Fictional histories have great potential to grip the imagination. Set against the backdrop of real events, they can demonstrate the way in which only one or two key decisions, made slightly differently, would have changed the course of history. Certainly that was the case in the Revolutionary War: a very few missteps, and we would all be speaking Canadian.
The War Between the States is another prime example, and has been the subject of more fictional histories than any other episode. Some of these
histories are silly. In “The Guns of the South,” a time warp is discovered by racist white South Africans, who use it to supply the Confederacy with AK-47s and win the day. There’s another, novel in which Grant dies in a freak riding accident shortly after taking command of the Army of the Potomac. As a rule, these “histories” have the South winning the war, because what would be the fun of changing a few key events, without changing the outcome?
Well, Gingrich and Forstchen have found a way of writing such a story – sort of. “Never Call Retreat” is the last in a trilogy starting with “Gettysburg” and followed by “Grant Comes East.”
I must admit that up until this last installment, I was enthralled by what they wrote. The first two books set up a plausible scenario in which the South wins a decisive victory at Gettysburg, then follows with another victory that almost annihilates the Army of the Potomac. Then the question is: would that have led the South to win its independence?
The authors’ hypothesis is No: the North was capable of raising another army from the victorious Union forces of the west, an army equal in size, high- er in morale, and as well provisioned and outfitted as the vanquished Army of the Potomac. The authors, in other words, are clearly convinced that there was virtually no way the South could have won. So they put together a series of events purporting to show that the Confederacy was truly a lost cause, no matter what.
Problem is, this time the authors get sloppy. They appear to be in a hurry to get their work completed and get on with other projects, such as (Rand forbid) a Gingrich run for the presidency.
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about. In real history, there was no need to constitute a new army from the west to take on the Army of Northern Virginia. The Army of the Potomac was in very good shape after Gettysburg. All it needed was a determined, competent
The South didn’t have to beat the North, it just had to avoid being beaten by the North.
leader, which it had in Grant. In the fictional history, the bulk of the western forces had to come east, thereby leaving behind a skeletal force to hold the territories won in the western campaigns. But it wouldn’t have been long before the South took advantage of this new weakness and start retaking strategic territory previously lost to it, such·as Vicksburg, Memphis, or perhaps even New Orleans.
Point number two. In real histo~ the victorious western forces coalesced behind Sherman. The fictional version would give Sherman’s army far less force to bring to bear upon Atlanta: the crucial force would be up north, with Grant. In one of the sloppiest parts of the book, the authors have Sherman poised to take Atlanta in the early fall of 1863, nearly a year before the real event.
Gingrich and Forstchen purport to show that the Confederacy was truly a lost cause, no matter what.
Indeed, if “Never Call Retreat” took account of the dramatically weakened position in which it puts the North, it could hardly depict Sherman getting to Atlanta in 1864, or ever. And if Sherman couldn’t have proceeded from Atlanta and marched to the sea, what would Lincoln’s chances have been against a peace candidate in the election of 1864?
The authors of “Never Call Retreat” have Grant accomplishing in two months what it took him two years to do in real life. Moreover, he does it against an army which received 20,000 reinforcements that Lee never received in reality, and an army which was also far better provisioned and armed than the real one, thanks to its imaginary victories. Lee would likely have followed a path of slow, defensive retreat, checking out his adversary and waiting for him to make a mistake for Lee to pounce on. Lee would not have rushed into a fight with Grant until he was able to get a measure of the man. (I’m talking about Grant, not his vaunted reputation.) He would have wanted to impose some tests on his adversary before developing a strategy to to defeat him, for that is exactly what Lee did with the five commanders he vanquished before him. But for the sake of argument, let’s say Lee decides to take Grant head-on, as he does in this book, and gets annihilated. There still is that thorny issue of the west. Even a defeated
Army of Northern Virginia would not have resulted in Southern surrender as long as the South had other armies in the field intact and ready to fight on. The ultimate result might have been the same, but not in the easy and simplistic way presented in this book. It is downright counterintuitive to think that after the South won at Gettysburg and all but destroyed the North’s largest army in the field, taking its ordnance and heavy artillery, the war could have been concluded two years earlier than it was. If anything, it would have dragged on longer – ultimately, perhaps, to a Southern victory. After all, the South didn’t have to beat the North, it just had to avoid being beaten by the North.
The second book offers an interesting sidebar: the emperor of France decides to intervene on the South’s side, sending an expeditionary force into Texas from Mexico (which was occupied by France) and using French warships to wreak havoc on the Union blockade. A little follow-through on this important action would have been appropriate. Astonishingly, none of this is mentioned in “Never Call Retreat.”
But to return: For all the reasons stated above, the authors fail to make a convincing case for inevitable Northern triumph, even with a Yankee defeat at Gettysburg (and, presumably, French intervention from Mexico). They do nothing to shake my own settled opinion that up until Gettysburg, the war could have gone either way. All the South really had to do was hold Atlanta, so Lincoln could be retired in the election of ’64. If the South had won at Gettysburg, it could have accomplished just that. It could have won the war.