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Newt Gingrich's Civil War novels try to sanitize the Confederacy. They're also inaccurate.

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  December 19, 2011 06:04 PM

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It may be well known that Newt Gingrich is somewhat erratic as a politician. But the former House speaker’s spotty command of details extends to his sideline career as a novelist as well.

In a piece that I wrote for Capital New York, I chronicled Gingrich’s three-part alternate history of the Civil War, predicated on a turning point where the South wins the Battle of Gettysburg. Gingrich’s books are a unique effort to shape a history of the Civil War that launders out the racism from the Southern cause, and to simultaneously make modern-day Southerners with an instinctive sympathy for the Confederacy feel comfortable supporting the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. The article covers a number of the peculiar inventions in Gingrich’s trilogy, including a scene in which Robert E. Lee is converted to the anti-slavery cause by a Baltimore rabbi.

However, it doesn’t address another quirk of Gingrich’s books: despite being a historian, the former speaker’s books are rife with factual errors.

Although Gingrich’s books are fiction, they are supposed to be historical fiction — that is, rooted in the historical truth. Lincoln still has to be president of the United States and the Confederate Army still must wear gray. Otherwise, it’s not historical fiction at all, but science-fiction or fantasy.

However, Gingrich makes a number of embarrassing historical mistakes. Some are relatively minor: for instance, he refers to an old fort atop a hill in Baltimore where there had in fact been no fortifications prior to the war.

Others are more significant: Admiral David Dixon Porter’s name suddenly becomes John, and a controversial proposal by Confederate General Patrick Cleburne to free the slaves is referred to as introduced in 1862, when it was not actually made until 1864.

But perhaps the most glaring is that Gingrich gives Lincoln a new Vice President and somehow replaces Hannibal Hamlin with James G. Blaine. While both Blaine and Hamlin were, at one point, Republican Senators from Maine, their political careers barely overlapped and Blaine, unlike Hamlin, never held the vice presidency. It would be like suggesting Deval Patrick ran for president in 1988 because both he and Michael Dukakis were both Democratic Governors of Massachusetts.

Gingrich may be an historian — but he certainly is not much of a fact checker.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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