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The Meaning of Gettysburg

Democracy at stake in ‘The Last Invasion’

Jul. 21, 2013
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The Battle of Gettysburg sprawled over 15 square miles around a little town in Pennsylvania during the first three days of July in 1863. As we know from thousands of articles and texts already published on this famous Civil War episode, the battle was a Union and Confederate bloodletting. More than 160,000 soldiers fought relentlessly, leaving 5,747 dead, 27,229 wounded and 9,515 missing or captured. Fourteen percent of the wounded died in hideously contrived hospitals. With 39 maps and 16 pages of photographs and 632 pages in all, Allen C. Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Alfred A. Knopf) is the definitive history of the worst fight ever to occur on American soil.

Guelzo meticulously locates every defining moment, providing an essential and shocking story rife with hour-by-hour detail. Yet, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion illuminates the overall political issues at stake with as much attention to particulars. Deploying the narrative manner of an engaging novel, Guelzo reveals what happened on the field and in the Northern and Southern mindsets. If Robert E. Lee, the Confederate commander, had made headway at Gettysburg, his incursion into Northern territory could have altered the course of American history.

This was not a pure victory for Union forces but, as Abraham Lincoln stated, Gettysburg made “peace…not appear so distant as it did.” It was a defeat of an invading army by virtue of holding, not gaining ground. However, a higher cause was sustained and democracy was tested in the monumental scale of bloodletting. The Union combatants were “willing to do more than blinkingly look to their personal self-interest.”

Guelzo’s point is that democracy cannot be a solipsistic thing. Each citizen participates in it for the public interest.  We learn our lessons about what constitutes a democratic government in many ways but perhaps none better than in an examination of Gettysburg, which represents the final attempt to invade our democratic union on the battlefield.

But there are still “invasions,” albeit on the fields of politics and culture. As the book ends with Lincoln’s contemplation infused with the author’s perspectives, the reader cannot help but wonder if certain matters are not still at stake. The book concludes with Lincoln’s trip to Gettysburg to deliver his address on Nov. 19, 1863. Guelzo correctly interprets this as Lincoln’s defense of liberal democracy. The sacrifice was worthy—that much was won. But the vicious presence of battles beyond cannon and musket go on in ways Lincoln did not live long enough to imagine.


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