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Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War by Newt Gingrich

 

Rating: (Read only if your interest is strong)

 

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Revolting

I think I know either too much or too little about the Battle of Gettysburg to enjoy reading New Gingrich’s novel, Gettysburg. In the former Speaker of the House’s version, Lee decides to leave town early to fight another day. This what-if may be plausible, especially to the many reenactors, who know every detail of the battle. For the rest of us, this doesn’t sound like what happened, and there’s a feeling of “wait a minute” as the plot unfolds. I’m amazed that I read the novel to the end. Here’s an excerpt from pp. 127-133, set at a midnight meeting on the first day of battle with the Army of the Potomac, set in the confederate headquarters where Lee makes a pivotal (and fictional) decision:

Lee held up his hand, a quiet gesture, not dismissive, simply indicating a wish for silence.

Again he could hear the ticking of the clock, the rattle of an ambulance passing outside the window, the first of a long train of ambulances coming down from the cemetery.

Four thousand men tonight, he thought. And the price tomorrow? If it was worth it, then I would pay it; but if Pete is right, would I have but a half victory here even if we did win  … and at what cost?

The silence continued. His gaze locked onto the map.

The wrong decision here, and the men being carried past the window woul dhave shed their blood for what? By attacking, does that redeem the mistake of the last charge or just add more to the bill, and without meaning, without results?

Take control back. That is what I resolved to myself back at Chambersburg three days ago. But instead this place, this ground, is now taking control of me. And that realization was fundamental and startling to him.

He noticed that someone, without comment, had placed a tin cup of coffee by his side and, without taking his eyes off the map, he took the cup and sipped.

The pendulum of the clock continued to drift back and forth, measuring out the seconds with a tick-tock steadiness.

He looked up. "General Longstreet, what is your proposal, sir."

Longstreet, normally so rigid in his presence, exhaled. There was no smile, just the slightest of nods, and he stepped to Lee's side.

"Sir, go south of those hills. Here," and he pointed forcefully to the sketch map, the Rocky Hill and the high, wooded hill anchoring the south of the Union line. "A mile, two or three if need be. Swing around their right, sir. Cut the Taneytown Road without a fight. Move toward the Baltimore Road, here, sir, above this place, Littlestown. We do that, sir, and it will dislodge them from here without a fight, and then we pick the ground."

Lee nodded thoughtfully but said nothing, gaze still on the map, the soft murmur of men talking outside and the clock continuing its steady beat.

As Lee studied the map, it seemed as if some lines of movement stood out sharply, like traces of light in his mind, while others faded to a distant blur. Numbers shifted and played in his mind . . . rates of movement, which division where, supply lines, which roads were macadamized and which were but dirt lanes. And of the other side? If they are coming here, then what are their lines of communication? Where is their railhead? They always marry their line to a railhead. Where is that?

The lines on the map led to that point, and in his mind he saw other lines, as if cut with fire, radiating out from it.

"Have any of our supply wagons come through the gap back to the Cumberland Valley yet?" he asked, his voice soft.

"No, sir. General Pickett is still with them," Longstreet replied, "but they have orders to start in the morning to come here."

Lee said nothing. Looking over there on the map, the road from Chambersburg down to here, that line now standing out sharp in his mind as he studied the map, then another line southward, back toward Greencastle, on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Another line on the map seemed to shine out now, due west to east, from their railhead, to the South's base of supplies.

"Dear God," and for a moment he was startled, for the words had escaped him, a barely audible whisper, and all in the room were surprised, but none commented.

He took another sip of coffee, put the cup down, adjusted his spectacles, rubbed his eyes, then looked up at his men.

They were like a frozen tableau.

"We are fighting the wrong battle here," Lee announced, his voice steady.

"Then we flank the hills?" Longstreet asked.

"No, General Longstreet."

"Sir?"

"What you just said, sir, a few minutes ago." Lee looked over at the clock and realized that he had been lost in thought for at least ten, maybe fifteen minutes.

"And that is?" Longstreet asked quizzically.

"About them pouring into Gettysburg like water down a funnel. You are right. General Longstreet. They will all be here by tomorrow morning. Though we do not know for certain the location of their Second Corps, or their Sixth Corps, that is what Meade will do; he will concentrate here and dig in. You are right in that, sir, and they will be ready for us no matter where we strike here.

