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GETTYSBURG: A Novel of the Civil War
Reviewed by Dave Walter
Yes, that Newt Gingrich. The former Speaker of the House of Representatives holds a PhD in History from Tulane University and is a professor at the National Defense University where he teaches a course for Major Generals. Dr. Forstchen is a specialist in military history and teaches at Montreat College in North Carolina.
This novel is meticulously researched and is the first in a planned triology of how American history could have unfolded differently. The premise of this novel is to present a most plausible alternative outcome for the Gettysburg campaign if General Lee had listened to Gen. Longstreet's plea to turn the Union left and get between them and Washington, D.C.
All I can say is "wow." We have the benefit that all historians have: twenty-twenty hindsight. Yet knowing the real outcome of Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania does not at all detract from the enjoyment of reading this book. It is positively gripping and the writing style, while borrowing heavily from the tradition of the Shaaras', does not pale in comparison. You should find the combat narratives to be especially moving.
The authors know the technical details of the armies of the times, and they have a very good grip on the personalities of the leaders. For example, when Lee ponders a situation, or admonishes Gen. Stuart, it does not seem at all contrived: "'I am glad to see that you are well, General Stuart.' The room was silent. He caught a glimpse of Longstreet standing to one side and could sense the barely concealed anger. Stuart started to say something, but Lee motioned him to silence. 'General Stuart, there is time enough later for us to discuss what has happened these last few days. The hour is late. I am more concerned with what will happen in the morning.'"
It is at this conference of generals, after the First Day at Gettysburg, that the novel departs from history. The authors take a number of opportunities to probe the thinking of Gen. Lee that caused him to launch the Pennsylvania campaign. Perhaps more than other commentators, they believe Lee was seeking Armageddon, a final battle to destroy the Army of the Potomac, bring an end to the War, and secure independence for the Confederacy. While Lee never said as much, I, for one, do believe that by June 1863, he realized that the cause of the Confederacy was lost if a decisive battle could not be fought and won in the near term. Unless the will of the North was broken, by having its major field army utterly crushed, it would go on fighting and its superior resources would, in the long run, doom the rebel cause.
It seems obvious that Gingrich and Forstchen believe the War was lost for the South when Lee decided to stay and continue the offensive against "those people" on the high ground at Gettysburg. In the novel, however, he is persuaded by Longstreet's argument. Perhaps in real life, the plan may not have worked, for Longstreet may not have been able to overcome his characteristic slow and methodical nature, large troop movements seldom came off as quickly and timely as hoped, and the "other side" always has something to say about the matter. But if he had - if he had quickly put Hood and Laws on the Fairfield Road, and brought Pickett into the rear of the Union Army via Greencastle and Emmitsburg, how much different would the outcome have been?
On the Union side, the authors show the hesitancy of Gen. Meade, due principally to his being new, and uncertain, in command of the AOP. Meade's protagonists are Gen. Henry Hunt, chief of artillery; Gen. Warren; Gen. Hancock; and Gen. Dan Sickles. Unfortunately, his caution - so helpful at the real Gettysburg - is disastrous in the novel.
Without giving away the story - you'll certainly want to read the gripping account for yourself - suffice it to say that Hunt and Warren examine the proposed defensive line along Pipe Creek in Maryland and find it superior to Cemetery Ridge. Unfortunately, Longstreet's men beat the Union Army back to this position, despite the best efforts of John Buford's weary cavalry to hold off the ANV for the second crucial time in two days.
Having got between Meade and Washington, Lee can sit back and wait for the Union Army to pound itself to death in a kind of reverse Pickett's Charge at Union Mills. The ironies abound (as any good historical novelist would intend) and the reader is on the edge of his/her seat to learn if the great charge is Hancock's this time and how does his II Corps perform? One delicious irony is having Col. Joshua Chamberlain's 20th Maine placed on the extreme flank of the Union's line. (Yes, he does tell his brother, Tom, to stay far away from him so it won't "be a hard day for Mother," but the outcome of the fight is not quite in line with Little Round Top.)
Gen. Sickles comes off looking rather well, and, with Hunt, gets the "I told you so" role. Gen. Armistead survives but a fair number of Union generals don't. As for Gen. Reynolds, I believe the authors' twenty-twenty hindsight is that it may have been better for the Union had he and Buford decided, in effect, not to contest the matter at Gettysburg. While Gettysburg was a Union victory, of course, it is fun to speculate what would have been the short term fate of Lee's army if Meade had concentrated at Pipe Creek instead.
"Mounting on his beloved Traveler, Robert E. Lee turned south, toward Washington, and a dream of final victory - for all things were still possible." Yes, they are - in the imagination, and in novels. If you enjoyed "The Killer Angels," you'll enjoy this novel too. And wouldn't it make a great movie, if only Ted Turner's riches were sufficient!