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Thursday, September 9th, 2004


 

Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War

by Newt Gingrich

Against Appomattox

A review by Thomas J. Brown & Elisabeth Sifton

Six years ago, congressional Republicans of the "revolutionary" majority of 1994-1998 drove Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich from office. He had reassured them that the party was likely to pick up forty seats in the midterm elections, but instead it had lost five seats, and these political miscalculations came on top of his wobbly response to various charges that the House Ethics Committee had brought against him two years earlier. He left in disgrace, trailing exasperated and angry recriminations.

Yet Gingrich has never really gone away. He seems omnipresent, self-confidently opining about foreign and defense policy, what's wrong with the State Department, what we should do about Iraq. Since our culture gives a shamed or defeated public figure a radioactive second half-life on television, especially if he is affiliated with think tanks, Gingrich is cozily plugged into Fox News as well as the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. He is proud of his "man of ideas" reputation, but his post-congressional career focuses on staying in the public eye and on his consultancy business; his company claims that he is "widely recognized as a transformational leader, unparalleled in his ability to create and lead successful large-scale change." It adds that as Speaker "he disrupted the status quo by moving power out of Washington and back to the American people." This is not how most voters remember it, but it sure sounds like Gingrich. His specialty has always been a fizzy cocktail of policy-wonk discourse and Washington fast talk.

Another specialty is his bookishness. According to a recent article in The Weekly Standard, he loves to read spy novels, mysteries, and thrillers, and even reviews them for Amazon.com: "Clearly something of an addict, Gingrich finds that he 'can't put down' dozens of 'page-turners' that 'grab you on the first page and carry you straight to the end' and so has to read 'nonstop.'" What Gingrich likes best, the report continued, are books about politics and power, about important revolutionary ideas and their effect in the public arena. And he respects military men; he gave five stars to Wesley Clark's "timely" recent book, for example.

Given all this thoughtful activity, you would think that Gingrich's own two recent novels, co-authored with William Forstchen and with assistance from Albert S. Hanser, might have attracted more attention, especially since he has described them each as "an active history study in the lessons of warfare." What could be more pertinent? Here we are in the midst of a war initiated, conducted, and defended by Gingrich's own party, with brave American soldiers dying every week, and here is a brave Republican to tell us what it means, actively: why wars are fought, how wars are won. Here, perhaps, this man "recognized internationally as an expert on world history, military issues, and international affairs" (those are the words on his website) can help us. "Has Newt been gone long enough," an aide asked recently, "so that people, especially Democrats, can put their dislike of the name 'Gingrich' aside long enough to look at his ideas?"

Well, let's try. But before we get to his novels and his ideas, we should keep in mind a few of Gingrich's comments on contemporary developments. When the Senate rejected the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, he warned that "the left at its core understands in a way Grant understood after Shiloh that this is a civil war, that only one side will prevail, and the other side will be relegated to history. This war has to be fought with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars. While we are lucky in this country that our civil wars are fought at the ballot box, not on the battlefields, nonetheless it is a civil war." This odd and ugly remark at least clarified the vehemence of his purely sectarian politics.

More recently, on Meet the Press in May, speaking of Iraq (or perhaps of the war on terror, it was hard to tell), Gingrich said: "Now, in a real war from 1861 to '64 [sic], it was a mess. From 1939 to 1944 [sic], it was a mess ... if the president has any specific need right now, it is to look the American people in the face and say ... 'We have to stick this out and win.'" Again he doesn't get us far: wars worth fighting are messy, this war is messy like the other ones, but we must be steadfast. What else? The important thing, Gingrich said, is to "hope that both in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia and Iraq that the forces of civilization defeat the forces of barbarism." So does Gingrich imagine that in America's most gruesome conflict, the terrible, "real" war of 1861-1865, the forces of civilization defeated the forces of barbarism? Well, yes. In Gingrich's imaginative retelling of the Civil War, the South wins.

In Gettysburg, which appeared last year, Gingrich and his coauthor contrive to have Robert E. Lee win at Gettysburg. Events occur more or less as we know them to have happened -- until the first night of the celebrated battle, when Lee decides not to launch Longstreet's assault and instead orders a flanking movement that miraculously enables his soldiers to circle around Meade's army and place themselves between the Union force and Washington. The novel closes with both Union and Confederate bigwigs pondering the significance of Grant's imminent arrival from Vicksburg and the inevitable struggle to defend or to capture Washington.

