Alternative History Book Review – ‘Never Call Retreat’ (Gingrich and Forstchen))

In this book, the authors’ epic reworking of the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign is brought to an enthralling and highly believable conclusion.  One of the standard criticisms of alternate history is something along the lines of  ‘Why bother with this stuff when there’s so much real histtory out there?’  The answer to that one is that the best alternate history reads like it really could have happened that way. The protagonists’ choices are those that were open to their real-life selves.  This book certainly hits the spot in that department.  In fact, at various points I had to remind myself that I was reading an alternate history novel and not a novelisation of actual events.

They key points to remember are that Lincoln is determined to preserve the Union and Lee realises that only by forcing Lincoln to discuss terms will the Confederacy gain its independence.  This was the mindset of both men in reality too and this gives an added level of realism to the writing.  In addition the industrial and economic scales are weighted massively against the Confederacy.  The Army of Northern Virginia hasn’t impacted Northern industrial capacity, which is still churning out the material needed to keep the Union armies in the field.  Lee must somehow push his increasingly exhausted men to greater and greater efforts, since deep down, he knows that this campaign will decide the war.  The action is fast-paced, but with enough tactical detail to please the most demanding Civil War fan.

The Battle of Gunpowder River and the Confederate occupation of Baltimore have brought victory no nearer for Lee.  As the book gets underway, he is horrified to learn that Grant’s newly formed and equipped Army of the Susquehanna is advancing down the Cumberland valley, protected by a strong and effective cavalry screen.  In the meantime, a smaller Union force under the command of Darius Couch is approaching Baltimore.  If Grant cuts Lee’s line of retreat back to Virginia then Lee will have to fight him on his terms, not Lee’s.  The strategic importance of the town of Frederick soon becomes apparent to both sides and the armies start to converge.  Expect to see familiar faces (for instance one George Armstrong Custer) in unfamiliar situations and yet responding to then as per their historical selves.

Critics of this book (indeed of the whole trilogy) are fond of saying that it’s no fun, because the Confederacy still loses.  Sure, there are some scenarios in which the South could have won the Civil War – but not this one.  (Try Bevin Alexander’s book ‘How the South could have won the Civil War‘ for some more plausible chances for a Confederate victory).  Just because Lee’s boys don’t storm the Washington earthworks, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t credible alternative history.

I’m not going to include any more spoilers about the end of this, except to say that if this had happened in reality the post-war reconstruction would have been very different.  A great conclusion and one which makes this trilogy a must for both the serious alt hist fan and the Civil War student looking for something different.Never Call Retreat: Lee and Grant: The Final Victory


A (very) short history of swearing Part 1

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Giving a damn about not offending people is important in all walks of life and for some of us an expletive too far can have serious consequences.  My wife and I were having one of our great multi-subject wide ranging chats and this led us to the topic of so-called ‘lady-like’ behaviour which in turn led us on to swearing.  Now I could be (and have been) called many things, but prude is not one of them.  That said, there are times and places and the seemingly widespread nature of swearing seems to transcend both.

Of course words that shock, upset or otherwise discomode have changed massively over the centuries.  Medieval people (1066-1485) weren’t using the curses and perjoratives one might have expected.  For instance, f**k doesn’t seem to have been in much use in England before 1200, despite its Germanic/Anglo Saxon origin as a erm, metaphor for ploughing.  Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales (the Miller’s, Reeve’s and Wife of Bath‘s Tales in particular) have some extremely lewd parts (coughs), but the f-word doesn’t get a look-in.  Instead, it seems that questioning one’s character and parentage was the sure-fire way of starting trouble.  ‘Churl’ or ‘dog’ was fighting talk, as was addressing anyone of means by an inferior social rank.

By the time we hit the sixteenth/seventeenth century we have Shakespeare’s works offering us numerous examples of late Tudor and Elizabethan profanity – in fact more examples than you could shake several big sticks at.  It’s worth remembering that before he made his pile, Shakespeare was a jobbing playwright.  He had to give the punters what they wanted, ‘cos that but bums on seats, which in turn made him money.  Hence, the language is pretty earthy and often downright coarse:

‘Nought to do with Mistress Shore? I tell thee fellow, he that hath nought to do with her were best to do it secretly, alone’. (Richard III)

Nought or nothing was a well known euphemism for sexual activity, so Shakespeare’s intentions with a play entitled ‘Much Ado About Nothing‘ probably don’t require deep thought.

In Part 2:  From the eighteenth century to the present day.

