- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004


By Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press

$24.95, 404 pages

The authors of “Grant Comes East” have spun a good yarn. They pose a version of a question popular in some nonacademic history circles: “What if?” In this case, what if Robert E. Lee had inflicted a severe defeat on the Union Army during his invasion of Pennsylvania in July 1863?

What would have resulted? Could Lee have taken Washington, forcing an end to the war and winning international recognition for the Confederacy? Suspense in this crisply written plot depends on whether Ulysses S. Grant, fresh from his victory at Vicksburg, can get back East in time to stave off a disaster for the United States.

The authors provide apt, historically plausible detail to give substance to the premise. They report that Lee, instead of attacking federal entrenchments frontally at Gettysburg on July 2, took Gen. James Longstreet’s (actual and historical) advice to flank the Army of the Potomac and force it out in the open. The climactic battle, the authors say, was at Union Mills. Although they do not depict the battle there, they claim it was an overwhelming Southern victory.

It isn’t long before Washington is under siege at its northernmost defense, Fort Stevens. Northern morale is further shattered by the savage New York draft riots (again, an actual event in the summer of 1863). The authors may be playing a fictional game with history, but they are inventive in marshaling as many facts as they can to make it credible. Despite some stretching of the premise and minor problems, the result is an engrossing, and fast, read.

The former speaker of the House has a graduate degree in American history; it shows here, though not heavy-handedly. Drama, as in any good novel, drives the action. Mr. Gingrich and his colleagues, for example, have a keen knowledge of the District of Columbia. Details include some handwritten maps (presumably to suggest their authenticity) of fortifications around the capital.

The authors wisely concentrate on Fort Stevens — the scene of actual fighting in 1864, when a smaller Southern force than the one imagined here exchanged volleys with its defenders. In their 1863 scenario, the authors imagine a horrid full-scale assault that costs Lee’s army dearly.

The strongest characterizations involve the major leaders, in this case Lee, Grant and Abraham Lincoln. (Jefferson Davis shows up later and is, as in life, a tad shrill.)

In an interesting touch, Lee, looking on Fort Stevens, reflects on the happier times spent looking at Washington from his mansion on the other side of the Potomac. Despite the exhaustion of his army from its long campaign, Lee keeps pushing his army: “He reminded himself of military history, how after Cannae, Hannibal had inexplicably hesitated, giving Rome time to prepare.”

Lincoln also is given some rich inner meditations. In a key passage, the authors write: “If we fail now, if we let this continent sink into divided nations that ultimately will fight yet again and divide yet again, the dream of our forefathers will be for naught.”

Though underemphasized in general, this is accurate. Long before he embraced abolition, Lincoln saw the war in a worldwide context. Authoritarians always said democracy degenerates into anarchy. The United States was the only functional mass democracy in the world. As the authors note, Lincoln was not going to let it fracture.

One of the best exchanges in the book involves Lincoln and a black servant at the White House, who asks if the household staff should arm itself when the Confederates arrive.

The authors here again use relatively new, and not widely known, historical fact: Many blacks in the North, free or contraband, were escorted South by Confederate armies during the invasions of 1862 and 1863. This is not an attempt to be politically correct, just delineation of the whole truth, which (the authors show) can be told without demeaning white men.

When Lincoln discusses the military situation with the servant, he begins to see that he is, for the first time, talking with a black American as a human being like himself.

A factual historian may protest that this conversation never happened, but in truth, something like it did happen: Lincoln came slowly but surely to believe all men, indeed, were created equal.

The authors make the race issue a key theme in the book, even including a hypothetical exchange between two Confederate leaders about their own “emancipation proclamation.”

However, we know in truth that that notion lived and died with Gen. Patrick Cleburne.

In general, characterization is interesting (Grant’s associates are nervous when they see a whiskey bottle), but not profound.

Interesting characters show up, such as Ely Parker, Grant’s adjutant, a figure hardly mentioned now, but remarkable for his full-blooded Seneca background.

When Lincoln visits Fort Stevens, stovepipe hat visible to all (as it was in the actual fighting in 1864), he tends the wounded with — who else? — Walt Whitman. The efficient portrayal of the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin, is excellent.

Sometimes the authors go too far in filling out the cast, as when Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts (famed from the movie “Glory”) show up at Fort Stevens to save the day.

This seems far-fetched.

My other quibbles are simple. Some scenes are oversentimentalized. Villains are characterized simplistically. They may have been as cowardly or narcissistic as claimed, but drama is weakened when they resemble cliches.

Gen. Dan Sickles takes the prize as the worst Yankee. But the authors are scrupulously fair and portray good and evil men on both sides. Some Confederate sympathizers disgrace themselves in an attack on Baltimore late in the book.

Devotees of authenticity will dislike the “What If?” premise of “Grant Comes East.” Many Civil War buffs tolerate no deviation from the script, not even in re-enactments.

I too questioned, at first, the assumptions behind the premise that there could be any Confederate victory on Northern soil.

Nevertheless, “Grant Comes East” is colorful and imaginative historical fiction. Grant does come East, cleans up a new mess created by Sickles, and the war continues with a Northern invasion of the South.

Now, for the next “What if”: Supposing he lost?

Tom O’Brien is a Washington writer.

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