Saturday, April 5, 2014

Gettysburg by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

I don’t understand why this book is called Gettysburg. It’s not about the Battle of Gettysburg. In this alternate history, in which Lee takes Longstreet’s advice to move around the Union’s left flank on July 2, 1863, and entrench somewhere between Gettysburg and Washington, the climactic battle that ensues takes place along a tiny tributary called Pipe Creek.

I guess the publisher figured a book called Pipe Creek wasn’t likely to sell as many copies as one called Gettysburg.

I also don’t like the melodramatic flourishes the authors include in their battle narratives.

Such as...

On the ground, in front of the gun he had just fired, was a rebel flag, a red Saint Andrew’s cross, torn to shreds, staff gone, a twitching body next to it, the flag bearer, the bottom half of his body nothing but a ghastly tangle of charred flesh that was still smoking from the blast.

One of Wiedrich’s gunners scrambled over the lunette and started to pick up the flag. The Reb feebly reached out, trying to hang onto the colors. The gunner stopped, knelt down by his side, and relinquished the flag, gently putting the colors back into the hands of the dying boy. The gunner cupped his hands around the Confederate’s, leaned over, whispering something. The eyes of the dying boy shifted, looking up at the gunner. He started to say something, lips moving. Henry heard to words drifting as the two spoke together.

“‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures...’”

The boy shook convulsively and then was still.

The gunner closed the Reb’s eyes and then gently pried the bloody fingers loose.

He picked up the flag. There was no triumphal waving of it. The men of the battery stood silent, staring at him. The gunner came back over the lunette, tears streaming down his blackened face.


Quinn knelt up again. “Those of you around me!” he shouted. “I’m making a run for the woods straight ahead. Any of you with some guts, come with me. The rest of you, well, you can go to hell!”

Making the sign of the cross, he took a deep breath, stood up, and started forward at a run. From the corner of his eye, he saw a dozen or more men stand up, going forward with him.

And, perhaps most unbelievable of all…

Along the far slope, twelve hundred yards away, men were up and out of the trench. A teenage boy from North Carolina, one of the “pets” of the company, disemboweled by a fragment, was surrounded by weeping comrades as he penned a farewell note to his mother with trembling hand, then accepted the draught of morphine from a doctor who knew the amount he was giving to him was not murder, but a merciful blessing.

It’s almost as if the authors were describing Norman Rockwell paintings.

What am I supposed to think when presented with characters who do these things? Is my heart supposed to swell with patriotism and pride? Am I supposed to marvel at how sublimely horrible war can be? Or am I meant to rage against the injustice that would bring such fanciful situations about?

I’m not sure. But apparently, I’m not the only one who is meant to be affected by these scenes of heroic fatalism. Here is some internal dialogue given to the novel’s fictionalized version of the Robert E. Lee, just after he learns of the death of Union General John Reynolds.

John, I’m sorry. This war never should have divided us. Duty, you and I lived for duty. We learned that at the Point, taught it to our cadets in turn. We were trained for this, believed it to be our sacred trust. A soldier must not ask why once he has drawn his sword for his nation. He takes his orders and carries them out unflinchingly; thus it was with the Roman Republic, with the Crusaders, with my own father who rode with Washington.

The Roman Republic, the Crusades, the American Revolutionary War. An interesting triptych. Makes me wonder how many fewer would have died if there had been few less unquestioning soldiers in each. But I digress. Back to Lee. I now responsible for all this death? For John, for the bodies that are swelling in the fields around me?

He slowed, suppressing a gag as they edged around a dead horse that had been nearly cut in half by a bursting shell, the broken body of a man twisted up in the offal.

“Lieutenant Jenson, find some men, get that poor man out of that mess, and have then drag the horse off the road. I don’t want troops seeing that.”

Of course not. A man twisted up in the burst internal organs of a dying horse. That’s not something Rockwell would have painted.

If I start thinking of this now, dwelling on all that this means, it will slow me, make me hesitate. One gets lost in it, the sight of a column of men, buoyant, filled with youthful zeal, marching along the road on a spring morning, their voices rising with the wind, a vast ocean sweeping toward victory, or the lines going forward, the first shock of battle joined, the air splitting with thunder...those are the moments we give ourselves over to the dark god.

Yes, that’s better. That will stir the blood and send it coursing through a patriot’s veins. But what’s this last bit about a dark god? Does Lee understand how faulty that vision can be? How much it lies to us?

The duality of man is so apparent then, men like myself who kneel in prayer to the Prince of Peace, who then rise up and go forth, open-eyed, into the red field, filled with mad passion for war and glorying in the moment. It is now, though, that we see the truth in what we do in this darkness before dawn.


And he visibly shook himself, as if trying to cast off a weight upon his shoulders.

Not now. Long after this day is over I can dwell on my sins. I must stay the course with all my strength; to do otherwise is a betrayal of all who have already lost their lives, leading us to this moment.

He does, he does understand--both in life and in the fiction that the authors have created. But it is such a twisted logic. We must allow more to be killed so we don’t have to face the souls of those who have already died.

It is the Norman Rockwell picture of war that enables this kind of interpretation, the sense that war--as awful as it is--swells the heart and allows for the finest example of valor and courage. Whether it is subtly placed in the mind of a commander or less artfully forced into the flow of a narrative, the shocking embrace of the perceived holy amidst a totality of mindless carnage damages both our history and the fictions on which it is based.

And it kept me from enjoying what might otherwise have been a delightful read.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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