Gettysburg - A novel of the Civil War by Newt Gingrich, William Forstchen
Thomas Dunne Books HCVR: ISBN 031230935X PubDate: 06/01/03
Review by Rob Archer
384 pgs. List price $ 25
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When the name "Newt Gingrich" comes up, many adjectives may jump into your mind. Depending on one's political stripe they range from favorable to unprintable, but I'd wager that "successful historical fiction author" doesn’t top anyone's list. Now however, that description can certainly be applied. In their new novel Gettysburg: A Novel Of The Civil War Gingrich and historian William Forstchen weave a very interesting tale of a Gettysburg that might have happened differently as an alternative to the actual battle that broke the northern advance of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Gettysburg follows the path of events that has led to 140 years of second-guessing. There has been great historical dispute over whether Lee should have listened to the advice of General James Longstreet, who had called for disengaging at the battlefield and making the Union army chase after and attack on a position of the Confederate's choosing. He saw that it was possible to try to get between the Army of the Potomac and Washington, DC. In this story, Lee heeds this plea and adds some flourishes of his own to it. This sets up a running battle from the town of Gettysburg south into Maryland that brings new excitement into the standard alternate histories of this battle.
Generally when you pick up a counter-factual of the Civil War you can count on one of two things. The Confederate States of America find a way to win either the battles of Antietam or Gettysburg. This causes a crisis of confidence in the Union resulting in the Confederacy winning their independence. I expected nothing different from this work, and was pleasantly surprised at the way things turned out. The story does a great job, and honestly a better job than most, of showing that the outcome of a particular battle doesn't necessarily determine the outcome of a war
Readers of Michael and Jeff Shaara's Civil War series (the books that the movies Gettysburg and Gods And Generals were based on) will recognize many of the main characters dealt with in those books. It seems that they might have even provided a bit of inspiration for this story, as there are some similarities in style. Certain characters are developed in depth while others seem to make momentary appearances and then are just referred to for the rest of the tale. I would have liked to see some of them fleshed out a little bit more, but space constraints and keeping the flow of the narrative may have prevented this. A word of warning: to make this account work convincingly, there are no punches pulled on certain officers of both armies. By the end of the story you'll be calling for fictional court martials for some of the characters!
It has been said that in war, amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. It was refreshing to read a tale where this maxim was taken into greater account than most stories. There was no shortage of daring charges, courageous stands, and chaotic action in Gettysburg, but much of it rested on the secure base of supplies. The disparity between the supply base of the Union and that of the Confederacy was a leading cause of the outcome of our Civil War. Here the authors deal with this problem in an interesting manner and even manage to turn the tables on the normal situation. This is often overlooked in many stories written about the period and it provided a strong foundation for account portrayed in the book.
One of the most striking aspects of the novel was the ability to express fear, courage, doubt, pride, and all the other emotions raging through the men of this battle. There are situations where you genuinely aren't sure how the individual battles will go, but you are sure that both sides share a real sense of urgency and devotion, as evidenced by the fact that so many give the last full measure of such. The authors also do a great job of injecting the confusion of battle. The writing style displays how both the officers and men involved often didn’t know what was going on beyond their viewpoints. We can see the generals trying to grasp the developments across the entire field of battle and the difficulty they face in that task.
I was really impressed with Gingrich and Forstchen’s ability to make me believe in the story they were telling. There were times I went from annoyance that everything that could go wrong for the Union seemed to be doing just that, to reflective that the point being made was that even under those circumstances defeat was not inevitable. I appreciated the fact that everything was not completely cut and dried. There seemed to be an intentional effort to not have all situations easily resolved. We often admire the ability of an author to wrap up all the loose ends of a story rather neatly in the closing chapters, but here I am equally grateful that we're shown that sometimes issues overwhelm a single moment in time and take much longer to resolve.
With Gettysburg the reader is allowed to imagine how the rest of the war will unfold (or the authors have an opportunity to pick up the story in a future book…). I’m interested to see if there will be a follow on book that picks up with Grant coming east to rebuild the shattered Union army. In the meantime I recommend that readers enjoy the speculation engendered by this story. Gettysburg is a welcome addition to the library of Civil War alternate histories.