By Ryan Fleming
The two most widely used ideas in alternate history are that of Nazi Germany emerging as a victor from the Second World War and the Confederate States of America surviving the American Civil War.
One of the most prominent examples of the latter is Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory (or Timeline-191) series, which began with the subject of our current review – How Few Remain, published in 1997. Set two decades after the United States failed to stop the Southern states from seceding, in the intervening years the CSA seems to have had an easy ride and the USA still smarting from being forced to recognise the breakaway state at the instigation of the Great Powers. It covers a multitude of viewpoints across North America, all historical characters caught up in the second round between the CSA and USA after the former manages to wrangle for itself a Pacific coastline. Despite being one of the two most cliched alternate history settings, in some ways people are less forgiving of an implausible history to the American Civil War than they are World War II, no matter what sort of story we get from it. How does How Few Remain measure up in terms of plausibility?
Discussion of the American Civil War in alternate history can often quickly get bogged down into debates about which side had the more reliable buttons on their tunics and other trivialities; what can be agreed though is the longer the way drags on the likelihood of the secessionists succeeding gets less and less.
The divergence used by Turtledove, where Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191 is not lost and without this military intelligence the General is able to carry out his invasion of the North, comes in 1862. This early there was still a possibility of international recognition for the breakaway states, and Turtledove supposes that with a successful invasion of the North the CSA would gain as much from France and the United Kingdom. Perhaps overly broad, but not out with the realms of plausibility.
The people of the United States do not take too kindly to receive a slap across the face from the CSA then being forced to apologise by the great powers, and Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party are shown the door in the 1864 presidential election. The two American nations sit for the next two decades like bad neighbours glaring at each other through the net curtains, and eventually a wave of anti-Confederate sentiment leads to the Republicans returning to the White House under James G. Blaine.
For their part the Confederacy goes from strength to strength at the end of their War of Independence consisting of the original eleven states, Kentucky, and the Indian Territory. In the interim between the point of divergence and the beginning of the main narrative they purchased Cuba from Spain; and are expanding further by purchasing the north-western Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. Here the plausibility is stretched a bit thin – the CSA would be lucky to get away with the original eleven let alone succeed in conquering Kentucky and wrangling a territory from the US. They would likely also be so cash strapped even with good relations with France and the UK that they be extremely unlikely to purchase more territory.
It is also unlikely that France and the UK would remain as allies to the CSA beyond stepping in with the offer of mediation during the initial conflict, they were also unlikely to be overly friendly with each other. Elsewhere, the French still intervene in Mexico and install Maximilian von Hapsburg as Emperor (strangely though he does not make the same territorial changes he did to Mexico history that would have rendered the Confederate purchase much smaller) and his reign lasts much longer due to a lack of intervention on the part of the US. This does not help the Second French Empire in the end as the Franco-Prussian War still happens on schedule and the German Empire is formed in the 1870s. Here we see the cherry picking of butterflies on the part of Turtledove – the French intervention still happens, but the outcome is different, but France finds itself on roughly the same course during the 1860s/70s as they did historically.
This lack of consistency with world events and implausibly successful CSA is easily forgivable if the plot and characters are entertaining enough, as with any work of alternate history. Do the characters present us with a rich world where we can forgive a few inconsistencies?
In spite of casting a butterfly net over some world events, what Turtledove does with some of the historical figures he uses for his viewpoint characters is nothing short of inspired. Some of them have gone on to be clichés in alternate history, but they all fall into the same top down view of the events portrayed in the novel.
The two viewpoint characters from the Confederate States are both Generals that historically died during the American Civil War. Stonewall Jackson gives us a view in the Confederate capital of Richmond and in Kentucky on the front lines, whilst JEB Stuart provides us a viewpoint in the new Confederate territories of Chihuahua and Sonora. Despite being placed continents apart the two generals are perhaps too similar in perspective, both being presented as honourable gentlemen, to give distinct viewpoints. The viewpoint of a CSA character below the rank of general, perhaps a poor white or a slave would have given better differentiation. If we were to lose one of these, I would have to say keep JEB over Stonewall. Stonewall has a couple of good scenes, in particularly an awkward dinner with a captive Frederick Douglass and refusing Wade Hampton’s offer to lead a military coup, but on the other hand JEB is leading a Confederate camel corps in the desert that sees the Rebs getting smashed on mescal and in conflict with Geronimo and the Apaches. On excitement alone JEB wins.
