Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Vintage Civil War Library)
Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Vintage Civil War Library)
Allen C. Guelzo
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
632 pp., $35.00

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Collin Hansen

America's Most Consequential Battle

Allen Guelzo's compelling chronicle of Gettysburg.

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Why bother revisiting these debates? More than once I've wondered whether my interest in the Civil War betrays a secret bloodlust. When I played as a child with cut-out soldiers wearing blue and gray, no one bloodied his brow. In real life, news from Gettysburg shattered families north and south of the Mason-Dixon. Consider just the Southern casualties, according to Guelzo's accounting: "Even if one takes the lowest mark, the Army of Northern Virginia suffered something comparable to two sinkings of the Titanic, the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, ten repetitions of the Great Blizzard of 1888, and two Pearl Harbors."

Above all, Guelzo captures the fundamental reason the Civil War continues to demand attention. In his breakthrough exploration of the political machinations and personal rivalries within each army before, during, and after the fighting, he exposes stubborn traits in human nature. Larger-than-life historical figures appear limited, confused, self-absorbed. Immediately after Pickett's Charge, Lee rode up and down the line of haggard survivors and blamed himself for ordering their units' demise. Years later, he and his partisans blamed everyone else, including the men for insufficient determination to carry the colors into enemy lines. Meade, loyal ally of the deposed Gen. George McClellan, understood the political dynamics of military leadership in the snakebit Army of the Potomac. As a result, his unexpected ascent to command prompted crippling self-doubt and concern to make decisions that he could defend, whether or not they actually contributed to ending the war. Scarcely can we comprehend such responsibility for life and death—not only for the men under their command but also for the hopes and dreams of their respective peoples and governments.

Under fire we see the best and worst of ourselves. And no one saw this terrible truth more clearly than Abraham Lincoln. Guelzo's book ends where it must: with the story behind that short and surprising speech by Lincoln to dedicate the new cemetery at Gettysburg. Lincoln saw in the war not only regimental colors and flanking maneuvers but ultimately a test of national character. The battle at Gettysburg called for renewed determination, "that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

But Guelzo, following Lincoln, understands there would be no Union without the success of its arms. And Gettysburg hinged on a host of military decisions big and small, perfectly reasonable and unfathomably irresponsible. Because the flank on Little Round Top held, because the line on Cemetery Ridge wavered but did not break, the "proposition that all men are created equal" increasingly applied over the years to the entire nation, North and South.

History sees the big picture in small events. But history also sees the small picture in big events. Unlike Col. Vincent, Pvt. Salter survived the confrontation on Little Round Top. Bayonet fixed, he advanced with the 4th Alabama toward Vincent's position on the high ground. The attack failed. His war ended that day, two years before the rest of the fighting mercifully concluded. And on that most famous patch of battlefield he left behind a relic only recently rediscovered by his family. Even now, the National Museum of Health and Medicine holds his arm, amputated at Gettysburg by a U.S. Army surgeon after the din of battle ended on the second day.

The young farmer, kin to Lincoln through the president's great-great-grandmother Hannah Salter, had joined up at the beginning of the war. By Gettysburg he had already survived First Manassas, Fredericksburg, and some of the hottest fighting at Antietam. In the end he was saved by his enemies. After returning home, he would see two sons become doctors. One started a hospital in Eufala, Alabama. In turn, one of that doctor's sons would graduate from Harvard Medical School at the end of World War II and become a surgeon in Birmingham. That surgeon would later be joined in practice by his eldest son, who never knew his great-grandfather or his story. But the records of Pvt. Salter's amputation have been rediscovered by his grateful great-great-grandaughter. And I join her, my wife, in giving thanks for this small miracle of survival in the big picture of America's most consequential battle.

Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. He and his wife belong to Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter @collinhansen.

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