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Grant Comes East: A Book Review

by @ 8:05 pm on April 14, 2008. Filed under Alternate History, Book Reviews, Books

Continuing the counter-factual history of the Civil War that they started with Gettysburg, Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen came up with another literary hit out of the park with the second volume of their trilogy, Grant Comes East.

When the last volume ended, the Army of the Potomac had been decimated at Union Mills, Maryland and it’s Commanding General, George Meade, was dead. While remnants of the Union’s primary Army in the East snuck behind the wide waters of the Susquehanna River, President Lincoln summoned Ulysses S. Grant, fresh from the conquest of the Confederate fort at Vicksburg, to come East, with his Army of the Tennessee, and save the Union.

Everything that made Gettysburg great continues in this novel.

On the Confederate side, the writers spend much time inside the head of it’s commander, Robert E. Lee, who comes across as a man repulsed by the horrors of war, and even by much of what his newly formed nation stands for, but willing to use it’s instruments to bring about an end to a war that becomes more horrible by the day.

On the Union side, there’s much more time spent in Washington as seen from the perspective of President Lincoln. Partly, that’s because Lee, fresh off his victory at Union Mills, turns his attention to an attempt to break through the fortifications around Washington, D.C. In a particularly memorable and moving chapter, the third wave of Confederate troops does break through into Fort Stevens only to be repulsed by the just-arrived troops of the 54th Massachusetts, the nation’s first regiment of black soldiers.

And this is where things start to change from the first volume in the series. Then, it seemed like Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia could do virtually no wrong, while the Army of the Potomac, and the Union it defended, seemed doomed. The attack on Fort Stevens, though, was clearly a mistake, and even Lee admits his error in sending his troops in to a garrison defended by upwards of 40,000 fresh troops.

And that’s when politics starts to enter the picture.

Just as Lee is withdrawing from the outskirts of Washington, a convoy carrying Jefferson Davis arrives. Clearly, Davis had expected to enter the capital as a conqueror and is bitterly disappointed by the result. Unmoved, he convinces Lee to set his sights on Baltimore with the hope of bringing Maryland into the Confederacy.

Baltimore is conquered, but not before a riot that nearly destroys the city and sickens Lee and his staff. It’s also in Baltimore that a most interesting exchange takes place between Lee, Judah Benjamin the Confederate Secretary of State, and a Rabbi. The Rabbi argues forcefully that, notwithstanding it’s recent victories, the South will lose the war unless it regains the moral high ground. His suggestion — emancipate the slaves and allow colored troops to serve in the Confederate Army. Both Lee and Benjamin are sympathetic to the suggestion — a reaction consistent with their attitudes in real life — but they both know that President Davis and the slavocracy that supports him will never allow it.

And there are politics in Washington as well. After giving Grant complete command of all Union forces in the field, Lincoln is forced to accept the appointment of General Dan Sickles, fresh from his suppression of draft riots in New York City that were even worse than what occurred in our world, to command of the remnants of the Army of the Potomac. Sickles is a War Democrat, and the support of his cronies is crucial to preserve the fragile political stability of the Union.

Sickles appointment will prove to be a disaster, as Lee uses his skills to trick the politician-turned-warrior into advancing into a trap that results in the Army of the Potomac being finally, officially destroyed.

But, the war isn’t over. As the novel ends, Grant and his newly named Army of the Susquehanna are crossing the river and heading south. The final battle of the Civil War is approaching, two years earlier than it occurred in our world.

Once again, there’s almost nothing wrong with this book. There are a few small factual errors. At the beginning of the book, Lincoln’s Vice-President, Maine’s Hannibal Hamlin, is referred to as “Vice-President Blaine” — a reference to another Maine politician, James G. Blaine, who would not make his mark on the national scene for another decade or two. It was an obvious editor’s mistake, but it pales in comparison to what makes this book, and the story it tells, so great.

There was obviously a formidable amount of research that went into this book, even to the point of a pretty accurate description of the topography and geography of Maryland and Pennsylvania, and it shows. More importantly, though, these characters, even though they are real people that have been written about countless times, come to life in a new, and entirely plausible way.

I can’t wait to get through Volume Three.

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