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Saturday, May 31, 2008


The New York Times Bestselling Civil War novel, Gettysburg, by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen leads us to their second New York Times Bestselling “What If?” novel, Grant Comes East. I couldn’t wait to get to it so intrigued was I by the possibilities of the first book.

Robert E. Lee triumphs at Gettysburg. He doesn’t lose one third of his Army. There is no Pickett’s Charge. In fact, there is no National Cemetery nor is there a Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The face of history is changed by a reconsideration of Lee’s original battle plans and the adoption of one offered by General Longstreet—an actual plan that the historical Lee originally discounted. It’s so simple in war to misjudge an opponent, to be stymied by weather, a breakdown in equipment or supply lines, arrogance or incompetence in leaders or soldiers, or just by poor timing. As Grant Comes East opens, a victorious and very noble Lee is ready to attack Washington DC, finally subdue the Army of the Potomac, force Lincoln’s capitulation, and end the war that is bleeding both sides to death.

This second of three books in the series is extraordinary as it investigates the personalities and motivations of the men we know through history. Politics come into play as both Lee and Grant struggle to keep their independence from the politicos around them. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis face a struggle to deliver what each has promised. In the North, draft riots abound and a Democratic Congress fights to oust the President who got them into war but who can’t seem to get them out. The noble cause of preserving the Union has risen to the moral cause of ending slavery. Jefferson Davis sees the dwindling of his most precious commodity—men—as the South’s losses mount.

The authors also look to the common man, drawing vivid portraits of ordinary men enmeshed in a conflict over which they have no control yet in which many willingly move forward in loyalty to cause or leader. It’s a stunning revelation of the nature of leadership, and it is observed on both sides of the conflict.

The Civil War was a “new” war fought and supported in ways not used before. Imagine the difference between moving men, material, horses, food, ambulances, etc. during the Revolution and the Civil War with the country’s northern railroads and factories. During the Revolution, battles might be planned a year in advance as men and equipment moved. That is what happened as the battlefield changed from upper New York State to Virginia, for instance. With railroads during the Civil War, battle lag might be a matter of days or a week—a month if men and equipment moved in from the West. All these changes and more impact the story.

The writing is vivid, lively, and sometimes so graphic that I was overwhelmed with a deep sadness as friendships disintegrated in death, wounded Union and Confederate soldiers offered each other water and solace, or family members met across opposing lines. Though some of the moving moments are unique to the Civil War, others are unsettling because they are universal and all too familiar.

At one point a Congressman says to Lincoln: “We politicians are divided into two types in this war…The majority, though they might proclaim that the dream of the republic motivates them at heart, are ultimately swayed by the advantage they can gain for themselves…The second type, God save us, like you and Grant are so rare. You two actually do wish to see this ideal, this dream, survive and you would give your lives for it without hesitation…I think it will be thus, a hundred, a hundred and fifty years from now, if we survive; there will still be men and women who will proclaim their love of the republic, perhaps even believe it, but at heart are in it only for their own power.”

This novel is about the war that wasn’t but might have been. It’s a giant of a book. Of course I can’t tell you how this episode ends, but there is a third novel, Never Call Retreat. I’m going to take a break, and then go back to see how Fortstchen and Gingrich bring their provocative What If? to its conclusion.

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