A stirring account of the “greatest and most violent collision the North American continent [has] ever seen,” just in time for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Though the battle site was not inevitable, the actual battle was: The giant armies of North and South were destined to lumber into one another in a time when, as Guelzo (Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, 2012, etc.) cites a Confederate officer as observing, they “knew no more about the topography of the country than they did about Central Africa.” What is certain is that Robert E. Lee’s arrival in Pennsylvania sent “Yankeedom,” to quote another Confederate officer, “in a great fright.” The Union had reason to be concerned, but, as Guelzo documents, their foe was scattered and divided, with rivalries and miscommunication—and perhaps even insubordination—keeping James Longstreet from attacking, J.E.B. Stuart from arriving on the battlefield in time, and the much-disliked George Pickett from enjoying a better fate than being cannon fodder. And what fodder: If there is a leitmotif in Guelzo’s book, it is the image of brains being distributed on the grass and the shirts of fellow soldiers, of limbs disappearing and soldiers on both sides disintegrating in a scene of “muskets, swords, haversacks, human flesh and bones flying and dangling in the air or bouncing above the earth.” The author ably, even vividly, captures the hell of the battlefield while constantly keeping the larger scope of Gettysburg in the reader’s mind: It was, he argues, the one central struggle over one plank of the Civil War, namely the preservation of the Union, that nearly wholly excluded the other one, the abolition of slavery.
Robust, memorable reading that will appeal to Civil War buffs, professional historians and general readers alike.