The Political Subtext of Gingrich's New Novel

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In his new Civil War retelling, Gingrich focuses on a regiment of black Union soldiers -- but downplays the racism they faced, a historian says

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Even as Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign has gained steam, the prolific former House speaker's publication schedule has continued unabated. Just last month, Gingrich released a historical novel about a famous Civil War battle, The Battle of the Crater.

Gingrich's fictionalized retelling of the battle, a Confederate victory late in the war, may be exciting, but it distorts crucial racial elements of the story, historian Kevin M. Levin writes.

Levin, himself the author of a book about the battle, says Gingrich and co-author William R. Forstchen downplay the virulence of the Confederate troops' attitudes toward the black Union soldiers who are the focus of the narrative. And Gingrich and Forstchen almost totally write out of their story the ugly coda to the battle -- the massacre of those black soldiers after the battle was over.


More conspicuous in its absence, however, is any description of how Confederates felt at having to fight armed black men for the first time just outside of a large civilian population, as well as the accounts of their execution following the battle. The closest the authors come to acknowledging this is in a Confederate officer's conversation with Garland White following the battle, in which he shares that "after our boys retook the lip of the crater, the cry went up to kill all the colored." He is quick to point, however, his own position on slavery: "My family refused to own them. We hired free blacks to work the fields of our farm. So yes, I tried to stop it, so did most of the officers."

Even a cursory glance at the available evidence points to the unlikelihood of such a scene. 

...


The presence of black soldiers at the Crater confirmed for slaveowners and non-slaveowners in the ranks just what was at stake in the event of Confederate defeat. The massacre of black soldiers constituted a calculated response when viewed alongside the actions of white southerners throughout the antebellum period to slave rebellions both real and imagined.

The authors go out of their way to remove any sense of how Confederates responded to the presence of black soldiers, even going so far as to construct a fictional meeting in which Robert E. Lee encourages General William Mahone to take steps to ensure complete victory and prevent the mistreatment of captured black soldiers: "I want the full honor of war observed. Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank." 

Suffice it to say that there is no evidence of such a meeting nor is there any evidence that Lee attempted to prevent the execution of black soldiers following the battle. The absence of any written correspondence from Lee on this matter suggests that he, in all likelihood, condoned it.


Levin speculates that Gingrich's reframing of the battle narrative had political motivations. On the one hand, Levin suggests, Gingrich sought to tell the story of the black regiment in order to appeal to black voters and to "the sort of white moderate who'd be more likely to vote for a Republican candidate seen as reaching out to black voters." On the other hand, Levin writes, Gingrich soft-pedaled the cruelty and racism of the Confederates in an attempt "to mollify his own conservative base," particularly in the South.

Image credit: Getty Images/Spencer Platt
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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