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Sunday, April 13, 2008


What if…? There's a thought we've all had. Well, here's one for the books (Ha! Ha!): What if the South had won the Battle of Gettysburg? That's the premise offered in this novel of the Civil War in which I recognize the real names of generals, sites of individual confrontations in this three-day battle, and areas around Gettysburg, PA where this epic battle made Civil War history. The authors are Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Ph.D in history and the author of eight books (as of 2003), and William R. Forstchen, a Ph.D with a specialization in military history and the author of more than thirty books. The result is an amazing, interesting, and well-written look into a horrendous, bloody battle that historically altered the face of the Civil War--a battle where the South suffered such enormous casualties that it could never again attack the North nor could it sufficiently replace its depleted forces. The novel is so powerful and realistic in its approach that my friend, Carol, a Civil War buff and scholar decided that its realism and attention to detail might cause her to entangle fiction with reality.

What's most amazing about Gettysburg is that this alternative is highly plausible. Gingrich and Forstchen develop their lead players with all the foibles we expect of human beings, and we see how the generals--Lee and Meade--play out their roles responsive to their own ambitions, their patriotism, and the political situation of the day. Unique to the Civil War, they and other commanding officers on both sides trained with or taught each other, and they made educated guesses about their opponents' moves and reactions as they planned their tactics.

The authors use an interesting writing technique by alternating sections and chapters between the U.S. Army of the Potomac and the C.S.A. Army of Northern Virginia. We are treated to the thought process behind the actions of both sides. It's a particularly interesting technique to employ at this point in our history because it illustrates the problems with "getting it right" when that means thinking and outthinking the enemy who is trying to do the same to you. Even a slight deviation in the master plan might alter the outcome. Weather, supplies, support, time, relationships, trust and intelligence all factor into an almost unsolvable equation. Only after the battle is over and the blood has been shed can light be cast on the reasons for the outcome.

In addition to the historical context, we are treated to the human side of men brutally caught in the conflict and marching to almost certain death. Brothers meeting opposing brothers on the battlefields, fathers meeting opposing sons, and enemies helping each other during the battle lulls reflect the tragedy of this campaign and this war. The emotions and feelings are so poignant, one continually wonders whether this is really just fiction.

The writing is horrifically descriptive and incredibly vivid in relaying the feelings of the soldiers.

"Time distorted. Some felt as if every step taken now seemed to transcend into an eternity. Some could look only at the guns; others could not look. A few gazed heavenward beseechingly; some noticed the most trivial of things, a frightened dove kicking up out of the tall grass, a grasshopper poised on a stalk of grass, about to jump...


The command was barely heard by either side. As if a single hand had struck the flame, in an instant three thousand rifles discharged."

Gettysburg ends with the C.S.A. winning the bloody battle although Lee does not accomplish his objective which is to end the war. Just as in the real Battle of Gettysburg, the toll on both sides is enormous, and the war drags on for another two years. Gingrich and Forstchen continue with the story as a trilogy. The next book is Grant Comes East, and the last is Never Call Retreat. I'm going to continue with the series, and I suggest to anyone interested in strong, vivid, historical fiction to pick up this NYTimes Bestselling series and have a great read.

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