In Grant Comes East -- surely the second in a trilogy -- we are still in the summer of 1863. After routing the Army of the Potomac at Union Mills, Lee makes a brief, almost successful assault on the capital's fortifications before withdrawing to take Baltimore. Grant is summoned to save the Union, but while he is building an army in Harrisburg, Lee draws out and destroys the reinforced Army of the Potomac, now commanded by General Sickles, who has shown himself a conniving political brute in his ruthless suppression of rioting New Yorkers only days before. As the novel ends, Lee is readying for an epic encounter with Grant's army, heading toward Richmond.

Gingrich's novels are among the most recent examples, and certainly not the most original ones, in a long line of counter-factual speculation about the Civil War. A few of their predecessors were interesting thought-experiments, offering provocative interpretations of the past. Gingrich likes to be compared to Winston Churchill, so he probably knows that Churchill, too, used the battle of Gettysburg as a starting point for political speculation. In 1930, after visiting Civil War sites on a trip to the United States, he wrote a respectable if rather peculiar essay that imagined Lee winning at Gettysburg, capturing Washington, and then, with British help, securing the South's independence by emancipating the slaves; a transatlantic English-speaking Association, eventually extended to the United States as well, later achieves a peaceful solution to the European crisis of 1914, after which other nations move to emulate it and ensure global harmony. The implausible fantasy was far-fetched, to put it mildly, but it grew out of plausible, near-at-hand politics -- Churchill's strong belief in the Anglo-American relationship -- and it reinforced his wise call for transatlantic cooperation in a perilous time.

Most Civil War fiction is not thinly disguised political propaganda. Serious historical novels deepen our understanding of the past by showing fictional characters engaging with real historical forces. But the Gingrich-Forstchen novels of the Civil War prefer to offer a comfortingly sentimental or violent alternative to the painful truths of real history, an escapist fantasy that takes the reader away from the difficult and disappointing present. Such books ooze out of the vast swamp of contemporary pseudoliterature, humid fantasy and geeky science fiction, adjacent to which is the spongy field where lurid video games are spawned, and all those graphic novels the Japanese love in which their country triumphs in World War II.

Gingrich has dabbled in this bog for some time, and not just as a reader. At the height of his congressional fame, he and the same two men who are his collaborators here embarked on a counter-factual trilogy about World War II with the first volume, 1945, in which ... don't even ask, you don't want to know. The book sank without a trace. (One review, from The Washington Post, said, "It is torture from first to last, downright embarrassing in its clumsy prose and lurching plot.") Gingrich evidently abandoned plans for the trilogy when 1945 tanked, for the announced second book, Fortress Europa, never appeared, whereas Gettysburg and its sequel are enjoying a degree of success. Gingrich's message about World War II, whatever it was, did not get across, but something about these new books resonates, as the academics say.

So what is the political goal that Gingrich's novels are meant to reinforce today? Of all fantasies for a right-wing Republican to entertain in 2004, why this one? The recent controversies over government display of Confederate emblems across the South have demonstrated that Republicans know how much political currency there is in the Lost Cause or, as Gingrich would have it, the Triumphant Cause, a venerable tradition that dates back to the postwar propaganda of Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis. As David W. Blight has shown in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the heart of this faith in the legitimacy of the Confederacy consists in a denial that issues of race and slavery were central to the Civil War or, by extension, to the American experience. In Gettysburg and Grant Comes East, slavery is a special concern of only one small, noisy faction in the Old South, and not the pervasive and defining institution that it actually was. For Gingrich's Robert E. Lee, "the higher ideal of fighting for the Constitution, for the right of states against the usurpation of the central government, was the cause." Here is a usable past for a politician proud of "moving power out of Washington and back to the American people," that is, to white people.

Of course, toeing the Lost Cause line requires Gingrich to overlook the countless statements that Southerners themselves made about their real motive for secession, the preservation of slavery. This is awkward, since it is all but impossible to ignore the torrent of evidence proving this. To take but one example from Gingrich's own state, Senator Alfred Iverson of Georgia (whose son fought ignominiously at Gettysburg, but not in Gettysburg) declared: "Slavery must be maintained -- in the Union, if possible; out of it, if necessary: peaceably if we may; forcibly if we must." The premier secessionist paper, the Charleston Mercury, was even plainer, declaring on the eve of Lincoln's election: "The issue before the country is the extinction of slavery." And slaveholders did not hesitate to forfeit their allegedly cherished states' rights doctrines if they interfered with protection of the peculiar institution -- as when they supported the Fugitive Slave Act, which dramatically expanded the power of the federal government. None of this is in the Gingrich books.

