Last July, for the 70th anniversary of Gettysburg, we at Casemate were pleased to release Dr. Phillip Thomas Tucker’s latest work, “Barksdale’s Charge,” an in-depth look at the height of the battle on the second day, when one Confederate brigade nearly cracked the entire Union position on Cemetery Ridge.
But it did not escape us that another book had been published last summer, by Knopf, called “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion,” which described the entire three days of the battle, with rare expertise. This work, by Professor Alan C. Guelzo, became a national sensation, and perhaps the most important Civil War book in the last 20 years. From the New York Times and the Economist, to the Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor, it has been lauded, often called the “definitive” account of the battle.
You can imagine our pleasure, then, at finding that while we were reading Prof. Guelzo’s book, he was also reading “Barksdale’s Charge,” and in the respected journal, Civil War News, penned a review of our work. It said, in part:
“Launched from Seminary Ridge in the late afternoon as part of Longstreet’s assault, Barksdale’s brigade, with Barksdale himself riding at the head, overran the Sherfy farm and the Peach Orchard, captured the Trostle farm, and very nearly broke through the wreckage of the 3rd Corps to the Taneytown Road. In that event, the Army of the Potomac might have had little option but retreat. . . . Barksdale, frantic at how near he was to a complete breakthrough, was cut down by Union bullets. . . . Phillip Thomas Tucker takes up Barksdale’s cause with a vigor that would certainly have won the old fire-eater’s approval.”—Alan C. Guelzo, in Civil War News
It has been flattering in the extreme that Prof. Guelzo chose to read and review our work, in which we posit that Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade might have turned the tide of the battle.
In turn we will now review his excellent work. To be short, Prof. Guelzo’s superb prose and deep grasp of detail caused the battle to come to life once again for another generation of American readers. His combination of strategic grasp, as well as on-the-ground insights, stands as the envy of future historians.
We only hesitate slightly in declaring Prof. Guelzo’s book “definitive.” Instead, to students of the battle, we believe he was purposely being provocative. One must read “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” to see, but never has the public seen Hancock portrayed so poorly, nor O.O. Howard so well. Or Humphreys, Gibbon and Hunt so poorly, while Jeb Stuart at least has an explanation. His in-depth insights into that 3-days fight are nothing short of amazing.
To we at Casemate it only made the book more of a delight, as Prof. Guelzo, on the basis of his unprecedented expertise, simply knocked down shibboleths or common wisdom left and right.
“Barksdale’s Charge” was written in the same vein, and the most pleasant news of all was that Prof. Guelzo agreed with its premise—that if the Cemetery Ridge position had been cracked on Day 2, the Army of the Potomac would have had no other recourse but retreat. To be clear, Dr. Tucker did not think the half-shattered Mississippi Brigade could have held that position by its own on July 2, even if gained. But twice in his pages he states that that evening was when Pickett’s division should have gone in. Pickett’s men had begun arriving at 2:00 that afternoon, fully assembled around 5:00. But at Gettysburg there was to be no A.P. Hill such as at Antietam. Instead Lee sent Pickett an order: “I shall not want you today.”
The truth is, there were no other days! Can one imagine if Pickett’s division had been able to go in on Day 2, following up Barksdale, who was already fighting on Cemetery Ridge, with a completely unopposed approach-march with the entre Potomac Army then hanging by a thread? And with Wofford’s brigade still there, and entire other Rebel divisions on the left not yet committed? It can be said that the entire Potomac Army was just waiting to be defeated again, and were more surprised than anyone that they weren’t.
We know that Longstreet never wanted to go into battle with “one boot off.” But if Pickett’s Virginians, under Armistead, Garnett, and Kemper, had been able to follow Barksdale’s path in that twilight, it is nearly inconceivable to imagine Meade’s army not hastening to try to get back to their Pipe Creek line in Maryland, as best as they could.
In any event, we can all refight the Battle of Gettysburg continuously—while in normal life mistakes are made on all sides, in that case the mistakes were crucial to our entire nation. The final result was grand, as the Union held sway. But it was a near-run thing.
For a comprehensive look at the three days of Gettysburg we urge everyone to read Prof. Guelzo’s “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.” For those who wish to see what one Confederate brigade was thinking at the time, in just one segment, including their ardor when attacking across those open fields in the face of bullets, grape, and canister, in the hope that they could win the war by themselves, if properly led (and then simply go home), we also recommend “Barksdale’s Charge.”