Alternate History Book Review: Grant Comes East (Gingrich and Forstchen)

Cover of "Grant Comes East"

Cover of Grant Comes East

In all fairness I have to start this review with a spoiler alert.  If you haven’t read the preceeding book by these authors (‘Gettysburg‘) then I strongly urge you to so, since ‘Grant Comes East‘ picks up more or less where ‘Gettysburg’ stops.  Still here?  OK – my first comment on this book is how well the authors have managed the departure from ‘our’ timeline and the skill with which they use the best rules of counterfactual history to drive the plot.  In ‘Gettysburg’, Lee comments that the Army of Northern Virginia has one good fight left in it and I soon found myself wondering in the aftermath of the Battle of Union Mills if was all downhill from here on.  The Army of the Potomac is wrecked – only one corps of it has escaped more or less intact and the remainder has routed towards Washington.  Rioting in New York against the draft is spiralling out of control.  Despite all that, the Union hasn’t folded up – mostly because Lincoln has decided it isn’t going to.

General Grant, fresh from his capture of Vickburg, is bringing his army east.  Lincoln has put him in charge of ending the war and Grant, in his careful methodical fashion is determined to do exactly that.  Gingrich and Forstchen also make it clear exactly where the real strength of the Union lies – its economic power.  Within weeks of Union Mills, Union railroad boss Herman Haupt can have the equipment for a new army made and stockpiled.  Lee’s ragged veterans can’t access that sort of logistical muscle and deep down the leaders of the Confederacy know it.  The invasion of the North was a gamble, one which must now be played out to the bitter end.

What makes this book such an enthralling read is that the authors understand how to write good counterfactual history.  People make choices based on the range of options that were open to them at the time and this makes for realistic character development.  There is no deus ex machina to give the Confederacy a deadly new advantage and they remain on the back foot logistically, just as they did in reality.  In the end, Lee is faced with a difficult choice.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis has sent General Beauregard’s corps north to bolster Lee’s men.  Should Lee use them to capture lightly-defended Baltimore (thereby removing Maryland from the war)?  Or ought he to accept that that is simply putting off the inevitable end game – an assault on Washington?

Either way, time is running out.

Alternate History Book Review: Gettysburg (Gingrich and Forstchen)

Cover of "Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civi...

Cover of Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War

If any of you have watched the 1990’s film ‘Gettysburg‘ you may remember the part where (on the evening of 1 July 1863) General Longstreet tries to persuade General Lee to break off the direct assault at Gettysburg and instead try to get round the Union flank.  Lee of course says something to the effect of ‘the enemy is there General and that’s where I’m going to attack’.   The result of Lee’s belief that the Army of Northern Virginia could do anything is well documented enough for me to skip over it here.  Could it all have gone differently?  Alternate history writers have produced a range of responses – some good, others pretty mediocre.

This book (a collaboration between Newt Gingrich and William Fortschen) is probably one of the best.  As with all the best alternate history writing it looks at the courses of action actually open to the participants at the time.  Gingrich and Fortschen know their stuff – the characters of the main protagonists are well developed, as are those of individual soldiers.  What I especially liked about this book was how well the point of departure was handled.  In reality of course the Union reserve artillery didn’t make it on to the field until the second day – here we have their commander Henry Hunt pushing several batteries forward in time to completely shatter the Confederate attempt to take the cemetery on the afternoon of 1 July.  This, in conjunction with Ewell‘s failure to take Culp’s Hill. leaves Lee more susceptible to Longstreet’s counter-proposal than he was in reality.

At this point the authors show their skill – Lee was by nature a gambler and they paint his reaction to Longstreet’s proposal quite credibly.  Lee rejects Longstreet’s plan as too cautious and, to put it mildly, widens its scope.  The stage is set for a campaign of manoevre, one which allows Lee’s troops to do what they do best – outmarch and outsmart  the opposition.  Any further detail would give the game away – so I’m going to close by giving this book a full five stars and say that it’s the first of a trilogy, the remainder of which I’ll review in due course.

Book review – The Winter King by Thomas Penn

Arthur Prince of Wales c. 1500, 39.1 x 28 cm.,...

Arthur Prince of Wales c. 1500, 39.1 x 28 cm., oil on panel, in the Royal Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When people think ‘Tudor’, it’s usually to do with Queen Elizabeth I, or more likely Henry VIII.  In this book, it’s the founder of the Tudor Dynasty that gets put under the spotlight.  And it’s true that Henry VII, sandwiched between two of the most famous English monarchs, often gets forgotten.  Penn sets out to redress the balance with an in depth look at the man, his world and his method of government.  Let’s get the negatives done with first.  The publisher’s blurb speaks of an easy to read and accessible book – one that reads more like a novel than a historical textbook.

Sorry, but that’s not what I picked up.  I sometimes found muself wondering if Penn was trying to cram the maximum amount of detail into the book, possibly worried that readers would accuse him of leaving something out.  For example, ten pages are devoted to the marriage of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur and there is such a large cast of supporting characters that the novel-type approach to the book sometimess bogs down and lacks pace.

