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Book – Newt Gingrich’s Gettysburg

 

What if Lee Won at Gettysburg?

Artillery firing, during Civil War battle reenactment Confederate soldiers advance, Civil War battle reenactment

A counterfactual history trilogy of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath consisting of:

  • Gettysburg
  • Grant Comes East
  • Never Call Retreat

The first volume covers the battle of Gettysburg, though with strategic maneuvers beyond anything contemplated by the actual participants. Like any successful counterfactual history, the authors are careful in their initial changes – in fact, most readers will not even be aware of the changes the authors introduce in the battle up to the end of the first day’s fighting. But by this point enough small changes have already occurred to allow Lee to produce a strategic masterstroke on a par with Jackson’s Chancellorsville march. From here the story rapidly diverges from what we know as history, but never beyond possibility, and it’s amusing to see various participants like Sykes, Sickles, Joshua Chamberlain and others perform in this parallel universe.
The battles scenes are excellent and provide a closeup look at the experience of individual soldiers. We witness how the opposing sides would arrange unofficial truces when the battles end. You’ll probably suspect that the climactic battle of the second book won’t resolve everything since there’s still that third volume! But that never subtracts from the tension & suspense of these books. Great
historical fiction – my only regret is that Gingrich didn’t start writing novels earlier, rather than spending so much time fighting other battles in Congress.
One small annoyance is the tendency of the authors to put anachronistic quotes in the mouths of their actors. The most prominent one was during a race between the armies towards the coast in which a general remarks “let the man on the farthest edge of the flanking troops touch the sea with his sleeve” – a statement actually made 50 years later in World War I by a German general during their flanking attack through Belgium. There are several more of these pillaged pedantries scattered thru the books, but their effect, fortunately, is minimal. One last quibble is why, (from laziness or publication schedule?) they chose to title the last book ‘Never Call Retreat’ – a title previously used by one of the masters of  Civil War history, Bruce Catton.

Even Lee can seem banal when words are put into his mouth:

“We turn this back into a battle of maneuver, gentlemen, the thing we have always done best, the thing that our opponents have never mastered. But let me say it before all of you quite clearly. I am not seeking a half victory. By abandoning this field, some will see that as an admission of defeat, something we have never yet done, completely abandon a field. In so doing we return to a war of maneuver. We cut their line of supply while at the same time continuing to secure our own line of supply by moving our wagon trains back down to Green­castle. The ultimate goal must be to force the Army of the Potomac into territory that we choose and then fight a battle to finish this once and for all”

He looked carefully at each one in turn. “That is what I will expect from you, what our country expects from all of us, and nothing less is acceptable.
We are here to win not just a battle.”

He paused for a moment.

“We are here to win a war.”

Gingrich is better in describing the details of Civil War close combat:

“… along that terrible, invisible line that seems to appear on a battlefront, a line that not even the brav­est will pass, knowing that to take but one more step forward is death.

Some were demoralized, clutching the ground; others, in shock, were cradling wounded, dying, and dead comrades. Most settled down to the grim task at hand. Raising rifles, taking aim up the slope, firing, grounding muskets, reloading and firing again.

In the coldest sense of military logic, this battered line was the shield, the soak off, having taken the first position and now stalling in front of the second. Their job was simply to absorb the blows, to die, to inflict some death upon those dug in until the second and third lines came up, still relatively unscathed, to push the attack closer in.

And so across the next ten minutes they gave everything they had, these volunteers turned professionals, the pride of the Army of the Potomac, the pride of the Republic. Thousands of acts of courage were committed, none to be recorded except in the memories of those who were there, the greatest courage of all simply to stand on the volley line, to fire, to reload, and all the time the litany chant in the background… “Pour it in to them. Close on the colors, boys. Pour it into them!”

Two hundred yards to the rear, the next assault wave reached the outh bank of the flood plain, their officers ordering a halt, letting the men catch their breath for a few minutes, to gulp down some water, while forward their comrades died.

Atop the crest the Confederate forces blazed away, some of the men, acknowledged sharpshooters, calling for others to load, to pass their guns up, making sure that every shot counted, though in the still air, now laced again by showers, the smoke quickly built to a hanging cloud of fog.

Men were falling in the trenches, though not near as many as down on the open slope. Rifle balls smacked into the loosely piled dirt, spraying the men; shots when they hit tended to strike arms raised while ramming or, far more deadly, in the chest or face.

A growing line of dead and wounded lay directly behind the trench, dragged out of the way so as to not be trampled under.

The Union artillery was again in full play, though aiming in most cases too high out of fear of striking their own battle line in the con­fusion. But enough shots were tearing in to do terrible damage…