Interview: Allen Carl Guelzo, “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion”

26 05 2013

Dr. Allen Carl Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program there. Perhaps best known for his works on Abraham Lincoln, he has twice been awarded the Lincoln Prize (for Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America). Recently he authored  a single volume history of the Civil War, Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. His new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, is available – pretty much everywhere – now.

ACG File PixBR:  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

ACG: Dr. Johnson, the first great dictionary-maker of the English language, once defined a lexicographer as “a maker of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.” Substitute “a writer of history” for the bit about dictionaries, and I think you can say the same about me: a harmless drudge. I am an Army brat (born in Yokohama, Japan; when I discovered in 5th grade that this disabled me constitutionally from being president, I was left with nothing better to do in life than write history), with a son now an officer in the U. S. Army. I had strong musical interests, and was even a composition major in my first year in college – until I discovered that I wasn’t really any good at it – then went to seminary with a view toward the ministry. But I still has a certain itch to write history, so I went and obtained a PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania.

BR: What got you interested in the study of history and the Civil War period?

ACG: I can scarcely remember a time when I wasn’t interested in history, an interest sparked mostly by the training I got as a small boy at my grandmother’s knee in reading, memorizing, and so forth. As a girl, she could remember Union veterans coming round to her school on Memorial Day to talk about the war, and I suppose that gives me one living link to the Civil War. Otherwise, I had no ancestors of any sort in the war (they all arrived in the decades afterwards, from Sweden, Prussia, and Ireland). My first encounter with the Civil War in print was the Classics Illustrated version of The Red Badge of Courage, with its capsule history of the war at the back. That was followed by the American Heritage Golden Book of the Civil War, a Christmas present from 1960 – just in time for me to be taken to the hospital with a double case of encephalitis and meningitis.

Bruce Catton was then, and always has been, a great model for me as a writer. I recall walking home from school, reading A Stillness at Appomattox.

I did not actually get to visit Gettysburg until 1975. When I did, I had read so much about it that it was like déjà vu. Even so, never saw myself as having more than a polite amateur’s interest in the subject. I wrote my PhD dissertation on Jonathan Edwards and the problem of free will in American thought, and have always considered myself primarily an American intellectual-history person. That was how I backed-into writing about Abraham Lincoln. And one thing has led to another, so that here I am, teaching at – and writing about – Gettysburg and the Civil War. No one could be more surprised than I am. Through all of this, I’ve never taken a course on the Civil War or Lincoln, either as an undergraduate or a graduate student.

BR: Here are the $64,000 questions: Why another book on Gettysburg? What makes your study stand out – what does it contribute to the literature that has not already been contributed?

ACG: Because it’s there. (That’s what Mallory said when the New York papers asked him why he was planning to climb Mt. Everest; it works here, too, especially since it took almost as much time to write Gettysburg: The Last Invasion as it took Mallory on Everest). I do think, however, that there are some important things about Gettysburg that I think need saying.  First of all, I think Gettysburg (and the Civil War in general) could benefit hugely from being understood in a larger international context, especially when it comes to military thinking and tactical doctrine (which is, after all, a species of intellectual history).  The Civil War did not occur in a vacuum; the experiences of the Crimean War (1854-56), the Sepoy Mutiny (1857-58), the North Italian War (1859) all offer important illumination for why Civil War generals thought as they did. That’s why Gettysburg: The Last Invasion is constantly invoking comparisons to the Alma, Solferino, and Koniggratz. In that sense, I’m trying to claw away from the blinkered view imposed on the Civil War by American exceptionalism.

That’s what lets me call into doubt the conclusions that have been repeated over-and-over again for decades about the significance of cavalry (and especially Stuart’s ride), about the practicality of Pickett’s Charge, uses of staff, and the weapons technology of the period.

I think you’ll also see the hidden (or not-so-hidden) hand of John Keegan, Paddy Griffith, Richard Holmes, and other examples of the British ‘new military history’ – which, come to think of it, is not actually so new any more. The Face of Battle made a terrific impact on me when I read it in the 1970s, and Griffith shaped my thinking about Civil War tactics more than any other writer.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write The Last Invasion, what the stumbling blocks were, what you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain, and when you knew you were “done”?

ACG: It took four years, if you count the research time devoted solely to Gettysburg. In a larger sense, I suppose I’ve been writing this book ever since 1975. I cannot say I encountered anything that looked like a stumbling block. People have been extraordinarily generous with time and resources – and I think here especially of John Rudy and Bill Frassanito, not to mention the quartet of manuscript readers recruited for this project, Greg Urwin, Chuck Teague, Scott Bowden and Joe Bilby. My biggest surprise was in the Meade Papers, which I’ll explain in a minute. My sense of being “done” was on August 21, 2012, when I sent off the Epilogue. The publishers, Knopf/Random House, were determined to have this out for the Sesquicentennial of the battle, and they smiled, threatened, and cajoled all the way down to the last minute. A waterpipe in the house then broke and ruined the main-floor of the house. It must have been feeling the strain.

BR: Can you summarize for potential readers your assessment of George Meade’s performance at Gettysburg?