It is bad enough that a former speaker of the House should promote this retrogressive neo-Confederate line about states' rights and popular sovereignty. But something else is going on in Gettysburg and Grant Comes East, too. The brunt of the dramatic action, if we can call it that, is borne by endless palavers between generals and politicians about the conduct and the purpose of the war, or of war. Here is where we discover Gingrich's ideas about "transformational leadership."

Sure, there are obligatory scenes of battles prepared for, fought, lost, and won, but these set pieces are almost unbearably boring, despite the inevitable spilling of guts, blowing off of limbs, oozing of blood and mud, shrieking of young soldiers and wounded horses. Sure, poignant American landscapes are predictably viewed from train windows or from horseback. But everything else is weirdly out of kilter. The stresses of war on family and social life in the South or North are not depicted or acknowledged. We meet only a few soldiers, mostly dying ones (the spotlight is reserved for officers); fewer women, except remembered sweetie-pies back home; and still fewer slaves. (The longest conversation with a black person is one between Lincoln and a White House servant with whom he suddenly develops a friendship. Gingrich-Forstchen strain to be politically correct in their respect for black people, but the effort shows.) The sacred South is scarcely bodied forth at all. The best the authors can do is this, from Gettysburg: "Lee fights to preserve a different world, elegant though built on the corruption of slavery, but still elegant, where men are expected to act as gentlemen and ladies, well, to act as ladies."

The numberless scenes of men talking suggest the drama that Gingrich likes best: that of powerful men not actually doing anything, but bloviating about the consequences of what they do. Punditry, circa 1863. They all agree that the outcome of war turns on the performance of individual generals; the theme of military leadership narcissistically captivates them. Their high status and the urgency of their conferences are underlined by their being offered, and drinking, lots of coffee when they meet -- occasionally wine, whiskey, or lemonade (cigars, too, when Grant is around). If they are Union officers, they swear, snap, snarl, and grind out cigars on the floor. On both sides, the men (except for Lee) use clubby first names with each other, as if they were talking to Tim Russert, and so does the narrator (not always accurately: John Bell Hood wouldn't have been called John, as he is here, but Sam). But this is the least offensive of the books' anachronisms.

Gingrich's theories about leadership come together with his spin on the Confederacy's enduring values in a wonderful subplot that blossoms hilariously in Grant Comes East, when Lee has just taken Baltimore at considerable cost. It is not yet clear whether the Rebels can prevail to the point of claiming Maryland for the Confederacy. Lee -- portrayed throughout as a churchgoing, austere, rather Christ-like figure of awesome nobility -- is worried about the lawless confusion in this slaveholding border state. Its Unionist officials have withdrawn, spitting mad, from Annapolis to the Eastern Shore; you'd think they were Sunnis holed up in Fallujah. And he wonders whether he can "keep order here until we can turn it back over to a reorganized police force.... My army is a field army, not an occupation army." Hmm.

At this juncture, Judah Benjamin, smoothly flattering the great man ("You are noted for your piety, sir"), suggests that Lee forsake the company of President Davis and join him for dinner at the home of a wise old rabbi. Here comes the Gingrichian transposition of an evangelical Christian right-winger allying himself with AIPAC to gain long-range strategic wisdom for holding on to power. Rabbi Rothenberg came from Prussia to Baltimore in the 1840s, we learn, and he keeps kosher. After dinner, which spares the grateful Lee from salt pork, the rabbi suggests to him that he cannot win the war unless he addresses the underlying political crisis: truth is, the moral power behind Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, crafty and manipulative a political gesture as it was, has trumped the constitutional arguments which, they all believe, vindicate the Confederate cause. For the Confederacy to prevail, it must seize back the moral high ground. Merely insisting on constitutional fine points will be as fruitless, and as unholy, as Talmudic disputes can sometimes be. ("'Talmud'? Lee asked. 'Please enlighten me.'") Southerners must rise above legalisms, for at the end of the day God prefers a good man to a man who merely studies the law. The rabbi recommends that the South make a gesture equivalent to Lincoln's: "You can then argue that there is no longer any point to the war. Lincoln altered the terms; you have agreed to those terms; the issue is settled."

It is ahistorically but emphatically clear that Gingrich's Lee gets from his Christianity not only his moral code but also his calm conviction that he is merely providing opportunities for the manifestation of God's will. Equally, the noble warrior hates being pulled into politics. But Benjamin, with his shrewd playing of a high moral Judeo-Christian hand, has given him a tantalizing hope: that with a Southern emancipation will come an influx of black soldiers on the Rebel side. Many African Americans are already fighting for the Confederacy, the rabbi claims amazingly, and fighting together will "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." With this appalling perversion of the facts, Gingrich and Forstchen prepare the demise not only of Jefferson Davis and his fellow slaveholding diehards, but probably of the Union, too. The evangelically powerful Lee and the wise rabbi together represent a New South, and this New South must surely prevail.

