Guelzo, known for his biographies and expertise on Lincoln, proves to be an effective military tour guide, even for those of us prone to confuse companies with corps. Whenever military maneuvers become exhausting, Guelzo shifts gears and weaves in personal details and anecdotes to keep his history human.
Civil War buff and newcomer alike will find plenty to keep them interested. Guelzo digs into the rivalries among officers within the two armies, plucks choice diary entries from otherwise anonymous soldiers and illustrates the suffering of all involved.
Lee took his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania in June 1863. At the time, the South still held out hope of a negotiated settlement with the North, buoyed by the glory of Lee and Stonewall Jackson defeating Union commander Joseph Hooker and his larger army at Chancellorsville earlier in the spring. But, Lee believed the North would only recognize Southern independence if the war moved into Union territory and demoralized the public and troops alike, forcing Lincoln and Congress to end the fighting.
The Army of the Potomac under Meade numbered 95,000; Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia totaled 80,000, plus 10,000 to 30,000 slaves.
Both armies underwent significant changes between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Stonewall Jackson died of pneumonia after losing an arm to friendly fire at Chancellorsville and Lincoln replaced Hooker with Meade three days before the Battle of Gettysburg began.
Guelzo explains the Confederacy’s successes during the first two days of fighting as well as the missed chances to fully defeat the Union’s Army of the Potomac. His conclusions balance conventional wisdom with unbiased clarification and analysis. Thus he writes of Lee’s shortcomings while noting the lack of spontaneous decision-making among his subordinates. To cite one of many examples, Guelzo deems Lee’s battle-plan phrase “if practicable” a “maddening” example of vague orders.