YES, I know I should have finished and reviewed this book before the big 150th Anniversary celebration, but believe me it was well worth the wait.
WHAT did I learn about the battle that I didn't know? Lots, as will anyone who reads this volume, whether a hardy Civil War grognard like myself, or someone who doesn't know Hancock from Armistead, Meade from Longstreet.
First, the politics and personal backbiting, intrigue and feuding among the generals of each army not only makes for magnificent soap opera, they had an actual influence on the battle and its outcome. This was one of the first significant features of Guelzo's viewpoint and argument--that more than at any time in American military history, personal interactions among senior leaders could decide the day of battle....a la Sickles movement of his 3rd Corps on the 2nd day of the battle as part of a long running dispute between himself and George Meade...a move which nearly spelled disaster for the Union forces.
Second, and this was the most fascinating part for me...the most dangerous day for the Union Army was not the third day and Pickett's Charge, but the attack by Longstreet on the Union left flank and center of the second day, beginning with the charge up Little Round Top, the destruction of Sickles' Corps in the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard and the ending of the day with fighting on Cemetery Ridge, which almost won the battle. Guelzo is not a proponent of the "Little Round Top" club and takes great effort and some joy in smashing many of the myths and legends of the battle, including Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. His chapters on the assault on the Union center on the 2nd day almost read like something out of a Clancy novel-19th century style, and it is clearly Providential that Union commanders and units turn up on the battlefield when they did. The charge of the 1st Minnesota is a tale that should be told more often...bravery almost to the level of the Charge of the Light Brigade, although with more military effectiveness. The fact that only nightfall and the utter confusion of the Confederate forces, combined with the timely arrival of a scant few Union regiments at Cemetery Ridge, makes the tale of the 2nd day of Gettysburg truly an American Alamo, Thermopylae, and Omaha Beach all wrapped into one bloody package.
Finally, Guelzo lays out a pretty convincing case that Lee and Meade and their subordinates, for all the talk of Gettysburg being an accidental battle that nobody wanted (which was for the most part true), acted with complete military logic for their day both in their overall strategy and tactics. Most readers, including myself, have a hard time understanding just how badly the Confederates tore up the Army of the Potomac. But I understand Lee's logic better now. By the end of the second day, 5 of the 7 infantry corps in the Army of the Potomac were essentially hors de combat, unable to do anything but fight a strictly defense fight, and then just barely. Although the Confederates were equally mauled, they had the initiative and still had a very large division, George Pickett's to put into the fight. Lee's plan for the 3rd day was risky, but not as suicidal as it may seem...although James Longstreet would continue to disagree, no doubt. Even Pickett's charge could have turned out differently if only a couple more Confederate brigades had advanced, since there were literally NO more Union regiments to put into the fight unless Meade committed his last strategic reserve, Sedgwick's VI Corps, which he was very reluctant to do, and Guelzo shows how the desperate balance of victory or defeat at the climax of the finding under the "clump of trees" relied on the actions of a few brave men.
A couple of minor nits...Guelzo is clearly not a fan of George Meade, and I think other historians could make a case that Meade's pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg was not the debacle history has painted it. As Guelzo points out, both armies suffered astounding casualties, and not only did Meade have thousands of wounded from both sides to take care of, his cavalry horses were tired, his men were tired, and in many cases his troops needed resupply with ammunition, food, and clothing, including the all important shoes. Could Meade have lunged after Lee? Probably. Would he have been able to destroy Lee's army? Doubtful. Once the opportunity to counterattack immediately after the repulse of Pickett's Charge (which was really Meade's missed opportunity---the chance to send Sedgwick's big corps crashing into Seminary Ridge on the heels of Pickett's wrecked division) the likelihood of actually catching Lee's army with his own tired and fought out troops was unlikely. Once Lee's army got dug in at Williamsport, Maryland, only a continuance of the rainy weather could have trapped Lee's army. HOWEVER, one thing Guelzo does a good job of is using maps. I wasn't sure I would like his cartography, but it kinda grew on me, and ended up being an excellent accompaniment to the text.
This is just some historical discussion and doesn't detract from the overall excellence of this book. Although I still like Stephen Sears volume immensely, I would have to say that Guelzo has done a superb job and taken over the "If you only read one book about Gettysburg" championship.