Where does this leave Gingrich with Lincoln and Grant? Gingrich's obvious dislike of the Union, which he sees as a dysfunctional tyranny, competes with a kind of twisted admiration for the Union's two leaders, since they are, after all, heroes of his own political party and winners according to the historical record. So he has to show them as at least competent and resourceful, which is more than you can say of the other Northerners. Lincoln is shown to be important because he lives in the White House, spouts clichés, and stands firm. As a mere politician, though, he is a lesser mortal than a fine general. Grant is more to Gingrich's liking: similarly wooden, but distinguishable by the ever-present possibility that he might fall off the wagon. To the degree that they represent hope for the future, it is not because of their superior grasp of the ways and means of the war or their larger sense of the national destiny, but because they are Westerners.

Gingrich's Grant and Lincoln savor the homey feeling that Southerners are more like the Westerners they are used to than Easterners are, since Southerners "could talk of crops, and raising hogs, and trying to spark a girl behind the barn at a cornhusking" -- activities of which the "comrades from Boston and New York City" may be ignorant. "I think I'm going to like working with you, Grant," Gingrich has Lincoln say in perfect movie-speak. "You're from the West, as I am; we see things differently. None of this flummery and posturing. I'm sick to death of it, while good boys are dying." This jibes with Gingrich's known political preferences, but it requires him once again to twist the historical truth. Antebellum Southern politicians sought for decades to cultivate alliances with the rural West against the more urban East; but in the West both townsmen (like Lincoln and Grant) and farmers recognized that the line between free states and slave states was more important to them than any agreeable cultural familiarity with the South, or than tensions with the East over regional interests in agriculture and manufacturing.

Anyway, who could ever like an Easterner? In Gingrich's imagination, the Northeastern United States is a dystopia, a drunken, rabble-rousing, unhappy, overcrowded, uncultured nightmare. Its society is intensely political (a terrible inconvenience for leaders), its press all-powerful. The government's regulation of business is intrusive, and it harms the army, where generals advance in rank through political maneuvering rather than merit. The people are fickle and anarchic, lacking as they do a strong hand from above. They are also godless, or their soldiers are. When Union officers set up headquarters in a Pennsylvania church, they swear, yell, and behave poorly, whereas Lee, similarly borrowing holy real estate, makes sure to get permission from the minister (who "said he was a Southern man and would be honored"), is polite, and insists that everything be "returned to its proper place." Baltimoreans, in another passage, are eager to compare "the valiant and yet humble Christian boys of the South with the hawk-faced Yankees of Massachusetts and New York."

A startling moment in the Gingrich-Forstchen nightmare of the North comes early in the second novel, when the defeat at Union Mills incites a mob of New Yorkers to dreadful carnage, even worse than what actually occurred during the draft riots. The authors imagine a crowd at the corner of Union Square "roaring with delight" when a drunken rioter urinates on the Stars and Stripes -- whereupon General Sickles orders his troops to shoot most of them dead. My oh my. "'Remember, men,' Dan shouted. 'These are traitors and rebels, the same that we faced in Virginia. The difference is, at least our enemies in Virginia were soldiers like us, who fought with honor.'" He swaggers away to join Boss Tweed at Delmonico's. Disorderly, dishonorable, and traitorous local rabble -- that's Gingrich's idea of New York City men and women, 9/11 or no 9/11.

The fruits of Northeastern evil are also seen in the Union's losing commanders. The snapping, snarling Meade is paralyzed, unable to develop any kind of independent will, which Gingrich will tell you is the true leader's most significant virtue. The irony in Gettysburg is that he launches an attack that he knows will likely doom his army because he assumes that Lincoln expects him to do so, when in fact the president doesn't. A typical Northern screwup: wussy fighting men hamstrung by politics. Sickles, temperamentally the opposite, has the same flaws: he is a demagogue, riding the waves of public opinion, using his connections to maximize political capital gained in his luckier, better moments. After tyrannically suppressing the draft riots, he turns to graft in recruiting for the Union army and institutes a whiskey ration. Zeal for a victory that will launch his presidential campaign leads him into a Confederate trap and causes his eventual defeat. There's a New Yorker for you.

