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Voices from Gettysburg by Allen C Guelzo

Review by Bryan W Gladstone BA, MSc, PGCE

Yes, we really need another book on Gettysburg!

Just when you think that surely, nothing new can be written about the battle, Allen C Guelzo has surprised with an original approach to Gettysburg. In Voices from Gettysburg, he offers minimal explanatory and analytical links to a collection of reminiscences, official records and letters laid out chronologically to tell the story of the battle with as little direct involvement of the historian’s voice as he can manage.   It is an approach that works a treat for armchair Civil War historians, particularly if they have visited or are planning to visit the actual battlefield. The complex opening charges and counter charges of July 1st have rarely emerged with more clarity on a written page. More than that, Voices from Gettysburg goes some way towards demonstrating Guelzo’s premise that Gettysburg really was, “the Waterloo of the Rebellion.”

It’s an entertaining approach. He mixes familiar and wholly new (to me at least) sources to tell the battle’s story as perceived by the participants and observers. Of course, many witnesses’ statements from Gettysburg have been challenged, immediately by contemporaries, since by historians or both, but Guelzo does no more than acknowledge the bias and possible inaccuracies in his introductions to chapters.

Guelzo’s aim is not to judge their recollections, but to drive forward the narrative story of Gettysburg in the words of actual participants and to use their own words rather than his analysis to bring out wider historical points. In his introduction he sets out two specific objectives: [to]… allow you

·       to walk from point to point on the battlefield with their words in your hands…

·       to read great narratives of the battle with substantial texts of the participants beside you to accompany those narratives.

What better for the amateur Civil War historian? Importantly, though, he goes further than his stated objectives to illustrate how, almost as soon as soon as the battle ended, people were wrestling with the wider meaning of the battle and of the war, itself.

The approach works particularly well in the opening chapter setting the stage. The discussion by contemporaries of the personalities and leadership qualities, of the commanding generals vividly bring Meade, Lee and Longstreet to life particularly well. The panic and outrage of the civilian population across Pennsylvania is vividly brought to life too.

Where Guelzo is only partially successful is in the battle chapters, which are set out in days. There are simply too many sub-narratives happening across the battlefield to make his approach straightforward. For example, ‘The First Day’ starts with Heth’s letter to General Hill about going to Gettysburg in the morning to get the shoes and brings to life the progressively growing battle before finishing with Isaac Trimble’s gloomy speculations on the Confederate failure to exploit the vulnerability of the Union position that evening across Culps’ and Cemetery Hills. Guelzo’s selections vividly bring to life the moments of desperate fighting but is less successful at making them read as a chain of events that led from Heth’s initial contact with Buford’s cavalry to Trimble’s recognition that an opportunity had been lost.

Guelzo generously and rightly credits Hal Jesperson’s excellent maps, which illustrate each chapter. They provide the framework by which the reader can locate the recollections in time and place. But one could wish there were more of them to frame the narrative and support the granularity of the battlefield recollections. Lee believed in the first flush of defeat that he had been let down by his generals, and the extent to which the Confederates felt the absence of Stonewall Jackson is a recurrent theme in the included contemporary accounts and post-war recollections, but it is not clear from the Voices from Gettysburg exactly how Jackson might have turned Confederate defeat into victory.  In general, it would have been easier to follow the combined effects of compact Union interior lines and uncoordinated Confederate attacks on the outcome of the battle with more illustrative diagrams, and, so, to better appreciate Lee’s perspective.

For all that, Voices from Gettysburg is an excellent addition to the Gettysburg canon. It brings home how desperately unsure the outlook seemed to both sides on the eve of Gettysburg, and the mixture of hope and doubt with which they viewed the commanding generals and their armies. Previously, Lincoln’s harsh judgment of Meade’s performance at Gettysburg struck me as almost churlish, but this account reminds one that contemporary observers and participants did not have the luxury of the modern historian’s wider perspective. The political impact of the pervasive McClellan-defined culture on the Army of the Potomac comes to life in the selected letters and memoirs.  The gloom with which Secretary for the Navy Gideon Welles reported Lincoln’s words on 14th July, the Army of Northern Virginia’s escape across the Potomac is a salutary reminder that Lincoln and his Cabinet were anything but sanguine following Gettysburg,

 “And that, my God, is the last of this Army of the Potomac! There is bad faith somewhere. Meade has been pressed and urged, but only one of his generals was for an immediate attack, was ready to pounce on Lee; the rest held back. What does it mean, Mr Welles? Great God! What does it mean?

What I particularly like is the final chapter on how the battle is remembered. Guelzo’s selection of long-neglected speeches at the dedication of monuments, which concludes with Lyndon Johnson’s speech on the battle’s centenary in 1963, is crucial in elevating this book.  Too often, collected first-hand accounts and recollections can read like a set of adventures, because they lack a philosophical perspective. After all, the contributors were describing what they were doing, not reflecting on the deeper meaning of their participation in the Civil War.

The fierce debate over how the Battle of Gettysburg and the War itself should be remembered runs through Voices from Gettysburg and invites further exploration. Guelzo does a real service to historians by showing our politically conflicted current generation how long and deep runs American uncertainty over the meaning of the Civil War.  Gettysburg veteran, Thomas Merchant could have been speaking today when he warned listeners at Gettysburg in 1889 that:

No monument to treason should have been permitted a place on this or other field, and being there should be returned to the donors, not to be erected elsewhere.

No government is strong enough to glorify treason against itself, nor to encourage it anywhere…

There can be no true call for a union of the blue and the grey. Let all don the blue.”

Allen Guelzo has accomplished the difficult feat of finding a new and original way to introduce Gettysburg to new Civil War historians while still having something to offer to old hands. His premise that Gettysburg was “the Waterloo of the Rebellion” is hardly controversial, but Voices from Gettysburg makes the case in an original way that elevates the discussion. It is a welcome addition to my Civil War bookcase(s!).

5 June 2024


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