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Originally published Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘Gettysburg’: sins of omission and commission in a brutal war

Allen Guelzo’s “Gettysburg: the Last Invasion” is a masterful study of the pivotal battle of the Civil War. Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary is July 1-3. Hampton Newsome’s “Richmond Must Fall” tells the lesser known story of the October 1864 battles fought aro

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‘Gettysburg: The Last Invasion’

by Allen C. Guelzo

Knopf, 688 pp., $35

‘Richmond Must Fall: the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864’

by Hampton Newsome

Kent State University Press, 447 pp., $65

On the first three days of July, 1863 — 150 years ago — Union and Confederate forces clashed at Gettysburg, Pa., in what many historians consider the climactic battle of the Civil War. When the carnage ended, the Confederates limped away, leaving the Union victorious — although it was a near thing, according to “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion,” an engaging new book by Allen C. Guelzo.

Estimates vary on the number of troops engaged in the battle, but Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac brought as many as 85,000 men to the field while the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee mustered about 80,000 men of all arms. The fighting left something like 6,000 men dead and more than 45,000 others wounded or missing.

Guelzo, director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, isn’t shy when it comes to expressing his opinions about battle participants. For example, he says Union Gen. Dan Sickles, who without orders moved his troops into a vulnerable position on the second day, “oozed sleaze and dissimulation from every pore.” As for Confederate Gen. George Pickett, whose charge brought the battle to a furious conclusion, Guelzo says that “whatever moments he could spare from self-adornment were devoted to the neglect of his duties.”

A crucial moment in the battle was the defense of Little Round Top, a promontory anchoring the left flank of the Union line. With his regiment out of ammunition, Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that blunted a Confederate assault on the critical position. Guelzo, however, contends it was Chamberlain’s “considerable flair for self-promotion” that made him a hero. Three other officers deserved more credit, he says, but two were killed and thus unable to glorify their roles after the battle, as Chamberlain did.

Guelzo faults both Meade and Lee for sins of omission and commission during the battle, but by failing to give more decisive orders to his commanders “Lee lost the battle ... much more than George Meade won it,” he concludes. One example was Lee’s failure to firmly order Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell to attack Cemetery Hill on the battle’s first day, which Guelzo calls “the most sensational Confederate misjudgment of the war.”

Guelzo’s narrative is enlivened by frequent use of accounts by battle participants, observers and Gettysburg civilians, and his descriptions sometimes rise almost to lyricism. This is a masterful battle study, masterfully told. Its only flaw is a series of maps that appear to have been generated on an obsolete desktop computer.

While historians have written thousands of books about Gettysburg, they have all but ignored the series of October 1864 battles fought around Richmond and Petersburg, Va. That’s because, except for filling many fresh graves, those clashes were largely inconclusive in helping decide the war’s outcome.

Now comes Hampton Newsome, an Arlington, Va., attorney, with a thorough study of these battles in “Richmond Must Fall.” Included are accounts of Union Gen. Benjamin Butler’s costly efforts to pierce the Confederate lines east of Richmond and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s abortive “sixth offensive” aimed at breaking the critical Southside Railroad southeast of Petersburg.

This extensively researched, well-written account, illustrated with an astonishing number of maps, takes the wraps off these forgotten battles. Newsome’s detailed descriptions should satisfy even the most demanding Civil War armchair generals.

Whidbey Island author Steve Raymond’s latest book is “In the Very Thickest of the Fight: The Civil War Service of the 78th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment” (Globe Pequot Press).

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