By Monroe Templeton
Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (1992) is a classic of alternate history. It is a book which has cemented itself as an essential text of the genre, firmly rooting Turtledove and his larger body as colossal figures who have shaped how Alternate History is perceived. On the largest online community of alternate historians, the on-site awards are named in honour of him, and his works have sparked countless love affairs from writers and readers with the genre. It is also a book which perpetuates the myth of the Lost Cause.
At a glance, The Guns of the South is a fairly standard alternate history, ‘elevating’ a cliché premise of the genre to tell a story that goes beyond the elevator pitch of: time travelling Neo-Nazi’s from South Africa (the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB)) who travel from 2014 to 1864 in order to give the Confederacy Kalashnikov Rife’s. The novel, as those familiar with it will attest, grows into a more mature character study of its major players, be this the schoolteacher-cum-war hero Nate Caudell, or the main focus of this essay: General Robert E. Lee. It is a novel that, to its credit and the credit of its author, explicitly condemns both Neo-Nazism and the many racist institutions of the Confederacy. It ends with the Confederacy, through the historic materials the AWB had used to ensure they had an intelligence advantage, realising the evils of slavery and so President Robert E. Lee convincing the CS Senate to abolish the institution. For many, including Turtledove himself, this conclusion and the rejection of Confederate Slavery is enough to dismiss allegations of Lost Cause-ism within the novel. However, it is a conclusion which is built on the back of pseudo-history, and racist mythology.
This mythology is that of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. An intellectual movement of denialism that emerged during the Reconstruction, the Lost Cause sought to repaint and ultimately justify the conflict as just and heroic struggle against the North in order to preserve states rights and the Southern way of life. What these ‘states rights’ were for is usually left unspoken, or slaves are depicted as having ‘it good’, having been happy and content under benevolent owners bar the odd ‘bad apple’ owner before the North destroyed the Southern way of life. Generals- themselves slave owners- are gallant and chivalrous, Southern Gentlemen and the creme-de-la-creme of the Southern Aristocracy which is, most importantly, in touch with the common man and who deep down want to abolish slavery. The Guns of the South was a recipient of the John Esten Cooke Fiction Award for Southern Fiction because of its portrayal of a Lost Cause that Esten Cooke helped pen.
This mythology of course is nonsense. The Civil War was a war fought by the Confederacy to preserve the ownership of black slaves on behalf of an aloof Southern aristocracy who treated the enslaved brutally and with frequent violence, physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual, as many accounts from enslaved men and women attest, be this Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl (1847), or the entirety of the Library of Congress’ Born into Slavery Project (1936-1938). But it is commonplace nonsense which has infected the discourse of the Civil War. And even within a text which clearly rebukes white supremacy and slavery such as The Guns of the South, it is ladened with the negationist ideas of the lost cause.
The first part of this that becomes apparent is the depiction of the novels central protagonist: General (and later President) Robert Edward Lee. In his historical notes, Turtledove openly rebuked the depiction of Robert E. Lee as offered in Thomas Connolly’s The Marble Man (1977), favouring a depiction of the common myth of ‘Lee the abolitionist’, that a cavalier Virginian who hated slavery and didn’t truly believe in secession. This runs in contrast to a more complex picture of a flawed leader who was, as Connolly wrote: “shaped into what others wished him to be, and [became] something that he never was”. Lee’s character, as per Connolly, is an integral figure in the Lost Cause. The mythology of the Cause renders him a man of marble proselytising the virtues of nationalism and chivalry rather than a neurotic with the agency to chose to fight to uphold slavery.
In The Guns of the South, this idea of a chivalrous nationalist is present, and following the victory of his Kalashnikov armed slaver forces, Lee reasons for abolition on the basis that slavery was simply unviable due to the fear of a slave uprising. Turtledove had rejected The Marble Man as a primary source in favour of Lee himself and, considering this, such a depiction is understandable in the broad strokes. In his writings Lee would state a moral opposition to the institution, so the fictional Lee reasoning the untenability of the institution is a logical conclusion.
However, Lee was still himself a slave owner. He was still a man whose family was financially supported by slavery. While Turtledove states that he rejected The Marble Man in favour of Lee’s own writings to get a sense of the man, Lee was only writing what he himself wanted to hear. These are writings which form the bedrock of the Lost Cause movement; these are also the writings which form the bedrock of The Guns of the South. Indeed, in more direct correspondents with Turtledove, he would note that his portrayal of Lee was also rooted in Lee’s desire to arm slaves as Confederate Soldiers on the promise of freedom- ignoring that his scenario removed such a radical decision from being, from Lee’s perspective, necessary.
In Chapter 15, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest concedes the 1867 Presidential election to now President-Elect Lee, arriving at his house to shake his hand and pledge his allegiance. Chapter 15 is a turning point within the narrative in many respects; after the bitterly fought election, Gen. Forrest, a chivalrous gentleman on horseback, arrives to essentially tell Lee “I’ll do anything I can to make things easy for you once you take over”, and, referring to the ‘unpleasantness’ of his campaign, which saw intimidation by an alternate KKK, “All that was just business, just trying to put a scare on you and people out there who did the voting, just as I would have done on a yankee general, to get him running”. Conceding that he and Lee will never agree on slavery, he pledges he would put down any insurrection against Lee and work with him to keep the country whole.
