The Last Best Hope: A Civil War Alternative History
by: David L. Parrott
A guest book review blog by: John Sposato
A guest book review blog by: John Sposato
I was quite flattered when I was asked to write a book review for the advanced reading copy of The Last Best Hope, A Civil War Alternate History by David L. Parrott. The vast majority of my readings have been non fiction; largely American History with a concentration on the Civil War and the Lincoln Assassination; along with my private passion, The New York Yankees. However, I have read some historical fiction about the Civil War; Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, William Safire’s Freedom and more recently Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln. All of these books are superbly written and the authors have brought the past to life by teaching us history through dialogue and description (and some drama) that used all the correct historical figures and events. In essence it was not real fiction, just created conversation about real events. And of course there is the most well known Civil War story of all time, Gone With The Wind.
I was hoping that the writer was not going to use the book as a platform to express the notion that The South was justified with “The Cause” and that they had the right to secede and that they fought the war (of invasion) to defend their homeland and way of life. With this comes international recognition that the Confederacy is a nation and with potential outside support win on the battlefield. This is the opposite of the theory that I support being that democracy was being tested by the war and that the world was watching. A defeated United States would mean that democracy would not work nor survive. The author did not do this.
I then thought it might take some aspect of a military campaign and change some of the tactical moves Lee might have made as an alternative. Like at Gettysburg, now he takes Longstreet’s advice and realizes that “no 10,000 men ever assembled will be able to cross that field” and abandons attacking the Union center and combines this force with that of Alabama’s with the charge up of The Little Round Top. This action may have put The Confederates in a better position to attack the Union center from the flank, wipe them from the field and then march on to Washington; which was Lee’s objective if he had indeed won this battle. Arguments can be made either way here as well; Lee’s total forces were about a third of that of Meade’s. Thankfully, the book did not take this approach either. Most of the general reading public does not understand military strategy that well to comprehend deployments like this, myself included.
Then for example is the political story that could have been changed too. These theoretical approaches are always interesting. Lincoln is defeated at the polls by George McClellan in the 1864 presidential election. As a result McClellan meets with the Confederate emissaries at City Point late in the war where a compromise is reached; slavery is maintained, the Union is preserved and everyone lives happily there after in peace. Such speculation creates endless debate among historians with no real conclusions. Scholars can re-review fact, sometimes with new evidence, and can get a broader perspective of theory each time they revisit history but seldom do they change their overall points of view. .
The Last Best Hope does not employ any of these avenues. The book is not a detailed chain of events of what would have happened if certain events during the war had been different. As the author states, Historians have often asked, “What if the South had won at the Battle of Gettysburg?”-what if indeed? This is not a sophisticated story nor that offers up a theory how life would have been or how future events might have different. It’s simply that The United States lost and The Confederacy won, with the deciding point being at Gettysburg. Robert E. Lee is now president of this new Confederate nation ( it is comprised of both North and South, the United States is no longer) and his vice president is none other than George McClellan; who actually forced Lee to retreat across The Rappahannock after Antietam in real history.
There does not appear to be any great societal change as a result except of course that the slaves have remained slaves. They serve only as an “extra character” in the story. A somewhat creative method of insuring that there are enough slaves for future use has been developed and earnestly employed.
This author does not take us back to a plantation where the slaves are toiling in the cotton fields somewhere in the Deep South but instead to Northwest Pennsylvania in a town called Pithole. Here the oil business is in its infancy with speculative drilling (somewhat paralleling the beginning of the rise of John D. Rockefeller). Some of the Southerners who have come north have brought their slaves with them to work but there are some freedmen around, including a partner of the main character. The Industrial Revolution is still on full course but now we have a divided nation in spirit. There is still unrest with the defeated Union forces (to the point that there might be a counter revolution?).
The story follows the activities of one of the oil drillers, Ezekiel Edwards, a former Union commander of Special Services. He suffers greatly from a shoulder injury he received at Gettysburg. The only remedy outside of surgery to ease the pain is the daily use of the drug of the era; laudanum. The story opens with his returning to Pithole with a large amount of money that he was planning to use for the drilling explorations. Unfortunately, he is robbed on the way but he does encounter Chastity Stottish and immediately attracted to her. Upon his arrival in Pithole, he is welcomed as a hero of a defeated nation and his wartime exploits are celebrated often.
Ezekiel and his small group are trying to strike it rich but because of their recent lack of funds they take on the most unlikely of business partners; John Wilkes Booth. The author’s portrayal of Booth is a continuation of his arrogant and self-centered personality.
Booth continually damns Lincoln, hates all abolitionists and finds any talk of Negro equality or suffrage sickening. He firmly believes that he is part of “the master race” and those whites, especially himself, are sanctioned by the Bible to rule the inferior blacks. Eventually, Ezekiel and he have a falling out and the partnership dissolves.
The story also opens with the belief that Lincoln has died as a result of accidents inflicted by the Confederates when they sacked Washington to end the war. Rumor has it though, that Lincoln is alive, but living as a fugitive, and might even be in the Pithole vicinity. Before long it is discovered by his both his enemies and his supporters that it’s true, Lincoln is alive. At the same time, Chastity’s father, Solomon Stottish, hires Ezekiel to find his daughter who has disappeared. He eventually finds her, providing care for the fugitive Lincoln. Now Ezekiel’s affection grows to a love interest and he becomes distracted from his mercantile venture and commits himself to the “higher purpose” of protecting Lincoln where he can utilize some of his wartime skills. Later in the story Booth again secures his place in history which leads to chase by Ezekiel and eventually they fight it out.
Reading about Ezekiel and the people he encounters I am reminded of the chronology written in the ‘70’s The Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes. Nathan Bedford Forrest appears a few times in the book and his character is the same now as in real history but that he has more legitimacy to justify his actions; basically echoing and executing Booth’s points of view. The Pinkertons are also key to the story, with securing the new government and its leaders and with keeping order they way they deem fit; their negative and scandalous reputation continues on here as well. The truth is that much of what happened with this story is not that far different than what actually did happen, or could have.
The writing is fluid and quick to read and there is enough excitement and action for the reader to want to continue on to the next chapter. With the exception of some biblical passages and quotes the author does not try to overwhelm us with complicated metaphors or symbolism. The story is an enjoyable one and the reader does not need to be very knowledgeable with historical facts to understand it. It does not have a difficult plot or multiple story lines to follow and genuinely keeps ones interest with adventure, drama and romance. This is a story for the general public who enjoy history or a historical background; not just historians or Civil War buffs, though I think that they would find it interesting, as well.