Contrasting the two vanilla generals in butternut the two military perspectives on the US side could not be any more elephantine in personality. Perhaps this is to the detriment of the work, especially since they share a lot of the same narrative in Montana near the Canadian border. With two larger than life characters such as George Custer and Theodore Roosevelt perhaps temptation was too strong to resist, though Turtledove tempered this in later works by only portraying the two of them through the viewpoints of others. Again though, we could have lost one of them without losing much in terms of plot. Considering Custer spends most of the novel in either Utah or Montana where either Abraham Lincoln or Roosevelt are also present, he could be cut in favour of another military point of view.
On the US civilian side there are two viewpoint characters that really add depth to the novel beyond the military. Even though they share scenes together they fulfill a valuable role in showing what has happened to the abolitionist movement after losing the struggle with the salve states. Frederick Douglass continues the fight the horrors of slavery from the United States, but finds his speeches falling upon death ears. A particularly memorable scene comes when Douglass is captured by Confederate troops whilst observing a battle and luckily is not immediately lynched, leading to the aforementioned dinner with Stonewall Jackson. On the other hand, since leaving the White House Abraham Lincoln has broadened his anti-slavery views taking in the works of Karl Marx growing concerned as much with the working classes of any colour as he is with those held in literal chains. Socialist Lincoln has gone on to be something of a cliché but this was one of the earliest works of alternate history to feature it. By the end of the novel the two have almost parted ways politically being emblematic of the split in the Republican Party between those broadening their politics to socialism and those concerned with revanchism against the CSA, with Lincoln following the former and Douglass the latter.
Rounding out the viewpoints are two that can be considered true outsiders to the events of the novel, being either completely uncommitted to war, in the case of Samuel Clemens (not known as Mark Twain in this timeline), or not being an American of any nation, in the case of Alfred von Schlieffen. Neither character really comes alive in the way some of the others do, and in the case of Clemens this is unforgivable. It feels almost as though the characters only exist to provide explanation of two aspects of the plot. Clemens, being based in San Francisco, gives us an indication that the conflict has gone truly global when the Royal Navy attacks California and the Royal Marines raid the Federal Mint. Von Schlieffen on the other hand seems only present for heavy handed foreshadowing of a German-US military alliance.
The characters portrayed in the novel are hit or miss. Some of them palpable hits, in the case of Lincoln and Roosevelt; others not even landing on the board, such as Clemens and von Schlieffen. The rest fall somewhere in between. Sacrificing some plausibility and with the characters haphazard does the plot of How Few Remain stand out as its strong point?
There are some questions as to the plausibility of the alternate history, and the characters, whilst not a failure, can feel as though they are only there to provide exposure to specific events. Unfortunately, at times the plot can feel two as though it is only there to foreshadow later events.
The battlefields in Kentucky during the Second Mexican War (an odd name for a conflict between the CSA and USA) are clearly meant to be evocative of the trenches of the historical World War One. In the same way the US defeat is meant to be evocative of the Franco-Prussian War, right down to losing a portion of Maine to the UK as the Alsace-Lorraine equivalent. Considering the conflict stretches from the Sonoran Desert to New England and from the Great Plains to the Ohio River, one might question if the Franco-Prussian War is an applicable model a conflict that stretches across a continent.
This dress rehearsal for the Great War aspect of the novel comes across in a lot of the heavy-handed foreshadowing present throughout. As mentioned, a wave of revanchism against the CSA, France, and the UK sweeps the United States and the US also looks to Germany as a potential ally. Why were France and the UK not on one side of the First World War and Germany on the other? Could this be significant to later volumes? Despite the fact, as shown in David Flin’s article Going Over the Top: We Will Remember Them, this same alliance system was in no way guaranteed on the eve of War let alone in 1882!
This seeming focus on setting up future works as opposed to focusing on the tale being told might go some way to explain the top down viewpoints the novel has, at the expense of providing a richer world. Despite this, How Few Remain is still one of the more plausible and better successful Confederacy works out there.
The work can sometimes be marred by being conflated with the Southern Victory series as a whole, which very quickly become so bogged down in parallel history that it almost developed into self-parody (the Nazi Party but everyone says “y’all”). A plausible route for the CSA to gain independence and a logical reaction from the USA is undermined by an overpowered CSA and some haphazard international developments. Great viewpoints from historical characters exist side by side with some poor and undeveloped choices, and at times it can seem as though it only exists to set up the rest of the series.
Nonetheless, the novel shows some interesting concepts and ideas that I wish were fleshed out at the expense of what Turtledove actually focused on. With the recent fresh look at the tired cliché of Operation Sealion in Fight Them on the Beaches (edited by Katherine Foy) is it time for General Lee’s Special Order 191 to be given the same treatment?