The Nathan Forrest that Turtledove presents to us in The Guns of the South is an honourable caviller who, despite opposing Lee’s abolition pledge, promises that he would not ally with those who wished to tear the Confederacy apart. In real life, General Forrest was by the time of the divergence responsible for the barbaric massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, and in both post-wars was responsible for the strength growth of the terror organisation Ku Klux Klan. In The Guns of the South the Klan is treated as being an appendage of the AWB’s influence (indeed, its alternate foundation is part of AWB’s attempt to influence the post-Civil War settlement in the South), only relenting after AWB attempt to gun down President Lee at his inauguration over the matter of emancipation. In real life, Forrest’s Klan had no qualms with assassinating emancipators, murdering Republican’s Rep. James M. Hinds of Arkansas and Judge George W. Ashburn of Georgia.
Forrest’s dissolution and withdrawal from the organisation was not due to a feeling of disgust at the actions taken by his underlings, but rather his upset at the lack of organisation in his insurrectionist terrorist organisation. Although Forrest is remembered for a post-war ‘change of heart’, something which no doubt impacted how he was portrayed, it is difficult to see Forrest’ motivations without a cynical lens of his realisation of his place in history, and that a Forrest in a confederate victory would have little qualms with the actions of the AWB.
There are many other examples within the book, but I believe I have put a fine enough point onto it. The Guns of the South presents us with a Lost Cause fantasy, in which honourable men fought for a cause which, if they could only know how history would one day judge them, would have thrown down their rifles and seen the error of their way, as the novels climax enacts. It is a novel in which Henry Pleasants, the Union engineer who wiped out 300 Confederate soldiers in the stroke of a match at the Battle of the Crater, stands side-by-side with Confederates to unite against a common enemy of NeoNazism, a matter that in 1992 would have seemed prescient in the coming years.
But this is a fantasy; it is alternate history rendered as propaganda à la Mode. It presents the Confederate aristocracy who fought bloody insurrection for four years so that they may continue to possess human beings in bondage, and continued a decades long guerrilla war that arguably continues to this very day, as an organisation that would have opposed thuggish fascism. It presents people who took possession of human beings as they would cattle and fought for their right to as being disgusted at how the ‘Riverton Men’ of the AWB treat their slaves, treatment no better than how Lee and his compatriots are recorded as doing. The same Lee who is presented in the novel as being fawned over by the men and women that he owned. The same Lee who the novel construes would have sought abolition, despite having commanded the army of Northern Virginia in order to preserve the institution of slavery, an institution he defended even after defeat.
When expressing these concerns with the novel, you must deal with the counter argument that it is simply a book of its time. And that is an understandable perspective. In the year following publication, New Line Cinema would release the infamous Gettysburg (1993), Ronald F. Maxwell’s adaptation of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1975), both influential works within their respective mediums. I cannot in all-fairness discuss Shaara’s novel but in Gettysburg there is the same pro-Lost Causeist depiction of Robert E. Lee that you see within the pages of The Guns of the South, and many of the same attitudes that drove that depiction are voiced in that film. Moreover Guns of the South plays on the tropes established in Bring the Jubilee (1953) and Rebel in Time (1983), and contains much of the same ‘progressive’ Lost Causism that infected a great deal of alternate history and indeed popular history written by liberal Northerners such as Turtledove. It was published the year Bill Clinton won the Presidency swaddled in the bars and stars after launching his bid for nomination with a photoshoot of black men in chains before Stone Mountain. It was published when the symbolism of the Confederacy was so normalised culturally that Thelma of Thelma & Louise (1991) spent most of the picture wearing a top with the stars and bars without anyone batting an eye.
It is understandable why, within this cultural context, Turtledove would incorporate Lost Cause ideas into his novel, something his views on slavery and racism would imply was unintentional. When asked about it in his recent interview with this site he said 'You are a part of history, too ... It was a different time and I was a different person'. But asserting contextual ignorance due to saturation of the Lost Cause within popular media at the time does not excuse the choices the book makes, as the ignorance was not total. After all, Turtledove admits in the Acknowledgment to have read the revisionist work of The Marble Man, but that he had rejected it in favour of negationist sources.
And it is not enough to just leave it at ‘it was written in a different time when the Lost Cause mythology was more acceptable and less universally seen as false' because the book is still recommended now. It is not a novel which is lost to the 90s; it is still read and consumed. It is still a novel that holds sway in the alternate history community, and continues to be read as an essential text for readers who are ignorant to the horrors of the institution that Lee and Forrest and all of the Confederate characters within the novel fought to uphold, priming them with a ‘progressive’ notion of the Lost Cause. These readers may not recognise the stench around the novel, be this due to the privilege of a cultural disassociation, or simply because they are white.
When I was young and didn’t know better, I consumed The Guns of the South with gusto. My privilege as a white reader disassociated from American culture allowed me to. It is a book I grew up with, and one which led me into the alternate history community, a community where I found many a friend and which is responsible for nurturing my hunger to write. But now, nearly a decade later and at a time when those marble men of General Lee and Nathan Forrest haunt America, when fascistic insurrectionists march waving the flag of white supremacy before the portrait of Sen. Charles Sumner in the US Capitol, and black men and women are murdered in the streets by police forces descendent from the slave catchers of the pre-war South, I can’t help but reflect that alternative histories like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South represent a deep rot within alternate history that we must reckon with.
It is long past time we reexamine our own marble men.