There was a series of children's fiction books several decades ago
that, for many junior high students, was an introduction to
history. They were called the WE WERE THERE books, as in WE WERE
THERE AT THE BATTLE OF YORKTOWN and WE WERE THERE WITH COMMODORE
PERRY. The premise behind these books was that they were told from
the point of view of one or two teenagers or pre-teens who happened
to be toting water for the Continental Army, or were orphans aboard
Commodore Perry's ship when he sailed into Japanese waters, and so
on. These books were really well done. They are, of course, no
longer published (though you can find them used if you look a bit),
which is probably a good thing, as they would undoubtedly feature
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen with titles such as WE WERE THERE AT THE
TIMES SQUARE MACY'S or WE WERE THERE ON MALIBU BEACH. I couldn't
help but think of that series, though, as I read GETTYSBURG by Newt
Gingrich and William R. Fortschen.
GETTYSBURG, to some extent, takes the same approach as the WE WERE
THERE series, relating the events of the Battle of Gettysburg
through the eyes of several of the principals. Where GETTYSBURG
departs from that series, however, is that it answers the question,
"What if Confederate General Robert E. Lee had won?" Actually, it
doesn't answer that question, not entirely. GETTYSBURG does,
however, demonstrate how events could have gone the other way if
only a decision or two on either side had been made differently.
The result is a work that is for the most part historical, yet is
part fantasy as well.
GETTYSBURG is not, however, a dry recitation of battle strategies.
Gingrich and Forstchen make the battle, and the people, come alive
on the printed page. The Battle of Gettysburg was crucial to the
final result of the Civil War, yet it is often summarized in a
sentence or two. Gingrich and Forstchen drop the reader into the
heat of the battle, placing the reader in the room with the
decision-makers who, with quiet agony, send thousands of men to
their angry, terrible fates. The text is generously interspersed
with daguerreotypes from the era, as well as much-needed maps to
aid the reader in following the troop movements that take place
during the course of Gettysburg. Patches of the United States and
the Confederate States of America precede various paragraphs,
functioning as a reader's aid in guiding which viewpoint, whether
Republic or Confederacy, is about to be presented.
The authors also capture the quiet dignity and courtesy that were
accorded between warring soldiers even in the heat of pitched
battle, as well as the quiet kindnesses afforded fallen foes. The
Civil War was truly a battle between brothers, not ultimately over
the issue of slavery, but whether the Constitution, which attempted
to create an association of free states loosely connected by a
central government, would be preserved. Friends, neighbors, and
family members often found themselves on opposing sides when the
issue came to a head.
What ultimately makes GETTYSBURG an important work is that the
issues raised in the Civil War and its aftermath affect the nation
to this day. There may well have been a different result for the
nation had the events described in GETTYSBURG actually taken place.
How a Confederate victory at Gettysburg might have ultimately
resulted in a Civil War victory, and how that would have changed
the nation and the world, may well be a topic for another
collaboration between Gingrich and Forstchen.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011