The beginning of the end

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Article Highlights

  • This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

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  • Future of country rested on outcome of Gettysburg, and it could have easily gone the other way.

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  • The American experiment has not been a self-evident truth but a debatable proposition that has to be proved.

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Gettysburg. The word is a looking glass for America, both as a blood-and-soil union and an ideal of liberty but also as an eternal striving to make the one realize the other. Gettysburg, like America, "contains multitudes."

The battle has likewise produced multitudes—multitudes of books that seek to wrestle with the chaotic enormity of the events of July 1-3, 1863. Not even Abraham Lincoln could fix Gettysburg for all time. The 150th anniversary of the battle this summer drives us again to peer into the glass, to reflect anew upon a moment when the American future hung uncertainly in the humid Pennsylvania air, when yet another Confederate victory, especially one on Union soil, might have broken the Lincoln administration's grip on power. And as Allen Guelzo's wonderful "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" reminds us, the battle very easily might have gone another way.

Mr. Guelzo is, quite literally, on home ground; he has taught for decades at Gettysburg College. He has an intimate feel and a deep appreciation for Pennsylvania, which indeed becomes one of the principal characters in the book. The living landscape of the state—the one crafted by generations of Pennsylvanians—would defend itself with righteous tenacity.

One feature in particular took Southerners' notice, and that was the comparative smallness of the landholdings, as defined by the endless interweaving of miles and miles of wooden fences. . . . [They] scarcely reflected upon a larger reason for the miniature checkerboard of Pennsylvania's farmland. The state had mandated the gradual emancipation of its slaves in 1780, which drove downward the size of the farmholdings that could be managed by a single owner or tenant. Lee's soldiers also missed the significance of the multitude of "substantial fences" needed to enclose those small free-soil farms; these fences would play a role of their own in defeating slaveholding's bid for independence on a hot July afternoon.

Mr. Guelzo's interest in the Pennsylvania politics of the time brings a deeper understanding of the invasion. The American union in the summer of 1863 was a brittle thing. Robert E. Lee's decision to attack north, to invade the Union for a second time after September 1862's indecisive Antietam campaign, was a risk beyond any that he had taken in accumulating his string of victories in Virginia from the Seven Days Battles of June 1862 through Second Bull Run (August 1862), Fredericksburg (December 1862) and Chancellorsville (May 1863). After Chancellorsville, Lee determined on a push into Pennsylvania, where his army might feed off the rich farms and where he hoped a display of the Confederate ability to take the war deep into the Union would encourage the antiwar movement in the North.

As the depiction of the anxious reaction of politicians makes clear, Lee was correct in calculating that one more heavy blow might well have broken the North's will to fight. As Lee's vanguard neared Harrisburg, Pa., Gov. Andrew Curtin "seemed to a New York reporter to be 'resigned to the fate that awaits the capital of the glorious old Commonwealth.' " Others feared that Baltimore and even Washington, D.C., would be besieged and overrun.

Mr. Guelzo made his scholarly reputation as a student of the ideological and political temper of the times—in particular the strong beliefs of the president in his "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President" (1999). The Lincoln he depicted there, deeply shaped by Lockean, natural-rights and Whiggish traditions, can be felt lurking in the background in this book. But the centerpiece of "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" is, rightly and naturally, the campaign—that is, the military maneuvering before and after the three-day battle itself. The book is very much a work of military history, a campaign study as thoroughgoing as Edwin B. Coddington's "The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command," the authoritative work since the late 1960s.The American experiment has not been, as the Founders asserted, a "self-evident truth" but in fact a highly debatable proposition that needed to be proved, not just in July 1863 at Gettysburg but on many days and in many places since. -- Thomas Donnelly

Mr. Guelzo is sympathetic to Gen. George Meade, whose lugubrious task it was to take command of the Union army after Lee's invasion and just three days from the opening of the battle. This was a job that no one else wanted, in which every previous commander had failed. Nicknamed the "Old Snapping Turtle" for his short temper, Meade may have been the least overtly political of the Army of the Potomac's generals—which recommended him to Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—but, as Mr. Guelzo shows, he wasn't above cashiering subordinates for their political beliefs and could never quite understand the fuss over chattel slavery.

But, as Mr. Guelzo convincingly demonstrates, it was Gen. John Reynolds who, more than Lee or Meade, was responsible for there being a battle at Gettysburg. By marching his own I Corps and the bulk of the "left wing" of the army northward on July 1, 1863, to the crossroads town and seizing McPherson Ridge, he put down a series of bets that Meade would have to cover and that Lee would have to call. Reynolds had refused the job that Meade was given, yet his actions were, in effect, an order to Meade's army to fight at Gettysburg. (Reynolds did not live beyond the first few hours of the engagement, killed by rifle fire while rallying his troops.)

"Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" also goes a long way toward restoring some perspective to the story of the struggle for Little Round Top and the role of the 20th Maine Regiment at the far left of the Union line. Mr. Guelzo brings the regiment's colonel, Joshua Chamberlain, back down to planet earth from the exalted heights he has occupied since Michael Shaara's 1974 novel, "The Killer Angels." As tens of thousands of visitors discover each year, the 20th Maine site is a tiny and isolated part of a very large battlefield park. It does not, as Mr. Guelzo puts it, subtract from the desperation of the regiment's fight to allow "that the drama of Little Round Top has been allowed to run away from the reality." Porter Farley of the 140th New York Regiment, which fought on the other side of the crest from the Maine men, later complained that "Chamberlain is a professional talker"—in civilian life, he was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College—"and I am told rather imaginative withal." The lesser Houck's Ridge was a more important rise than Little Round Top, and it was the breadth of Cemetery Hill rather than its height that made it such an effective platform for artillery.

As befits a life-long Lincoln scholar, Mr. Guelzo concludes his story of the "last invasion" with an epilogue as elegantly succinct as the president's renowned address. "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us," Lincoln said, to demonstrate "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Allen Guelzo's book is an extremely timely reminder that the American experiment has not been, as the Founders asserted, a "self-evident truth" but in fact a highly debatable proposition that needed to be proved, not just in July 1863 at Gettysburg but on many days and in many places since.

—Mr. Donnelly is co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

A version of this article appeared June 1, 2013, on page C8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Beginning of the End.

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