On successive days in early July of 1863, the Union Army won two decisive victories — at Gettysburg on the 3d after three days of bloody fighting, and at Vicksburg on the 4th after a crushing seven weeks’ siege.
They did not end the war, but they should have.
The stage was being set for Gettysburg in late June of 1863, and as the Confederate Army headed north out of Virginia, there was “a skylarking spirit” as the troops waded across the Potomac River and headed toward Pennsylvania.
The Union Army was also headed north, a New York regiment cheering and singing as it crossed a pontoon bridge and marched into Maryland.
These parallel images are typical of the details that enliven “Gettysburg,’’ Allen C. Guelzo’s stirring and masterful account of the battle to which the skylarking, spirited men were unwittingly headed — fought out over three days, July first, second, and third.
We know how it will end, but let’s ignore that, letting the fog of war suspend historical knowledge.
Guelzo directs the Civil War Studies program at Gettysburg College. His account well deserves a prominent place on the shelves of both Civil War buffs and general readers.
It captures the ebb and flow of battle, the tactics and the strategy. But it is also rich in humanizing detail gleaned from vivid battlefield reports and from the postwar accounts of participants on both sides for whom time had not diminished the events of the three days.
This was not the battle that either commander expected. The Confederate Robert E. Lee saw a war-ending sweep toward Washington. And George Meade, who had just been given command of the Union’s Army of the Potomac, had troops digging defensive positions at Pipe Creek, southeast of Gettysburg.
But by noon of July 1, Union troops were reporting they were in “a stand-up fight” on the outskirts of Gettysburg. After some early success, day one went to the Confederates who occupied the town, where soldiers fraternized with friendly locals.
There was uncertainty as to what would happen the next day. “If the enemy is there tomorrow,” Lee told his lieutenants, “we must attack him.” And that battle, said Meade at a late-night gathering of his commanders, has been “forced on us.”
Day two was reckoned a draw, but the Union forces had now secured strong positions on Cemetery Ridge overlooking the Confederate positions south of the town.
On the morning of the third day, a Connecticut regiment held its fire as a lone Confederate was seen advancing toward their lines. He had heard a wounded Yankee “begging in his agonizing thirst for a drink.” Once he had performed that act of mercy, “he sprinted back to his own skirmish line” as his comrades yelled out, “Down, Yanks, we’re going to fire.” And on both sides, Guelzo writes, “the soldiers returned to the business at hand of killing one another.”
Two iconic commanders are Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment and Confederate General George Pickett.
Guelzo finds Chamberlain’s claim to have saved the Union’s fortunes at Little Round Top to be much overrated.
Pickett’s Charge remains the stuff of “Lost Cause” legend. Lee harbored hopes that one final assault against Cemetery Ridge would sweep away the Union defenders and open the road north.
Pickett was “entirely sanguine of success,” one observer remarked, “and doing nothing but congratulating himself on the opportunity.”
As the Confederates advanced from the woods into the open fields, one New York officer saw them as like “the shadow of a cloud seen from a distance as it sweeps across a sunny field.”
As the remnants of the Confederate assault fell back from the crest of Cemetery Hill — the high-water mark of the Confederacy — the shattered, demoralized regiments were flying “to the rear over dead and wounded, mangled, groaning, dying men, scattered thick, far and wide.”
The next day — July 4 — at Vicksburg, a Confederate army in its bluff-top fortress conceded defeat. The Union victory secured the Mississippi River and forged the reputation of General Ulysses S. Grant.
But at Gettysburg, there was a bitter retreat back to Virginia, uncontested by Meade — to the barely restrained anger of President Lincoln who saw a chance to end the war slip away. The legacy of Gettysburg would be two more years of fighting and dying.
Michael Kenney is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. He can be reached at mkenney777 @comcast.net.