"Though your plan, sir, is along the right lines, I think we should be more audacious, General Longstreet." And then he traced a line across the map far to the south, Emmitsburg, Taneytown, and then finally Westminster.

"General Longstreet, you spoke with great clarity just now, sir. We have all become focused on here, on this place, these roads leading to Gettysburg, these surrounding hills, and have forgotten how we have fought in the past, at Chancellorsville and especially Second Manassas.

"If they are here tomorrow, what is behind them? Not just behind the hills, sir, that you suggest we flank, but farther back, ten miles, twenty miles?"

No one spoke.

"Nothing, except their supplies, which are most likely based at Westminster."                                                 

He traced his finger on the map, estimating distances, his generals gathering closer.

"Jed, how far would you estimate?" and his cartographer leaned closer to watch,                                                   

"Here at Gettysburg, back to Fail-field, then Emmitsburg, then straight to Westminster."

Jed studied the map for a moment. "Thirty-five miles, but that's a rough guess, sir."                                             

"Jackson did over fifty in two days when he marched around them at the start of the Second Manassas campaign," Lee replied, and he chose the analogy deliberately, looking over at Longstreet.

He could see that the comment hit a nerve with Longstreet, who stiffened slightly and then made direct eye contact with Lee and held it.                                                                                                         

"Westminster is their supply head; it is the closest railroad," Lee continued, still looking at Longstreet. "Move toward that, gain the march on them, and it will be like Jackson taking Manassas Junction. We will have their supply line and be between them and Washington. Panic will ensue.

"All of the Yankees will be concentrated here at Gettysburg. They'll have to turn around and force march back. It will be a mad tangle. That is the disadvantage this town hides. Getting in is easy; getting back out quickly, that will be a problem. And while they do that, we simply dig in and get ready to receive them."

"How are these roads?" Longstreet asked, at last breaking eye contact with Lee to look at Hotchkiss.

Lee smiled inwardly. Longstreet was rising to the challenge, the bait. It would become for him an issue of pride, to match Jackson and what was now the immortal legend. 

"Emmitsburg to Taneytown to Westminster is a good pike, sir,” Hotchkiss replied. "Solid bridge over Monocacy Creek."

"I crossed through Westminster, sir," Stuart quickly interjected.  "Excellent roads. You could move an entire corps along them without a problem."

Lee held up his hand, indicating for everyone to remain calm. For a moment this afternoon he thought that final victory was, indeed, unfolding before Gettysburg. He realized now that if he had not launched that final, desperate evening assault he would have rejected Longstreet's reasoning, which had triggered this new line of thought, believing that come dawn the fight could be pressed to a successful conclusion on this ground. He knew now that Longstreet, without a doubt, was right. Today, exactly one year later, he had fought Malvern Hill here at Gettysburg on July 1st. He would never make that mistake again.

The battle here at Gettysburg was finished.

"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 to 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."

He looked around the room. Ewell's gaze seemed a bit distant; most likely he was still in shock after the debacle before Cemetery Hill, but Longstreet, Stuart, and even Hill had stirred. In their eyes was that light, that terrible fire he had seen before in men anticipating battle and knew could blaze within him as well.

There was a final gaze back at the map of Gettysburg, then over to the other map, his glance catching a creek north of Westminster. . .Pipe Creek.

He took a deep breath and pushed the map of Gettysburg aside.

Perhaps the fate of our nation rests on what I’ve just done here, he thought, but that thought held only for a moment until finally, like the map, he pushed it aside as well. Such thoughts, at such moments, could only serve to cripple one’s will, and there was a campaign to be planned.

In the spirit of “Don’t Mess With Texas,” many potential readers will be turned off by a novel that dares to present a history that didn’t happen. It’s one thing to place fictional characters into a setting that’s historically accurate. It’s quite another to place historical characters into a history that didn’t happen. Newt was something of a political revolutionary; now he’s a revolutionary when it comes to historical fiction. The novel Gettysburg may present a story of how Newt wishes the battle had gone, but as with his work in Congress, we know what really happened. Unless your interest in the battle of Gettysburg is strong, or your curiosity is unsatiable, take a pass on Gettysburg.

Steve Hopkins, June 21, 2003

 

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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2003 issue of Executive Times

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