Gettysburg, a novel by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and science fiction writer William Forstchen, begins with an old man, weary of war and worn out by life’s tragedies, riding his horse near the encamped Army of Northern Virginia in the Cumberland Valley. It is late June, 1863, and the Confederates are on the march north, to destroy the Union Army of the Potomac once and for all and end the war that has been raging for over two years.
The man is Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, known affectionately as “Marse Robert”, loved by his men, respected by both sides. He has already seen more death than he would care to think. His daughter. His “strong right arm” Stonewall Jackson. Uncounted numbers of men in gray who have given their lives by his command. And there will be more, he knows, before the peace is won.
One can be forgiven if Gettysburg is meant to cover the same ground that Michael Shaara did in his outstanding Killer Angels. But Gingrich and Forstchen have another purpose in mind. They are not writing a history novel, but an alternate history.
The fact that Gettysburg is alternate history is not really apparent until the scenes depicting the morning of the second day of the battle. In the history in which we live, Lee sent Longstreet’s Division against the left flank of the Union Army. Thanks largely to the heroic stand of the 20th Maine Regiment under Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, that attack was repulsed. But Lee, thinking that it was a near run thing, hurtled Pickett’s Division against the Union center with the horrific results history has recorded.
But in the novel, Lee listens to another strategy proposed by General Longstreet. Fix the Union Army in place by a small part of the Army of Northern Virginia. Take the bulk of the Confederate Army south, swing round, and cut off the Union Army from its supply lines. That was what Stonewall Jackson would have done.
In real history Lee rejected Longstreet’s proposal. In the novel, he accepts it.
The rest of the novel is a lyrical, heart breaking story of men at war in a battle that was never fought. We see familiar men dealing with situations that they were never asked to deal with in our history. The Army of the Potomac, outflanked, cut off from Washington, is forced out of the strong position south of Gettysburg and is compelled to attack the Confederates who are now in their own strong position. The result is a disaster for the Union.
We see another Pickett’s Charge, this time with far greater success. We see Chamberlain’s Maine men buy the lives of what is left of the Army of the Potomac with their own in a last desperate rear guard action. The Battle of Union Mills, as it is called, is the Confederacy’s greatest victory, in the narrative of the novel. It is the last day on Earth for far too many men.
Gingrich and Forstchen also include the story of one General Henry Haupt, in command of the railroads that feed and sustain the Union Army. Unlike most writers of military fiction, the authors know that while amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics when it comes to mastering the art of war. Haupt’s story is no less heroic than those who lead men in desperate battles with rifled musket and bayonet.
While Lee and his Confederates are triumphant, they have not yet won the war. President Lincoln is shaken, but not broken. At the end of the novel, he sends a telegram to another Union General, who has just triumphed at a town called Vicksburg. “As of this date, you are hereby appointed to the rank of lieutenant general in command of all armies of the United States. With all possible speed I am ordering you to take whatever steps are necessary to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia and end this war.”
Lee and his men do not yet know it, but General Ulysses S. Grant is coming. They have not faced his like before. Their triumph is not the end, but merely the beginning of a conflagration that will decide the fate of the American nation.