Kent Masterson Brown's Retreat From Gettysburg offers a different perspective on the battle of Gettysburg. This book is not a battle or command narrative like Coddington, Pfanz, or the like. Rather the focus is on the impact of battle on the army, and the efforts taken to withdraw the Confederate army from the brutal 3 day battle. Professional and arm-chair historians alike are wont to criticize the inability of armies to complete pursuit after a battle, this work illustrates in detail the complicated nature of pursuit after a significant battle. Lee was faced with maneuvering a tremendously long array of wagon trains containing all sorts of critical supplies his army had foraged throughout the movement into the north. Despite not being a battle narrative, Brown invokes the strategy of Clausewitz referring to the proper way to complete a retreat after a lost battle battle as:
"In order to keep morale as high as possible, it is absolutely necessary to make a slow fighting retreat, boldly confronting the pursuer whenever he tries to make too much of his advantage...." and describing some of the practices as keeping a "strong rear guard, led by the most courageous general, and support at crucial moments by the rest of the army; skillful use of the terrain; strong ambushes whenever the daring of the enemy’s vanguard and the terrain permit....Object of retreat is to reestablish the "balance of power" between the forces."
The remainder of the book provides evidence of how these characteristics were shown in the retreat march. During the retreat there are a handful of engagements, mostly brought on by Federal cavalry including by Kilpatrick, Buford and Dahlgren. Throughout the engagements though it is clear that the Confederates are mindful of continuing the withdrawal and maintaining their movement to and eventually over the Potomac River into Virginia. The retreat reaches a climax once the Confederates arrive at Williamsport to cross the Potomac. Faced with limited means of crossing the swollen river the Confederates stacked up waiting to cross. Once Meade gets enough force into the area he issues a critical message to Halleck indicating the intention to attack on the next morning. Upon performing a more careful reconnaissance and meeting with his senior commanders Meade calls off the attack plan, stating "he would not assume responsibility for provoking an engagement against the advice of so many of his commanders." This would prove to be a fateful moment for Meade and a point that is discussed to the present time as to whether or not the right decision was made. The Confederates do of course eventually cross the river and reach relative safety after fighting one last time mostly against Federal cavalry near Falling Waters, which is most notable for the death of Confederate General J. Johnston Pettigrew.
In summing up his work Brown offers a few conclusions, writing that based on the guidelines of Clausewitz, that Lee had successfully restored the "balance of power" in only ten days. Additionally Brown offers the statement "Although a costly tactical defeat for the Army of Northern Virginia, Gettysburg cannot be viewed as the turning point of the Civil War or even a turning point of the eastern theater of war after Lee's remarkable retreat." I was with Brown until this point, thought I am not sure I agree with that conclusion. I have always been a fan of Vicksburg as just as big, if not bigger, turning point than Gettysburg, however to state it was not a turning point seems to disregard some of the significance in my reading. Although I would be interested to hear what others think of the conclusion.