Several years ago, Newt Gingrich and William R. Fortschen took a shot at alternate history writing a three volume series which asks “What if Lee had listened to Longstreet at Gettysburg?” Good stuff. Then they asked, “What if Yamamoto had taken personal command of the attack on Pearl Harbor? What if Genda’s plan had been completed with the third raid on the sub pens and the fuel farm?”
That is a work still in progress, because Gingrich, Fortschen and Albert S. Hanser have taken a side trip to Tenton, NJ.
In this retelling of American history, it is December 1776. Washington’s Continental Army has retreated from Boston to Long Island to New York, down across New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania. Along the way, it shrinks from 30,000 to less than 2,500 as the men who joined a victorious force expecting a quick victory walked away when the going got hard. Washington is desperate for a victory to rally the cause, and he needs it before the enlistments of his troops expire at the end of December.
Miraculously, Thomas Paine, suffering from writer's block, manages to publish and distribute a little pamphlet, The American Crisis. Its opening poetic phrasing is read to the troops:
“THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
With those words on their minds, in a driving nor’easter, Washington’s rag tag army crosses the Delaware, dodging ice floes in rowboats. Soldiers jump into the frigid river to save precious artillery pieces. Troops march, often barefoot, over rugged terrain, fording rushing streams that they expected to be shallow. Arriving at Trenton, they defeat a crack Hessian regiment, the best of the best. A New Jersey family is physically reunited, but remains politically divided and eternally estranged.
Washington’s victory raises American morale. The British realize that the fight will not soon be over. The United States stays in the fight until victory is won 7 years later.
“Hey, wait a minute,” you say. “That’s what really happened.”
And that is the point the authors make: By all rights, the history we learned in school, with the Union Jack hanging from above the blackboard and a picture of the Queen (God bless her) staring down on us, would have included the disintegration of the rebel army that Christmas Day. We should have learned about the capture of the traitors Washington, Adams, Hancock, Franklin, Jefferson and the rest. We should have studied about their trial in London and the grisly executions that followed. The American cause should have ended in that bleak December.
Instead, those few men who did stand in the face of the most terrible adversity were, themselves, the authors of a most improbable outcome. It was they who "rewrote" history. Only when a few strong men went beyond all that could be expected of them did we prevail.
What this book offers is the novelist’s ability to explore the unrecorded part of our history: Washington’s fears, Paine’s struggle to find the words for his pamphlet, and the thoughts of common men willing to endure unbelievable privation, loss of family, and pain that we cannot imagine, all for the sake of something bigger than themselves.
My great-great-great-great grandfather, William Jack, served in the Continental Army during the Revolution. Our family tradition has it that he was with Washington at Trenton, the first of nine men of seven generations in my bloodline to serve this Nation in combat. I do hope that he was one of the few who stuck it out. But as this book reminds us, a lot of the “summer soldiers and the sunshine patriots” who had rallied to the cause in mid-76, had disappeared by Christmas Day. Sure, a lot of them came back after the Christmas miracle, and that is something to be praised, but it was a bare few who saved our nation.
And we owe them our thanks this and every Thanksgiving Day.
To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom by Newt Gingrich, William R. Forstchen, and Albert S. Hanser. A darned good read.