Perhaps some of the Southern provincialism in this cheesy presentation of Gingrich's opportunistic themes comes from Forstchen, a history professor at Montreat College in North Carolina, proud of its "Christ-Centered Education." Forstchen has also written novels based on Star Trek and on the card game "Magic: The Gathering," as well as nine novels in something called the Lost Regiment series, in which a unit of Civil War soldiers enters a space-time warp that places them in an alternate world in which humans are enslaved. Well, there you go; slavery is a real problem everywhere. But no matter who is responsible for the gray dumpity-dum prose and the ludicrous plots, it is impossible to be indifferent to the novels' disagreeable political intentions and essential dishonesty.

Consider the authors' decision to illustrate the novels with canonical photographs taken mostly from the Library of Congress's Civil War archives. Hallowed historical documentation is used to encourage readers to imagine that they are reading a plausible version of Civil War realities. This has the same falsity as re-enactments -- simulations much favored by Lost Cause supporters -- with their "virtual" experience of patriotic gore. One thinks, too, of Gingrich's many references to his soldier father as a way of giving himself military credentials, though he has had no military experience whatsoever, and did not even serve on the House Armed Services Committee.

The same instinct for non-truth can be found in the novels' portrayals of historical figures. Gingrich seems to have only a loose grip on what really did happen in 1863, let alone what might have happened, so it is not always clear when he and Forstchen have made changes for the sake of fiction and when they have just made mistakes. Indicating that James Blaine, rather than Hannibal Hamlin, was vice president of the United States suggests an unfamiliarity with the basic facts of American history. (Maybe this howler comes from Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain, in which Blaine is the American president who launches an invasion of a Confederacy that has won its independence.) Putting Winslow Homer, Clara Barton, John Hay, and Walt Whitman in places where they never were certainly adorns the narrative with celebrities, but it robs them of the identifying circumstances that would correctly establish their affinity with, or importance to, the Union side.

It is almost predictable, once you have grown accustomed to the level of imaginative enterprise here, that Robert Gould Shaw should whip up from South Carolina to help save Washington on July 18 with the black troops of the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, though it is not clear how Gingrich can describe the soldiers as veterans, for the assault on Fort Wagner has not taken place and may never happen. There is no good reason for them to be in the capital, except to keep Shaw in the story without having the storied conflict at Fort Wagner occur. True, Northern black and white boys "bleed together" at Fort Stevens, but evidently they do not become "brothers in peace," as Rabbi Rothenberg imagined Confederate blacks and whites would. There will be no St. Gaudens monument, no Glory.

The real travesty, though, is not of the details but of the very ground on which Gingrich wishes to fight: the nature of "transformational leadership." Lee is the hero of these books because he is a great military commander, which to Gingrich means that he insulates himself as much as possible from political accountability and exercises firm personal control over his subordinates. Having cleared the field for independent action, and being reassured by a certainty that he is the instrument of divine will, he becomes audaciously aggressive in battle. These characteristics do not precisely match those of the historical Lee, but they do precisely match the traits that George W. Bush's supporters identify as the hallmarks of what they think of as "strength" in a commander-in-chief.

Worse, the Gingrich novels eliminate one of history's best examples of a truly transformed, transforming, and transformative leader. To read Gingrich's novels is to be forced to imagine a United States that has had no experience of Abraham Lincoln's compassion, eloquence, wisdom, and magnanimous humility. One has instead a flatfooted lawyer whose views have not evolved since 1853, a sorry captive of circumstance, devoid of the moral power, the political shrewdness, the spiritual energy, and the tenacious intelligence that turned him into a great wartime president, won him re-election, and saved the Union. Gingrich can imagine only a cartoon "Westerner" of minimal charm and wit, whose ideas are coarse and whose politics are undependable. This Lincoln is redeemed, if that is the word, only by his sanctimonious ability to pray.

We learn in both novels that Gingrich envisions ordinary citizens largely as impediments to their leaders. So perhaps it is fitting that, in his rewriting of history, Lincoln will likely not give his Gettysburg Address, his greatest statement to the American people on the principles of democracy and freedom. We shall have to see in the next volume of this crude and tendentious fictional exercise if General Lee or President Davis will give the victor's speech at that hallowed place, extolling a nation dedicated to ... what? The proposition that all men are created unequal? That government of, by, and for slavery shall not perish from the earth? In the meantime, what a disgrace that readers, Yankee or Reb, are duped into thinking that Lincoln's most noble speech -- and most quotable one -- can be consigned to oblivion by a television politician who thrives on the sound bite and easily loses patience with the value of communication between a democratic people and the president whom they elect.


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