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