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5 Alternate Histories of the Civil War

By / September 8, 2017 / no comments

It has been said that there are more books about Abraham Lincoln than about any other historical figure except Jesus. Mind you, the same thing has been said about Napoleon and about Hitler and probably about Stalin, so we should take that claim with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, there are an awful lot of books about Lincoln, and even more books about his times, because that period in history continues to fascinate us. Even 150 years on, the American Civil War still affects our modern world (as the recent events in Charlottesville testify).

One of the reasons that war is so fascinating is that chance appeared to play such an incredible part in the way events transpired. There were any number of moments during the war when things could have gone either way. If Britain or France had been persuaded to intervene, if cigars had not been lost before Antietam, if Chamberlain had been less inventive in his defence of Little Round Top at Gettysburg; there are so many hinge points that could have changed the outcome of the war. Which is obviously why the war continues to fascinate writers of alternate histories.

There is a long history of alternate histories of the Civil War. Back in the early 1930s, for instance, Winston Churchill wrote a short story called “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg” (it’s in If It Had Happened Otherwise edited by J.C. Squire), while more recently, last year’s Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters is posited on a very different outcome of the war. If there are an awful lot of alternate histories of the Civil War, we have to admit that many of them are not very good. These are some of the best.

Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bisson

Fire on the Mountain (Spectacular Fiction)Officially, the Civil War began when Confederate gunners fired on Fort Sumter, but in reality the conflict had been going on for a long time already. It had been going on in the battles of Bloody Kansas, and more pertinently in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. This was a doomed enterprise from the start, ill planned, ill prepared and ill equipped, and based on the assumption that they just had to take over the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry and slaves would rise up in rebellion across Virginia. But what if it had been better prepared and better equipped? What if Harriet Tubman hadn’t been ill and could lend her organisational experience to the raid, and if the raid hadn’t been delayed? That’s the premise of Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain. John Brown’s raid is a success, the slaves do rise up and free themselves, and a century later there is a prosperous and technologically advanced nation that has become a leader of a new world grouping of black countries, so much so that there has just been a manned pan-African expedition to Mars.

Buy Fire on the Mountain from Amazon.

How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove

How Few Remain (Southern Victory)One of the most extraordinary incidents of the Civil War occurred not far from Harper’s Ferry. A group of Union soldiers came upon a bunch of cigars that had been left behind by a unit of Confederates. Wrapped around the cigars was a copy of Lee’s orders detailing his plans for the coming campaign. These plans told Union General McClellan that Lee had split his forces, giving McClellan an ideal opportunity to attack. Being the man he was, McClellan still hesitated, enough so that when it finally happened the Battle of Antietam was a draw rather than the conclusive victory it might have been. Even so, the draw was enough to allow Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the moral character of the war and made it virtually impossible for Britain or France to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy. But if the cigars had not been lost? In Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain, Lee is able to continue his incursion into the North, confident that he is only one more victory away from recognition of the Confederacy by the European powers. But the consequent peace is unsatisfactory to both sides, leading to a second Civil War in the 1880s. In the end, Turtledove’s novel is itself unsatisfactory, since it works primarily to set up a subsequent series, but the premise is interesting.

Buy How Few Remain from Amazon.

Gettysburg: An Alternate History by Peter G. Tsouras

Gettysburg: An Alternate HistoryA year after he had been turned back at Antietam, Lee took his armies north again. This time, Union and Confederate forces came together at Gettysburg. The battle itself came about almost by accident, and fought over three hot days in July the battle swung first one way then the other. The first day, before the main forces had arrived, was clearly a Confederate victory. By the second day, the Union army had established itself on the stronger line, and though Lee sent his forces to attack both ends of the Union position there was no breakthrough and the fighting resolved into a stalemate. On the third day, Lee tried to attack the centre of the Union line in what has become known as Pickett’s Charge, and was decisively defeated. But over the course of the three days there were countless moments when the result could have been different. The title of Peter Tsouras’s book is misleading in that it is really a series of alternate histories as he presents several different events that might have changed the outcome of the battle: if Stuart’s Confederate cavalry had arrived earlier, if Ewell’s assault on Culp’s Hill had not been delayed, if Longstreet’s march around Little Round Top had not been distracted by Sickles’s blunder into the Devil’s Den and so on. This is a counterfactual rather than an alternate history, the examination of an historian rather than a novelist, and though all the opportunities that were missed at Gettysburg were missed by Lee, Tsouras does not see it as decisive as it is usually presented.

Buy Gettysburg: An Alternate History from Amazon.

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore

Bring the JubileeThis is generally recognised to be one of the best of all alternate history novels. It is set in the 1950s, but in this history the United States is an economically backward country overshadowed by its wealthy and more powerful neighbour to the South, the Confederate States. It is a vivid and often chilling account of what life would be like in a defeated United States. The luckless central character manages to become involved in a small institution in Pennsylvania which turns out to be experimenting with time travel. The hero gets himself sent back to observe the glorious Confederate victory at Gettysburg, but when there his clumsiness alerts the Union army to the Confederate approach to Little Round Top, and the history of the world is changed.

Buy Bring the Jubilee from Amazon.

The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

The Guns of the SouthTurtledove has devoted almost his entire career to writing alternate histories, so it is hardly surprising that he should turn up twice on this list. This is certainly the better of his two books, and very likely the best thing he has written. As with Bring the Jubilee, time travel has a central role. In this instance it begins with the Battle of the Wilderness, the battle with which Grant began his incursion into Virginia where, at tremendous cost, he would force the Confederates to continually extend their line until they were so thinly stretched that he was able to force their surrender. The Wilderness was also the site of one of the more horrific incidents in the war. It was fought in dense woodland, on the site of the earlier Battle of Chancellorsville, and after a spell of exceptionally dry weather the sparks from the muskets both armies were using set the brush alight. That night, after the two armies had disengaged, the wounded men lying between the lines were burned to death by the spreading fire. But in Turtledove’s novel, that fire doesn’t happen, because the Confederate army has just been supplied with modern AK47s by time travelling Afrikaaners from apartheid South Africa. The majority of the novel is a grim account of the consequences of a Southern victory in such circumstances, and the fascistic influence of the Afrikaaners on the shape of post-War society, particularly the spread of slavery, has a frightening resonance with the state of America today.

Buy The Guns of the South from Amazon.


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