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NEVER CALL RETREAT
Reviewed by Dave Walter
Ever heard of Lincoln's "Frederick Address" on Nov. 19, 1863? You will in the authors' third and final novel proposing an alternative history for Gen. Robert Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania in June and July of 1863.
Just like the previous two novels, this is well-written, strategically sound, and a lot of fun to read. You may recall that the previous two novels (reviewed here in "The Signal Flag") had Lee smashing two corps of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, then following Longstreet's advice to go around behind the advancing AOP and get between them and Washington so Meade would have to fight on ground of Lee's choosing. Poorly coordinated charges by Hancock's Second Corps are decimated at Union Mills, the AOP is routed and tens of thousands made prisoner. Lee then turns and takes Baltimore but is prevented from taking Washington by, among others, the 54th Massachusetts. Lincoln brings Grant east, along with several corps of tough Western troops (Ord, McPherson) and a new Army of the Susquehanna is formed in Harrisburg. However, Dan Sickles, commander of the remnants of the Army of the Potomac, disobeys Grant and launches an attack south from Havre de Grace. Lee smashes this, though an impetuous George Pickett manages to wreck his division of Virginians. Book two ends with Lee receiving reports that Grant is crossing the Susquehanna towards Carlisle on Aug. 22, 1863.
Scarcely ten days later, Lee has surrendered! But, naturally, it is a close thing. (Clearly Gingrich admires Lee tremendously so he has to fall because of superior Union resources.)
Grant's use of the suddenly competent cavalry enables him to confuse Lee as to his intentions just long enough to get troops over the South Mountain and Catoctin Mountain passes before Lee can stop him. Grant pushes forward to the Monocacy River crossings of the B&O and National Road (where Jubal Early actually would out duel Lew Wallace in 1864). As the Army of the Susquehanna comes up and fights, it is obvious this field army is better led, if not more courageous, than what the Army of Northern Virginia has encountered in the first two years of war. McPherson is relentless until, in a touching sequence, is mortally wounded and captured. Sheridan exposes himself recklessly with a division of U.S. Colored Troops in the railway cut ("The Hornet's Nest") Custer falls gallantly, saving the day. Chamberlain is there as the remnants of the Army of the Potomac land behind Lee in Baltimore and move to secure the lower Potomac crossings. Hancock, still physically debilitated by his wound, marches the Washington garrison and ten thousand free blacks to fortify the upper crossings.
Hemmed in on three sides, Lee plans another right flank surprise attack with some 25,000 men. Grant, somewhat prepared, is ready at the barricades on the southern edge of Frederick. In a huge battle, that reads like the real battle of Franklin, TN, the remainder of Lee's fresh divisions are gutted. Early impetuously throws in two divisions before two more are up and that piecemeal attack, combined with excellent artillery work by Henry Hunt at point-blank range and a tenacious defense seals Lee's fate.
As he scurries for Edward's Ferry, he cannot budge Hancock's defenders in breastworks and artillery emplacements. Turning east, Lee tries for Dranestown, then Poolesville. Finally, Longstreet secures a crossing near Seneca and gets a pontoon bridge underway. Under fire from Hancock's 100 lb. Parrots the bridge can't be completed. Sykes sweeps in with the remnants of the AOP. Grierson's cavalry grabs the remaining roads and Sheridan hems in Lee's battered boys in butternut and gray.
The authors do a good job filling in Lee's objections (as voiced at Appomattox) to continuing the fight through guerilla warfare in the mountains. Lee's acceptance of defeat as "God's will" rings authentic. Unlike real history however, Lee rides at the head of his troops as they surrender their arms and flags, and - when Grant has the Federals offer a salute of honor - Lee raises his sword in salute to the Star Spangled Banner. At the surrender talks, Grant and Sec. of War, Elihu Washburne, convince Lee and Judah Benjamin that further struggle is useless, and convey terms from Lincoln that are most generous, including compensation for freeing the slaves. Clearly, the authors believe the ills of Reconstruction and Jim Crow could have been avoided had the War ended sooner while the North was in a more forgiving mood, and before Sherman's March and Sheridan's destruction in the Shenandoah Valley. Benjamin and Lee take a stand against Davis and the firebrands and, with the withdrawal of their support, the Cause of the Confederacy ends. The authors clearly believe (and they put the words in Grant's mouth) that Union victory was not inevitable and that it was Lincoln ("his will and his ability to survive defeat after defeat and discouragement after discouragement.."), and not the generals, who made the difference.
A marvelous "what if" trilogy, well written, well researched, immensely enjoyable, that is sure to become a classic read for all Civil War buffs.