Our Town Books Reviews: Gettysburg

Gettysburg: The Last InvasionGettysburg: The Last Invasion
by Allen C. Guelzo
Illustrated. Maps. 632 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.

According to some estimates, more than 32,000 books have been written about the Battle of Gettysburg. Not surprisingly this figure soared in 2013–the 150th anniversary of the battle. With so many to choose from, I wondered why Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion seemed to receive most of the attention.

I found that Guelzo has not only marshaled new information, he has placed nineteenth-century military and political thinking in a wider national and international context. He describes the events that led up to the battle. He explores how history might have changed had Meade’s subordinates been unable to dissuade him from retreating. He breaks new ground regarding weaponry, topography and key personalities.

But don’t expect just a dry accounting.

If you’ve seen “The Ghosts of the Library” presentation at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, you’ll know what I mean when I say gunpowder smoke and the very sights and sounds of battle rise from the pages of this book.

One person who also read Gettysburg (hint: he wears a bow tie and works at a local independent bookstore) said that for him Guelzo’s book evoked a sense of the individual soldier’s experience in battle. “There’s all the chaos and confusion, the sense that you couldn’t tell what you were really shooting at because of the smoke, noise, shouting, and explosions.”

Perhaps it’s the quotes from the diaries and letters of Union and Confederate soldiers that bring this battle so vividly to life. Perhaps it’s that Guelzo is a Civil War and Lincoln scholar who teaches history at Gettysburg College and was once a tour guide at the Gettysburg battlefield. (Certainly, he’s right there where it happened.) Or perhaps it’s simply the cumulative effect of the book’s depth and detail–all 632 pages of it.

However he has accomplished it, one thing is certain: Allen Guelzo has written a book about the Battle of Gettysburg that’s both readable and worth reading.

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