ACG: George Meade does not seem to have been on many people’s A list for commander of the Army of the Potomac. A reserved, haughty and testy officer, he could be meaner than a badger in a barrel. On the other hand, no one could doubt either his competence or his personal courage, which he demonstrated in spades on the Peninsula and at Fredericksburg, where his attack on Prospect Hill was nearly the only thing which went right for the Army of the Potomac. Meade’s chief deficit in the eyes of the Lincoln administration was that he was a McClellan Democrat, very much like Porter, Hancock and Sedgwick. In the years after the war, Meade’s son, George jnr., struggled to airbrush his father’s politics out of the picture (Meade junr.’s Life and Letters of his father carefully bowdlerized the letters reproduced there to produce an image of a plain, no-nonsense, apolitical professional). But in fact, Meade grew up in the same neighborhood in Philadelphia as the McClellans, shared the same conservative Whig-cum-Democrat politics, owed his initial promotion to brigadier-general of volunteers to McClellan, and received a “very handsome” congratulatory message from McClellan after Gettysburg. And the evidence lay in the Meade correspondence, archived at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

I have to admit that, coming into this project, I was pretty well disposed to regard Meade as man unjustly humiliated by Lincoln after winning a great victory. What I read in the Meade letters gave me a wholly different image of the man: angry, vain, contemptuous of abolitionists (he had two sisters who had married slaveowners), thin-skinned and passionate in the search for promotion and attention.  He regarded the war (and I’m using material here that I did not have room for in the book) as “this unnatural contest” which, after eleven months, “the people of the North will be prepared to yield the independence of the South.”  Even in August, 1863, he was willing to “say make terms of some kind or other with the South.”  It was the Radical Republicans who were deliberately prolonging the war: “I believe Peace could be made but not on the terms that the rulers of the North would require.” The final break came, in my mind, when I read a letter he wrote on January 20, 1865, describing a meeting he had in passing with the three Confederate peace commissioners – R.M.T. Hunter, John Campbell and Alexander Stephens – who were en route to their meeting with Lincoln and Seward at Hampton Roads. Meade “plainly” set out “what I thought was the basis on which the people of the North would be glad to have peace.” This would have to include “restoration of the Union.” But “a settlement of the slavery question” could be reached which would ensure “that they must have labor & the negroes must have support,” since “it was well known they would not work unless compelled.” After reading this, the first question which burned through my mind was, Whose side are you on? What Union major-general gives talking points to Confederate negotiators as they are on their way to meet with Lincoln and Seward? No wonder Meade concluded the letter with the injunction, “all this I have written you, must be confidential, as it would not do to let it be known I had been talking with them, or what I have said.” This letter appears nowhere in young Meade’s Life and Letters, or Freeman Cleaves’ well-known biography of Meade.

BR: Can you describe the reactions of other historians and enthusiasts to your assessment of Meade?

ACG: This portrait of Meade has generated some vehement responses, based largely (I think) on the assumption that since Robert E. Lee was a genius, and since Robert E. Lee lost the battle, ergo, George Meade must be a genius, too. Questioning Meade’s “genius” is nearly as offensive on those grounds as questioning the virtue of Robert E. Lee among the Southern Heritage partisans. But the fact is that Meade was not at Gettysburg for a third of the battle, was taken utterly by surprise by Longstreet’s flank attack on July 2nd, and miscalled the point at which the Confederates would attack on July 3rd. despite the Meade equestrian statue’s location, Meade was nowhere near the apex of Pickett’s Charge at the time it happened. Meade did not so much win the battle, as Lee lost it; or rather, it was the near-miraculous initiative taken by individual officers on the line – Samuel Sprigg Carroll, “Pappy” Greene, Strong Vincent, Gouveneur Warren, Patrick O’Rorke, Norman Hall, and (yes) Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain – that over-and-over again saved the Union position at Gettysburg. But the biggest black-mark beside Meade’s name remains his failure to follow-up after the battle. Yes, I know that the Army of the Potomac was battered and mostly used-up; but so was the Army of Northern Virginia. The lesson of every commander in history worth remembering is this: in victory, follow up. I don’t know that I can entirely blame Meade. He was conscious of the fact that if he attacked Lee and won, he would probably receive little if any credit; if he attacked and lost, his head would be on a pike. In that respect, he may have felt that Lincoln had no one to blame but himself for creating such an atmosphere of mistrust. But this was to allow personal and political considerations to interfere with a military decision, considerations which the American military tradition has always been supposed to eschew.

One objection which has surprised me much more has been about the title: The Last Invasion. Some people wonder whether I’ve forgotten about Early’s or Morgan’s raids. Well, that’s the point: they were raids. They were short-term events intended to disrupt communications and infrastructure, but not to offer a full-scale challenge to battle or to occupy and feed off territory for a substantial length of time. Lee intended to do much more in 1863. He planned to remain in Pennsylvania until the fall, letting Pennsylvania rather than Virginia  feed his army, or bring the Army of the Potomac to a head-on battle. That’s an invasion. It’s all the difference between a transatlantic crossing and a Caribbean cruise. Besides, I’m unapologetically borrowing the phrase about ‘the last invasion’ from Melville’s poem, Gettysburg, which appears on the opening page.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process?

ACG: I do not know that I have a method, per se. I simply wade into the literature, scan archives for collections, and go to it with a will.  It’s taken me quite far afield – from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Charlottesville, Virginia, and a few other points beyond.

BR: Has the process of writing this book impacted you in any profound ways?

ACG: It has made me feel very glad that it’s done.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

ACG: I am much too humble to say (snark, snark…) But it did make the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list [per publisher notice of June 2, 2013 list - ed.]

BR: What’s next for you?

ACG: Back to Lincoln.








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