For the first three days of July each year I watch the film "Gettysburg," based on Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels," so of course I would be interested in reading "Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War" written by fellow Amazon reviewer Newt Gingrich and military historian William R. Forstchen. The book sat on my shelf for a couple of months before I decided to read it, at which point I took over the cover with ever bothering to look at it. Since I had missed all of the publicity for the novel, I actually started this book without knowing that it would turn into a "what if?" revision of the pivotal Civil War battle and finished it without being aware that it was the first in a trilogy, the second volume of which, "Grant Comes East," is due out next month.
Consequently, when on the night of July 1, 1863 General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, agrees with the suggestion of his senior corps commander, James Longstreet, that the Confederates pull away from Gettysburg and seek better ground on which to destroy the Union Army of the Potomac, I knew immediately that the authors were diverging from the path of history. My immediate reaction was that this would be interesting. Once of the problems with telling the story of the Battle of Gettysburg as a novel is that Shaara already won the Pulitzer Prize for doing so, and it is impossible to read the events of the first day of the battle without being aware of how Gingrich and Forstchen are stepping around Shaara's story of how John Buford's Federal cavalry delayed the Confederate advance long enough to preserve the lovely high ground at Gettysburg for the Union army and Henry Hunt's artillery.
Up to the night of July 1 this novel sticks very close to what really happened. The only significant point of divergence that I really picked up on was that General Henry Hunt, Chief of Artillery for the Army of the Potomac, showed up on the battlefield on the first day and artillery to effectively stop the Confederate advance up Culp's Hill. Historically Hunt did not arrive on the battlefield until late that first night, having been ordered earlier that evening by General George Meade, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, to move the artillery reserve to Gettysburg.
Hunt's presence is crucial to changing the calculus for Lee, because adding all that artillery to the equation at the beginning of the battle makes it clear to the Confederate commander that Gettysburg would be another Malvern Hill for his army. Lee mission in taking his troops into the North was not just to get supplies but also to destroy the Army of the Potomac in a last concerted effort to voice President Abraham Lincoln to the peace table. Vicksburg is on the verge of falling to Ulysses S. Grant in the West and unless Lee can win a decisive victory in July 1863 the industrial might and flood of immigrants in the North will make a Union victory inevitable.
I like how Gingrich and Forstchen play out their alternative battle. The ground for the decisive battle is obviously not as well known as the famous terrain of Gettysburg, but a string of roughly drawn maps are provided to give us a sense of the geographical situation. But basically what the authors appear to be doing is to provide a scenario that produces Pickett's Charge in reverse. However, you can never be absolutely sure that is what is going on here and you have to be open to the possibilities.
As with any alternative history Gingrich and Forstchen are often tempted to include bits and pieces of what really happened into their narrative. For example, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (called Joshua in an apparent attempt to carve a figure somewhat different from the one glorified in "The Killer Angels") still wants his brother Tom to be stay away during the battle because if they both get hit by a shell "It will be a hard day for Mother." Those familiar with Chamberlain's distinguished career after the defense of Little Round Top on the second day at Gettysburg will notice that a key moment from later in the war is transposed to this point in time.
Ultimately the battle being played out here is more important than the characters. The Lee of this novel is a mixture of piety and anger that I have not come across before, and there is clearly a sense in which it is the heroism of the troops rather than the quality of their commanders that matters in the battles. Now that I know that this story extends for two more books I have to reconsider the military figures that Gingrich and Forstchen are removing from the board (a number of generals who survived Gettysburg are killed) as well as those being tapped for future prominence. Hunt is clearly one of those and so is the politician turned Union general Dan Sickles, a choice that you cannot help but look at with an eye askance given Gingrich's political career.
I thought the ending of the novel allows it to stand on its own. By now means is it determined who is going to win the war at that point, making "Gettysburg" an inkblot in which anybody who wants to see the Confederacy winning the war can draw that conclusion and those who want to continue believing in the inevitability of a Union victory can see evidence to support that position as well. It is too early to be able to determine what ultimate point Gingrich and Forstchen intend to try and make with their alternative history, but I am sure there will be one, just as there was with Harry Turtledove's "Guns of the South." Therefore, judgment needs to be reserved on that score until the trilogy is completed.