Suppose, just suppose, the Radical Republicans decided that the amnesty Ulysses S. Grant offered to Johnny Reb didn’t have a sufficiently punitive sting. What might have happened had they put Robert E. Lee—Saddam Hussein in gray—on trial for treason?
Yeah, and what would have happened if Julius Caesar had had a machine gun? Hardhearted readers of Civil War history have little patience with counterfactuals, but such departures from the strict truth can be highly instructive—and besides, veteran historian Fleming (Washington’s Secret War, 2005) knows how to spin a tale. As his latest opens, New York news mogul Charles Dana, well embedded inside the War Department, is hopping mad, bent on punishing the entire rebel South for its perfidy, and he expects his Irish flunky Jeremiah O’Brien to hop to the cause by whispering into a few well-placed Union ears, agitating for Confederate war hero Robert E. Lee’s arrest and trial for treason—and a finale in which Lee swings at the end of a rope. O’Brien, himself embedded with a Louisiana fille de joi who has just a little more wartime experience than she lets on, balks. Dana barks. A kangaroo court is assembled; embittered abolitionists and anti-rebels such as Benjamin Butler and Ambrose Burnside fulminate; strict constructionists object; and much legalistic back and forth ensues even as the behind-the-scenes action takes on the dimensions of a Len Deighton plot. Even when Grant takes the stand and contradicts key Radical assertions, and even as other rebel-hating Yankee generals tear up when Lee speaks of honor, Fleming keeps things plausible—and, happily, takes pains that his dialogue not slide into anachronism. And whether intentional or not, it’s all quite timely, as latter-day politicos debate states’ rights and the legality of the Dred Scott decision.
A Caine Mutiny for the Reconstruction era. Well done, even if some fans of historical fiction will prefer their fiction a little more, well, historical.