The Guns of the South

The alternate history series continues with a time travel novel.

As I recall, Turtledove said the inspiration for this came from a conversation with Judith Tarr. Griping about inaccurate cover art for one of her historical fantasies, Tarr said it was like giving Robert E. Lee a Kalashnikov.

Raw Feed (1994): The Guns of the South, Harry Turtledove, 1992.the-guns-of-the-south

If alternate histories are to be judged by the skill they evoke another world and the rigor and seriousness of their extrapolations, than this is one of the best alternate history I’ve ever read.

Even though only the first paragraph of this book (a quote from Robert E. Lee) is from history, I had to remind myself several times that this was not a history of my world, an account of something that really happened. The book had that much verisimilitude.

Turtledove makes two excellent choices in viewpoint characters: Robert E. Lee to give us the large scale picture of the political and military matters he is involved in and First Sergeant Nate Caudell to give us the common man’s view of the changes that sweep the South in the wake of the change to history Turtledove postulates. Specifically, Turtledove introduces time travelers in the year 1864. They can only travel back 150 years into their past – no later, no sooner, and they didn’t get a time machine quick enough to help Lee earlier in the war. They are white supremacists from South Africa who think things for their cause begin to go wrong with the defeat of the Confederacy. They propose to arm the Southern army with AK-47s to make up for their smaller numbers and fewer resources. With the aid of the new arms (and a few rifle grenades during the taking of Washington and some nitroglycerin pills for Lee’s heart condition – however, the time travelers aren’t willing to reveal their knowledge of computers or radio), the South wins.

Turtledove doesn’t have the time travelers on stage a lot – though their existence looms large in the minds of the leaders of the victorious Confederacy. Turtledove makes a few points about the limited use, out of historic context, of the technology and knowledge of a time traveler. The South has problems manufacturing the cartridges and powders suitable for an AK-47 nor is their metallurgical skill up to duplicating them. The South Africans’ knowledge of Civil War history is only of use in the first stages of the Battle of the Wilderness – the first battle after their intervention. Latter, when they are suppressed, Benny Lang – the most decent of the South Africans – tells the South that they’ll only be able to use their captured computers until they break down.

But the South and the South Africans begin to part company after the war. Lee wants to emancipate the slaves. I liked Turtledove’s brief take on whether the Civil War was fought over state’s rights or slavery. One character remarks that the South fought the war to keep the federal government from telling state’s what to do and the specific thing the federal government wanted to tell the states’ was abolish slavery. Too many slaves were freed by Northern occupation or ran away to make it an easy matter to retrieve them. Many are in armed guerilla bands, ruthlessly suppressed by Nathan Bedford Forrest. Morally, if a slave shows the willingness to fight an army for freedom, showed bravery when fighting for the North, capable of learning reading and writing in both Northern and Southern schools, it becomes increasingly hard for thoughtful Southerners to think of blacks as less than fully human. Some already had little pleasure or patience for slavery. Economically, slaves are simply getting very expensive. Some masters rent theirs out. Other people hire freedman. Diplomatically, Britain and many other nations are reluctant to treat with a slave country. Turtledove has Lee using some anachronistic emancipation proposals from the Empire of Brazil as well as emancipation proposals from real American history.

Lee comes across as the duty-conscious, honorable man he must have been. His adventures in the complex world of the post-Second American Revolution are interesting be it dealing with the hard-fought Presidential campaign against Afrikaner backed Forrest. Forrest, who in our history was a slave trader and involved in the massacre of surrendering black Northern troops and helped form the Klan, fights a hard, vicious campaign. Yet, when Lee wins, he graciously concedes and when the lies and treachery of the Afrikaners are revealed by their Inauguration Day massacre – including Lee’s wife – Forrest helps brutally quell them. Given the animosity in the novel between the low born Forrest and aristocratic Lee and their respective views on slavery, this change in Forrest’s character seems implausible until one remembers that in our world Forrest eventually let the Klan after they became too violent for him and, when the pervading social mores changed, spoke in favor of integration.

There are disputes with the North over Kentucky and Missouri and Maryland, or the complexities of the post-war world where the North is fighting – a lá Stanton – over Canada with Britain and the Confederacy’s sphere of influence in the West and Mexico. Caudell’s story provides a good slice of changing southern life. I also liked his romance with prostitute Mollie Bean – a real historical character who fought in disguise for the South. The battles, the characterization, the plotting, the pacing, the details of life were all well done without a misstep. There were small bits I liked: the whole plot with Caudell’s friend Henry Pleasants, a Northern prisoner of war at Andersonville that Caudell meets as Pleasants is returning home after the war. Pleasants decides to stay in the South and makes it his home. He even makes a mark when, as a railroad engineer, he comes up with a successful scheme to mine under the Afrikaner fortifications in the final battle. In our time, he tried a similar scheme unsuccessfully at Vicksburg. The theme of race relations runs throughout the book. It’s best illustrated by noting that slave George Ballentine, a soldier for the South and respected by his white comrades, is killed by sadistic (and the worst) Afrikaner Andries Rhoodie. At novel’s end, Rhodie is killed by a black. The white soldiers simply remark he had it coming.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

One thought on “The Guns of the South

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.