Book Review - Gettysburg: The Last Invasion
Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo (2013)
I write this on July 3, 2021, the 158th anniversary of the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Today was Pickett's charge. I have read a number of American Civil War (ACW) books and a lot on Gettysburg. So when I see another book about Gettysburg, I wonder to myself how many times can they rehash the battle without it becoming stale and repetitive. There are somewhere upwards of 6,000 books already written about the battle. It is the proverbial beating of a dead horse. Then again, every now and then I come across a book that does provide a fresh look at the battle and this is one of those books.
I won't dwell too much on the traditional book review detail, but I will say that this is a well-written and well-researched book that combines the big picture view of the battle with details of the individuals, both officers and men, involved. I know, a lot of books do this, but somehow, Professor Guelzo pulls it off convincingly. His take on the battle actually made me think, challenged previously held views and got me thinking of various aspects that I hadn't before.
Those are the things I want to cover in this review.
I always held the belief that tactics in the ACW had not caught up with technology. Armies of the ACW used Napoleonic tactics, dictated pretty much by poor command and control (more on that later), but were faced with the new muzzleloading rifles that were accurate out to 600 yards. This led to large numbers of casualties. However, as the book points out, the accuracy of the rifle in the hands of the average ACW soldier was abysmal. Actual accuracy was closer to 200-250 yards, and that came with practice and discipline, both lacking in the ACW armies. When matched with the smoke created on the ACW battlefield accuracy was extremely difficult., It was almost impossible to see the other side until you were right on top of them. The soldier was faced with the other side shooting back and artillery raining down on your unit. The acrid, stinging blast that the firing soldier received every time he pulled the trigger made him close his eyes. Tests conducted before the war showed that average soldiers had difficulty hitting the side of a barn with anything close to sustained accuracy.
According to Professor Guelzo, casualties were the result of artillery and the fact that soldiers stood for relatively long periods of time facing each other and firing away. It was this prolonged exposure, and relatively close range, that resulted in high casualty rates. Many of the clashes at Gettysburg occurred at rangers less than 100 yards. It is this chaos of the battlefield that struck me. Watching movies gives you a sense of clear lanes of fire, but reading this book and the quotes from the men who fought at Gettysburg conveys a different picture. Regiments moved to attack by following the flashes visible through the smoke clouds. Too often, both sides could not see the other side because of the smoke and mistakenly thought reinforcements were arriving when, in fact, it was the enemy.
Training at all levels was severely lacking in ACW armies. There was no basic training at a training camp like we see today. Training was conducted by individual regiments, so it was uneven. It consisted of the manual of arms, i.e. how to hold and move the rifle in various formations, marching, small unit drills, and some basic tactics. Most of the learning was on the job, learned on the battlefield. On top of this, the vast majority of units in the ACW were basically militia, state militias called up by the state government and placed into service of respective national governments, and volunteer units. There were very few professional, long service units in the war. This made for spotty performance during combat, some units doggedly fighting while others broke and ran fairly early in a battle.
With the exception of a core of officers who were in the army at the time the war started, or those who had been in the army but left for civilian life and came back, the officers on both sides also lacked experience and training. Many learned on the job and read books about military training and discipline as they trained and led their troops, literally staying one chapter ahead of the soldiers they led. Those that had prior military experience never commanded armies as large as those they were tasked with leading and never fought in major battles such as Gettysburg, which lasted three days. Some rose to the challenge and excelled, others failed.
That brings us to battlefield communications. This was an age without any electronic communications. The telegraph had just come into widespread military use; it was suitable for communications between Washington headquarters and the Amy of the Potomac. It was not suitable for use between units on the battlefield. Messages and instructions had to be sent by mounted couriers and could take some time to get to the particular units. By the time an army commander wrote and sent instructions off to corps commanders, who then dispatched orders to divisions and the brigade, it could be as long as 45 minutes. At that point, the situation would have changed dramatically and the orders were useless.
Robert E. Lee has been faulted at times for his hands-off method of leadership, drawing up a battle plan and then leaving it to his commanders to execute. But I can understand it. Once combat commenced Lee's ability to alter the battle plan to changing situations was very limited. He needed strong commanders who understood his vision of the battle, could execute the plan and adjust it on their own as necessary. He had found such a commander in Stonewall Jackson, and mourned his loss because such a commander was hard to find. It showed at Gettysburg.
I have always had the impression of numerically outnumbered Confederate armies facing sizable Federal armies. The book points out that the muster rolls of both armies do not provide a complete picture. Union armies included in their numbers many personnel who did not perform a combat role. These numbers included soldiers who managed the logistics train that provided the ammunition and food that kept the armies going, cooks, etc. These jobs were performed by slaves in the Confederate army, so Union armies tended to be smaller than their numbers indicated.
Reading about the second day of the battle, it is clear that the Confederate forces attacking the left wing of the Union army outnumbered their foe. Throughout the book, there are numerous examples of troops falling out of the line of march when it was too hot or they moved too fast. These armies moved on foot and when a crisis erupted, such as at Gettysburg where Union forces were somewhat surprised by the entire Confederate army showing up, they forced march to the location of the crisis. Moving that fast exhausted troops and many dropped out. Before and during the battle, soldiers would drift away to the rear or take wounded to the hospital and not come back to the unit. At times the actual strength on the battlefield was significantly less than on paper. These smaller units would find it hard to hold certain parts of the line if faced with a larger and determined aggressor.
Another factor impacting a unit's ability to withstand combat was whether they had been in battle with the men around them, and the other units in their brigade. As the author points out, soldiers want to know that the men around them will stand with them and not run. They want to know that the men around them will do whatever it takes to save the man next to them. Without that knowledge, without the familiarity with the troops around them, the soldiers will be constantly looking around for any sign that the other units will begin to retreat. That creates uncertainty and leads to unit breaking or retreating early at the first signs of trouble. This was the case with several of the Union regiments who had not served together prior to this battle.
Ok, I have rambled on long enough. On this anniversary of Gettysburg, I highly recommend Professor Guelzo's book. It is informative, thought-provoking, and an entertaining read. A big success. Now I am going to watch the movie Gettysburg and start to point out inaccuracies. Happy 4th of July!