That said, there’s still a great deal to recommend this book.  Henry’s tenuous grip on power for the first ten years of his reign is well described and explained, as is his crafty use of the legal system to ensure that potential troublemakers were kept loyal, or at least behaving loyally.  Much of the early part of his reign was devoted to building the edifice that would be inherited by Prince Arthur and Penn gives us a good picture of the turmoil following Arthur’s death in 1502.  Going into more detail would add unecessary spoilers, so suffice it to say that Penn’s image of Henry VII is an absorbing and thoroughly believable one.  Well worth the effort and a good four out of five stars.

On this day in 1956

2ème RPC paratroopers patrol in Port Said. Oct...

2ème RPC paratroopers patrol in Port Said. October 1956 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British and French troops landed in the Suez Canal Zone as part of Operation Musketeer.  Objective:  recapture the Suez Canal from nasty old Nasser and show that where cheap oil was concerned there was nothing we wouldn’t do.  Cynical? Me?

Ok, perhaps just a little bit.  The Suez Crisis of 1956 isn’t something Britain comes out from smelling of roses.  The problem with secret plots and protocols is that when revealed (and they often are) you look like a lying ****.  You definitely do if you’ve lied to Parliament as well.  The Soviets might have been stamping on the Hungarians, but that didn’t mean they’d taken their eye off the global ball.

US President Eisenhower realised that the combined British/French/Israeli action had seriously destablised the region – Soviet support for Nasser meant a real liklihood of Russian intervention if the situation wasn’t sorted and soon.  Solution?  Simple – remind the Brits that they owed the USA a lot of money and threaten to collapse their currency if they failed to stop pretending they had an Empire.  British PM Eden then compounded matters by arranging a ceasefire without letting his French and Israeli allies know.  OK, he was probably panicking but it made an already bad situation look even worse.

It certainly did to the French – ‘perfide Albion’ didn’t even start to cover it. It didn’t lead to de Gaulle taking France out of NATO but it was certainly a contributory factor in that decision.

The will of God?

Those of you on the Eastern Seaboard counting the cost and cleaning up after Sandy might wonder exactly what motivates people like this guy:

It seems that Pastor McTernan is keen to draw links between Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina using a mixture of ancient numerology and personal prejudice.  The following is (for me anyway) the bigotted heart of his argument:

“Twenty-one years breaks down to 7 x 3, which is a significant number with God. Three is perfection as the Godhead is three in one while seven is perfection.

It appears that God gave America 21 years to repent of interfering with His prophetic plan for Israel; however, it has gotten worse under all the presidents and especially Obama. Obama is 100 percent behind the Muslim Brotherhood which has vowed to destroy Israel and take Jerusalem. Both candidates are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda. America is under political judgment and the church does not know it!”

As with most of these fundy End-Times apocalypse watchers, everything revolves around Israel, although that is a separate issue.  The real problem for me is the Old Testament style retributive spin he puts on our planet’s weather.  The idea that God, in His capacity as Universe CEO issued a memo along the lines of  ‘Those pervs down there don’t seem to be getting the message – time for another wake-up call’ is distasteful to say the least.

In my case it was the impossibility of squaring the existence of evil with the existence of God which lost me what little religious faith I had.  These days, a few years spent teaching Religious Studies has left me thinking differently.  Evil committed by humans against other humans (moral evil) is one thing.  We’ve all got this freewill thing and if God intervened to stop every bad action then we’d be little more than robots.  It’s the destruction wrought by the environment (natural evil) that’s the problem.  In fact, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 sort of got people thinking about this whole thing far more harshly than they had been before.

When normal, faithful Christians are celebrating All-Saints Day (1 November) and their city falls apart around their ears then one can’t blame them for feeling just a bit miffed.  What the earthquake began the tsunami racing in from the Atlantic finished.  At least 8.5 on the Richter scale most seismologists reckon.  With thousands dead, the questions began.  Why would a supposedly loving God allow so much destruction to happen on a day when people were worshipping Him?  That question resonated massively with the philosophers of the Enlightenment and proved a major boost to the growth of European atheism.

The 2004 tsunami was Lisbon writ large – at least 230,000 dead across fourteen countries.  The same question asked again – and not just by Christians either.  Is there an answer?  Well, yes – but it’s not one most religious people want to hear.  If we can act according to our natures then why shouldn’t the planet?  Natural disasters are the price we pay for living on a geologically active planet and hence one that can support life at all.  No consolation to those who lose loved ones and property at the hands of flood, earthquake etc. but possibly the best answer we’re likely to get.