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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Hallowed Ground.

"Meade will come in slowly, cautiously, new to command... And then, after Lee's army is entrenched behind nice fat rocks, Meade will attack finally, if he can coordinate the army. He'll attack right up that rocky slope, and up that gorgeous field of fire. And we will charge valiantly, and be butchered valiantly. And afterwards men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chests and say what a brave charge it was. Devin, I've led a soldier's life, and I've never seen anything as brutally clear as this."

So speaks Union Brigadier General John Buford, in the script for the classic film, Gettysburg. Fortunately, it didn't turn out quite that way, of course.

When--not if, when--you visit the Gettysburg National Military Park, do not immediately go on the chronological tour. You will have plenty of time to hear of the tragic stand of the Iron Brigade and the death of gallant John Reynolds later.

No--instead, go immediately to the unremarkable but still steep Appalachian spur called "Little Round Top." Look immediately west, down into the daunting jumble of rocks appropriately called the Devil's Den, which is over half a mile away from the crest of Little Round Top. You will come to the conclusion that no foot infantry on earth could have charged through that landscape to victory that day.

Thousands of brave Confederate soldiers charged through this impossible terrain on July 2, 1863, in the miscalculated hope that the Army of Northern Virginia could flank the Army of the Potomac and either destroy that ill-starred force or force it to fight on the ground of the Rebels' choosing.

They failed. By the barest of margins, to be sure. By the empty rifles--by the length of the fixed bayonets--of the 20th Maine Regiment, employing a desperate strategem devised by the Bowdoin College professor who led them, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

[Let us now pause to imagine a modern New England college or university professor leading American troops in combat. Can't do it? Me neither. Such is for the imagination of fantasists, alas.]

Nevertheless, by the thousands, the Confederates were killed and wounded in the uphill climb, stopped by equally brave Union soldiers standing on far, far better ground. The battle was decided that day, with the futile-from-conception charge of the men of Pickett's Division being a gory denoument on the following day.

The insanely courageous John Bell Hood (for whom Fort Hood is named) was wounded leading his Texans in the charge against Little Round Top. As he was being carried in a stretcher to a medical tent, he was met by his superior officer, Lt. General James Longstreet.

Before losing consciousness, he plaintively told his commander: "You should have let me go around to the right..."

The words must have galled Longstreet, who had argued the very same thing from the beginning, recognizing the Union's advantages of terrain and numbers. But he was overruled by Robert E. Lee, who was certain one last push would destroy an army he had crushed four weeks earlier in Chancellorsville, Virginia.

But what if...

What if Lee had decided that Gettysburg was indeed bad ground? What if he refused battle and instead went "around to the right"? Way around to the right, forcing the Army of the Potomac to engage it on ground of his choosing?

Such is the premise of Gettysburg, the first in a trilogy looking at an alternate Civil War based on such a point of divergence.

Now, I know--the first author. Newt Gingrich?! Save it--there's not a whiff of modern politics in the entire trilogy. Besides, as someone has pointed out to confirmed Gingrophobes--wouldn't you rather have him writing fiction as opposed to legislation? Nor, contrary to early speculation, is there any Lost Cause apologetic to be found in its pages.

Furthermore, if the trilogy is any hint of his writing ability, he's got a future in the speculative fiction business. William Forstchen I'm much more familiar with, being a fan of his Lost Regiment fantasy series (fifteen second run-on synopsis: a Maine regiment heading home by ship in 1865 is swallowed up and sent to a world where humans are the slave-entrees of heretofore invincible 10-foot tall nomadic humanoids armed with longbows who prove very...allergic to rounds from a .58 Sharps--highly recommended, but extremely gory (see "entrees," supra)). Albert Hanser is also credited with a "Contributing Editor" role, whatever that portends.

In any event, the fiction is seamless, no small feat for a collaboration. As much as I enjoy Niven and Pournelle's works, there were times I can tell where one is writing the section at hand. I didn't detect that here.

The first installment follows the historical battle as it does in history until the early evening of July 1, when an impatient Lee decides to go to the headquarters of General Richard Ewell, whom Lee had previously ordered (rather ambiguously, but still ordered) to take the Union position on Culp's Hill. Seeing the carnage of the half-hearted failed attack, Lee decides that Gettysburg is not the place to fight, and decides to disengage entirely.

Not to retreat, but to destroy the Union's line of supply and force the Yankees to attack him on ground of his choosing. In order to do that, he has to steal a couple of marches on an Army going through its fifth command change in a year. He does so successfully, setting up a climactic confrontation at Union Mills, Maryland, on July 4, 1863.

Without giving too much away (though the book cover and blurbs telegraph the essential outcome), it's safe to say that Gettysburg makes for a frustrating read for Union men like myself. Whatever else that can be said for the valiant Army of the Potomac, it is clear that Robert Edward Lee had set up shop in the collective heads of most of its too-cautious generalship, who squandered advantages time and again out of worry over what Marse Robert might do next. Not to mention through distrust and flat-out political infighting, which crop up here with profound import.

The book is not composed of long-winded speechifying about tactics, logistics and other impersonalities of war--not by a long shot. Such is the great danger of military fiction of all kinds, and it can kill even the best-intentioned works.

But not here. Forstchen and Gingrich carefully-draw portraits of characters both historical and fictional, and all act with believable, understandable, and all-too-human motivations. The atrocities and moving chivalry of both sides are depicted without bias (for example, a Confederate colonel summarily executes one of his soldiers who bayoneted a helpless prisoner), and one famous officer pleads with his equally famed opponent to "Please surrender, sir, for God's sake!" Being an admirer of both gentlemen, I am pleased to report that the plea is accepted. Indeed, one of the most poignant aspects is the fact that the opposing officers know each other so well, each a member of a proud, generous fraternity ruptured by the sectional divide.

The book ends with the Army of Northern Virginia in an apparently commanding position, with the will of its opponents broken--all save one: that of Abraham Lincoln, whose response is to draft an order giving command of all Union armies to one Ulysses S. Grant, also victorious on July 4, 1863, at a place called Vicksburg.

But more about Grant Comes East later. Gettysburg is a strongly-recommended read, for both Southrons and Union men alike.

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