California Blood at Gettysburg: From antebellum California to a bloody Pennsylvania Ridge by Mike “Mig” Gallagher (Debut Historical Novel, 2021).
Two young men become close friends, mature and grow into accomplished soldiers, bonding as close as brothers during America’s brutal Civil War. Yet neither even started life as US citizens; each is thus a product of the nation’s immigrant experience, circa the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s.
Roarke’s widowed mother fled potato famine-ravaged Ireland with him and found work as a cook for a politically prominent Illinois man in the prewar years. He’s smart and charming, with a bit of good-natured larceny in his soul.
In contrast, Rigo is a highly moral young Mexican who honors the memory of his father–an elite cavalry lancer who died in battle against invading US troops in the 1840s. He doesn’t hold that loss against the country he will eventually adopt and fight for, though like Roarke he is not blind to the bigotry newcomers–not to mention those held in slavery–encounter. He constantly tries to do the right thing and occasionally comes off as just a bit fussy. But Rigo isn’t overbearing about his convictions, and never less than likable. He’ll even get to find romance with a lovely young lady.
The young men are brought together in 1858 through their mutual employment by one of many actual historical figures they encounter. Edward Baker, is a skilled attorney and friend of Abraham Lincoln who moved to the west coast. When war followed Lincoln’s taking office, Baker came east and the young men followed. Baker organized a regiment mostly from Philadephia; Roarke and Rigo of course joined up and soon became non-commissioned officers. Composed almost entirely of Pennsylvanians but financed by California gold, the unit was dubbed the 1st California Volunteers.
Except for our fictional heroes, this is all historical fact. But a small flaw for me is that Gallagher neglects to spell out the reason for the regiment’s otherwise incongruous name. A small quibble and certainly not one to do much harm to the reader’s enjoyment.
Anyway, the true history of this unit provides structure to the story as the 1st California navigates the chaotic and often frustrating experiences of Union forces in the eastern theater of the war. Baker dies in the mismanaged defeat at Balls Bluff, Virginia, but Roarke and Rigo soldier on. Along the way, they have often fateful encounters with many senior officers and other important figures–including Mr. Lincoln himself.
As such, they have moments in close proximity to and influence over key moments in the epic national struggle. These range from being used as scouts to determine the army’s movements to suggesting a way to divert Stewart’s cavalry, thereby depriving Confederate General Lee of his “eyes and ears” at the ultimate battle in the book’s title. At Gettysburg itself, our heroes find themselves at what historians now call ‘the high-water mark of the Confederacy”–with one of them firing the fatal shot at General Armistead just as he led his men in their brief and suicidal penetration of the Federal defenses.
Actually, for two common soldiers, they got around and played outsized roles in the conflict–not to mention how often they survived wounds that might easily have been deadly. But this is fiction and the willing suspension of disbelief is not stretched too far in this reviewer’s opinion.
And I found the opening prewar first meeting of then-boyish Roarke with new Congressman-elect Lincoln both amusing and clever. I liked how the youngster’s way with words supplied Lincoln with the seed of one of that master orator’s most famous lines in a later debate–and that Gallagher just presented it without intrusive comment.
That said, at times the knowledgeable Gallagher may not always supply quite enough context to what’s going on for the less historically inclined. Particularly, the comparatively breakneck pace at which the northern Army shed one failed leader after another may at times bewilder. A few lines of dialogue here and there in the “They replaced the general with who?!” or “I just hope the new guy’s smarter than Burnside!” vein would’ve made the frequent transitions easier for readers to understand. And added a bit more depth to the central characters along the way. Soldiers commenting on or complaining about their leaders in a time honored tradition, after all.
Also, I must admit that the irritating staff officer who makes himself the pair’s personal nemesis turns up a bit too frequently for my tastes.
This being the author’s first stab at publishing fiction, some scenes are not as impactful as they could’ve been. I believe the author will develop a better feel for pacing in his future books (a sequel is reported in the works and I look forward to it).
Readers should aware of the book’s subtitle–Gettysburg is only the last of 25 chapters and only covered from the limited viewpoint of these 2 main characters. For a thrilling fictionalized view of the entire sprawling 3-day battle, look elsewhere–The Killer Angels would be the obvious recommendation.
Nonetheless, the book has a lot of insight to offer and fulfills much of its promise. The tragic climax, which I won’t spoil here, reminds that these aren’t some sort of cartoon supermen who can always recover from the serious trauma of war. Simultaneously, we witness real emotional and ethical, maybe even spiritual growth in the characters–especially so in those final pages.