Gettysburg redress: In Gingrich’s fictional version of the war, the Republicans and the South were both right

Newt Gingrich at the Union League Club. (Reid Pillifant)
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Ben Jacobs

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While Newt Gingrich, as a politician and historian, has a reputation for courting intellectual controversy, his fiction is far more politically attuned.

In his trilogy on the Battle of Gettysburg, Gettysburg, Grant Comes East and Never Call Retreat, Gingrich tackles the most difficult subject for a Republican politician from the South to write about, the Civil War. After all, while the Republican Party was founded, in part, to preserve the Union, much of the South still maintains the tradition of the “lost cause” and glorifies the Confederacy to this day.

It is difficult to strike a balance between the way the modern G.O.P. wants to see itself and the way much of its base wants to see the Civil War. The inconvenient fact of slavery always comes up, which, no matter how much one idolizes Robert E. Lee or admires the resilience of the ragged warriors of the Army of Northern Virginia, makes it impossible to justify the cause for which they fought.

But Gingrich manages to avoid the balancing act entirely. By writing fiction, he creates a past in which the most inconvenient facts simply don’t exist.

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In Gingrich’s rendition, the South wins Gettysburg. This doesn’t change the basic outcome of the war: The South still loses, after the Union’s industrial might wears the Confederate army down and Lee inevitably surrenders to Grant.

At times, the books aren't so much historical fiction as a historical remix, repeating familiar events in a fictional context. Gingrich’s fictional Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain leads the 20th Maine in a heroic stand against overwhelming odds, just like at Gettysburg, but outside Taneytown, Maryland instead, and he suffers a wound almost identical to the one that the actual Chamberlain received at Petersburg in 1864.

Gingrich’s fiction diverges from history late on the first day of Gettysburg. A fortuitous view of the battlefield from atop a building leads Lee to decide against continuing the fight the next day. Instead, he sends his army on a 45-mile march around the Army of the Potomac, interposing his troops between the enemy and Washington, D.C. Lee’s audacious move succeeds. The Union commander, George Meade, launches a desperate attack in which his army, already bloodied by the one-day battle of Gettysburg, is annihilated.

This is the cue for Ulysses S. Grant to be summoned east, along with much of his army, to rebuild and refit the Union army. While Grant undertakes this task, Lee tries unsuccessfully to take D.C., and then settles for capturing Baltimore. Although he wins yet another brilliant victory against the reformed remnants of the Army of the Potomac, Lee is eventually trapped in Maryland by forces far superior to his own in numbers and supplies. He is unable to fight his way out and Appomattox in the real world is replaced with Montgomery County, Maryland.

The aftermath is a Reconstruction without Reconstruction. The South, under the guidance of Lee, agrees to ban slavery forever and, in return, all 11 Confederate states are peacefully readmitted to the Union.

Gingrich’s reimagining of the Civil War is not particularly exciting, but his depictions of historical characters and events reveal something about him as an author and as a politician.

In his fiction, just like his political career, Gingrich occasionally veers from current conservative orthodoxy. While the Civil War doesn’t offer any opportunities to opine about the individual mandate or the housing bubble, for example, it does allow Gingrich to offer laudatory examples of assisted suicide. The most glaring example occurs when Gingrich writes of “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 a draught of morphine from a doctor who knew the amount he was giving to him was not murder but a merciful blessing.”

But with that exception, the books represent a bowdlerized history of the Civil War, edited not to protect the young and impressionable but the Southern and Republican. Unpleasant and inconvenient facts are swept away by the alterations in history in order to make the Confederate States of America and the Party of Lincoln a compatible pair.

The most apt example is how Gingrich transforms Robert E. Lee into an opponent of slavery. Lee’s conversion happens under perhaps the most surreal circumstances imaginable—over Shabbat dinner with a fictional Baltimore rabbi. The dinner, which takes place after the Confederate occupation of the city, involves the rabbi, Lee, and a third guest, Confederate secretary of state Judah Benjamin, who is the apparent connection between Lee and the Baltimore’s Jewish community.

Gingrich’s Lee is initially wowed by the great similarities between Judaism and Christianity, noting that “the prayer . . . except for no mention of Jesus, was familiar and comfortable to him, drawing on the Psalms.” But then the conversation gets serious. The rabbi is blunt with Lee, telling him that the South will lose the war unless it promises to free the slaves and immediately recruits black soldiers, on both moral and practical grounds. He then asserts to Lee that the Emancipation Proclamation took the moral high ground from the South and the only way that the South can reclaim it, as well as win recognition from abroad, is to free its own slaves as well.

Lee is finally persuaded that this Confederate proclamation “would bond the men of the South, black and white, into a bond of blood that will forever change the social dynamic of your newly freed country. When men bleed side by side on the battlefield, they become brothers in peace.”

At the end of dinner, it is hinted that Benjamin staged the conversation for Lee’s benefit. Benjamin has long believed this in secret and finally feels the time is right to convert Lee, who is the only man in the Confederacy of greater stature than Jefferson Davis. If Lee is convinced, the South might be saved.

This, of course, is about as historically accurate as a Mel Gibson movie, if only with far more expository dialogue. But it leaves a certain dramatic dilemma. If Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army, is a good guy, inclined toward abolition, who then is the villain? Although there are vague hints at the perfidy of Jefferson Davis in the last pages of the third volume, Gingrich places the black hat on two figures from the North who elide the boundaries between politician and war leader, Dan Sickles and Edwin Stanton.

Stanton, who was Lincoln’s Secretary of War, is depicted as obsessed with protecting Washington and undermines Lincoln throughout for reasons that are never quite revealed. (The real Stanton was devoted to Lincoln at this point in history, even though earlier, during his tenure at the War Department, he was a vicious critic, having famously referred to the president as a gorilla.)

Stanton seems to be chosen as an antagonist both for his role as a radical Republican after the war, and because he makes a convenient plot device. But Stanton plays second fiddle to Dan Sickles, who is the archvillain of the series.

Sickles is a New York City Democratic politician who was given command of a Union brigade at the beginning of the war and rose to become a corps commander. In enshrining Sickles as the bad guy, Gingrich avoids blaming Republicans or Southerners. Instead, the antagonist is a Democratic machine politician from New York, naturally without honor or scruples.

So the ultimate villain in Gingrich’s fiction is little different from the straw nemesis evoked by Gingrich’s political rhetoric in real life. Sickles is a Democrat motivated by ambition, who unhesitatingly engages in class warfare. Gingrich paints him with the same brush he has used to portray Jim Wright and Bill Clinton and, during his remarkable recent run as front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Barack Obama.

The Sickles of Gingrich’s trilogy is constantly resentful of the elitist, West Point-educated generals, whom he blames for the North’s military setbacks. He is embittered by the thought that, if left to his own devices, he might have foiled Lee’s successful outflanking of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg.

But the measure of Sickles’ villainy is only truly revealed after that battle, when he is sent to suppress the New York City Draft Riots, made far worse because of the Union defeat.