Tag Archives: Counterfactual history

The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 8.10.34 AMNeed a distraction from reality? Troubled by things that actually took place? No problem. I present to you The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove….the “master” of alternate history.

I have a thing or two to say about the book, but before I do that, I thought I might offer my take on alternate history – or if you rather…”counterfactual” history. I see them as one and the same.

According to historian Mark Grimsley, there are roughly two kinds of counteractual history. First – for the basest of simpletons I suppose – we have the “beer and peanuts” counterfactual. These “what ifs,” such as “what if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg” generally make their appearance at various “buff” gatherings. Second, we have “counterfactual theory.” This theory, the brainchild (I believe) of Grimsley himself, couches counterfactuals in the high-toned language of academics. The objective: to derive an element of truth from what did happen by laboriously theorizing about what…ummmm….didn’t.

Frankly, I find both varieties equally absurd. I have always suggested to my students that counterfactual history has limited utility (apart from a few laughs) and analysis of the infinite “what ifs” of history bears little or no fruit. Why, I ask, should we dwell on what might have happened (something that we could never, ever, ever really know – ever…no matter what) when we still have trouble determining what actually did? Ughh.

Now that that is off my chest – on to Guns. The premise of this book: South African white supremacists travel back in time to supply the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia with AK-47s. Hi-jinx ensue. SPOILER ALERT: The Confederacy wins.

I have to admit that I was drawn in by Guns. Despite that fact that I generally cringe at the thought of counterfactual/alternate history, I thought this book was entertaining. Whatever…guilty as charged. I mean really…who would not be captivated by a heated presidential contest between rival factions supporting Nathan Bedford Forrest, the white supremacy candidate, and Robert E. Lee under the banner of…what…abolition??

You heard it right, friends. Old Marse Robert decides that emancipation is the ticket. As the story goes, relations with the South Africans quickly unravel once Lee and others get their hands on a few Civil War history books from the future that would have been. I won’t give away what happens next – you’ll want to read it for yourself. Let’s just say that apart from a few hotheads, the good citizens of the CSA come to their senses regarding the slavery issue.

I have to hand it to Turtledove. Instead of pandering to the – shall we say – extremist contingent of the modern neo-Confederacy, he deals candidly with the slavery issue. He writes of the complexities of secession and the Confederate war for independence with the underlying acknowledgment that slavery – in the words of Abraham Lincoln – had “something to do with the war.” Indeed, many of the central characters frankly admit that they had fought to maintain the institution.

But…I do see this book as part of an intriguing movement. Since the end of the war, there have been those who have worked tirelessly to distance iconic Confederate heroes from the fight to preserve slavery. Guns, in my estimation, is for the most part a continuation of that effort. Both Robert E. Lee and the main Confederate soldier character (Nate Caudell) change their tunes regarding slavery and begin to think in earnest about equality, the human condition, and inherent rights of all. This characterization undoubtedly pleases modern “heritage not hate” supporters of the Confederacy, who see the war as an effort to secure rights in the face of an oppressive government. These folks generally assume that slavery was already a dying institution in 1860, and would have passed into history on its own. The alternate Lee and Caudell march right in step with this scenario – and even accelerate the process.

Whether or not I am on board with Turtledove’s portrayal of a victorious Confederacy is of little consequence. You will have to judge for yourself – I will not quibble with counterfactuals/alternates because such arguments are ultimately of little value. And after all – this is not a book of history. But it is an entertaining look at a fictional country, and Turtledove uses actual people, places, and events to spin his yarn. I say what the hell – give The Guns of the South a go. It might make you mad, it might make you laugh, and who knows….it might even encourage you to have a look at the history of the Civil War – the real one, that is.

With compliments,

Keith

What If What If What If (the Stonewall Post)

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 10.26.42 AMNow as you all know, I get questions daily via Facebook, Youtube, and especially Twitter. This one comes up frequently enough to merit an entire post. And guess what – I am as thrilled as hell about it because it gives me a chance to pitch in on counterfactual history.

So here you go – I am sure you have heard it too: “What if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg?”

Oh boy. Well, I guess I should start with just a little background. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was known to Lee and all across the Confederacy as a fighter. He was ballsy, tough, and quite often outmaneuvered and out fought his better supplied and manned opponents. Second Manassas? Kicked ass. The Valley Campaign of 1862? Kicked ass. Fredericksburg? Kicked ass. Chancellorsville? Kicked major ass. See what I mean…except there was one little problem.

After Stonewall’s II Corps, ANV effectively routed the Union XI Corps at Chancellorsville, some dumb asses from North Carolina accidentally shot him and he subsequently died a few days later. Bummer for the Rebs. They lost one of their best guys.

So good ole Robert E. Lee decided to reorganize the II Corps in to two new corps, the II – under the command of Richard S. Ewell and the III – under the command of A. P. Hill.

Fast forward to July 1, 1863. Elements of Ewell’s II Corps beat the shit out of the Union I and XI Corps at Gettysburg – pushing them through the town and up the heights (Cemetery Hill) just south of town. Lee’s orders to Ewell: Take the heights if practicable.

Well, apparently Ewell didn’t think it was practicable because he did not take the heights (or even attempt to) and the Union wound up holding the high ground – a fact that would prove very advantageous for the Union later on.

Many armchair generals across the land have since insisted that if Stonewall had been in command on that day – those heights would have been taken – thus insuring Confederate victory at Gettysburg and quite possibly the war itself. Poor old Richard S. Ewell. That is one hell of a historical burden to have hanging over you.

But here’s the thing (counterfactual rant begins now). We have NO WAY of knowing what would have happened. NO WAY. FULL STOP. Jackson could have done a number of things, maybe he would have taken the hill. Could he have held it? Who knows? Hell – maybe he would have been killed, or had dysentery, or fallen off his horse, or anything at all. The point here is that counterfactual history gets us absolutely nowhere. There were an infinite number of possibilities that day with the people who actually fought in the battle. One of them happened. Let’s focus on that and give the “what ifs” a break.

Now there are a few historians around (Mark Grimsley and others) who have postulated some sort of counterfactual “theory” that they suggest will actually shed light on what could have really happened given another set of circumstances.

Nonsense. Attaching a bunch of academic claptrap to the musings and suppositions of what boils down to fantasy has even less utility than the simple “what if” questions over beer, peanuts, and Youtube.

At any rate – if you want to talk about Gettysburg, I am all yours. But let’s stick to what actually happened – not what could have.

With compliments,

Keith