding. Lincoln recognized the poetry of it in July of 1863 that the Battle of Gettysburg came only 87 years after the Declaration of Independence, but it is more than poetry, it is a call-to-action. That this thing we hold so dear we hold dear because of how fragile it actually is.
Lincoln believed that democracy made us stronger and fortified our efforts to ensure there would not be any backsliding of democracy on their watch. So it was, and so it was the Confederates were losers. It was decisive enough.