- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

If Newt Gingrich, that most extraordinary of modern Republicans, could rewrite his own history, he would still be speaker of the House — or perhaps even more. As it is, he has rewritten the story of the Civil War’s most momentous battle, and it’s an eye-opener.

Mr. Gingrich takes a “what if” look at Gettysburg in a novel filled with gore, smoke, heat of battle and a surprise ending. Hint: The underdogs do better than expected.

With Mr. Gingrich, you always knew the mind was turning over at perhaps twice the revolutions per minute of any other politician’s brain. It was that quality — of moving too soon, of thinking too fast, of talking too much — that brought him down by making his slower, plodding colleagues and adversaries realize the man was politically dangerous.

For Mr. Gingrich as a novelist, all those qualities come to good. It was Mr. Gingrich, after all, who put the office of the speaker onto the nation’s television almost daily. Here, Mr. Gingrich, with the able assistance of William R. Forstchen, a military historian and author of 30 other books, takes on the guise of novelist and masters it with ease. Albert S. Hanser, the third-named author, is credited as “contributing editor.”

If a good romance novel is known to lovers of the genre as a “bodice ripper,” then this vivid war story is a “tunic ripper” that, alas, features no romance (unless it is that between the authors and their fictional Gen. Robert E. Lee) but drives home every cliche of bloody 19th-century warfare with whistling, smoking, bone-crunching verve.

Mr. Gingrich’s thesis will pique the interest of all those Civil War buffs who wonder whether Lee lost his battlefield genius after the death of his famous colleague, Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Critics hold that Lee blundered at Gettysburg, sending his prized assault troops into a deadly killing zone where their bravery availed them nothing.

When the smoke had cleared, one-third of the men of the Army of Northern Virginia were dead or wounded and the Confederacy had lost that most important thing: belief in itself.

What, ask Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Forstchen, if Lee had chosen a different course at the same historic juncture? What if he had used his famous penchant for maneuver and indirection that had carried him to victory against heavy odds through 1862 and early 1863?

What if, instead of facing off with Gen. George Meade, Lee had taken control of the site on which the battle would be fought, something he always had managed to do before?

Suddenly, the carefully followed account of the great battle is laid down, and the story spins off in a new direction. Change one or two key decisions and work out the logical consequences. Here is historical novel writing with a difference.

The two novelists work with this equation. Whether or not it will satisfy students of Civil War strategy or the thousands of amateur historians who remain fascinated by the complex puzzle of the last unmechanized — and therefore almost medieval — battles America would know, is not the point. The tale as told will satisfy readers by its stark realism, its clear order and its skillfully managed viewpoints.

The authors use cinematic techniques, flashing from the view of one man to another to tell the story along the whole battlefront, and they do it with remarkable skill. The writing is vivid and clear, though the cast of characters is vast, so vast that the editors wisely signal from which side each voice speaks, each eye sees.

What of Mr. Gingrich is visible here? A few jabs at the press, seen as jackals who gather at headquarters seeking fodder for their agendas: The reporters knew “a major story was developing and they were begging for a comment that they could then chop up as they saw fit. He avoided them as he always did.”

There also are a few jabs at the White House, where indecision reigns, combined with infighting among ambitious power seekers.

Among the ranks, too, there are intrigue and conspiracy, particularly on the Northern side, where the generals again and again betray the gallantry of the troops by their hesitation and lack of initiative.

As for the central portrait of the book, the fictionalized Lee, Mr. Gingrich borders on sentimentalism, painting the great strategist as a troubled saint who wrings his hands over the slaughter of his enemies and stays close to tears because of the deep devotion of his men.

But that’s a quibble. Mr. Gingrich has delivered a ripping good read. Would Lee have won if he had taken Mr. Gingrich’s advice during those days in July?

That decision remains with the reader.

Duncan Spencer is a writer in Washington.

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