The Plausibility of Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

In
his novel The
Guns of the South
, Harry Turtledove presents an alternative
history of the American Civil War. The South, with the aid of a
group of South Africans who travel back in time from 2014, utilizes
AK-47s to win the war. The South Africans help the South because
they want an ally to support their racist regime. The South Africans
face a rude awakening, however, when Robert E. Lee assumes the Confederate
presidency and pursues a policy of gradual emancipation. The following
essay will examine the plausibility of Turtledove's alternate history,
focusing on Lee's conduct of the war, the North's postwar aggression
against England, the South's adoption of a policy of gradual emancipation,
and Lee's accession to the Confederate presidency.

Turtledove's
novel presents a very plausible portrayal of how Lee may have conducted
the war after receiving AK-47s. Lee wins the war by launching a
daring, dangerous nighttime assault on Washington, D.C. He captures
the city and forces Abraham Lincoln to negotiate a settlement. This
series of events is plausible because Lee was widely known for being
a gambler. For example, at the Battle of Chancellorsville, he "ignored
military wisdom by dividing his army in the face of superior numbers,"
by leaving 11,000 troops at Fredericksburg and taking another 42,000
with him to face General Joseph Hooker's army of 75,000.1
Later, he divided his army once again, sending 28,000 men with Stonewall
Jackson to attack Hooker's right flank. These actions, according
to historians Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon, and Daniel Sutherland,
defied "all rules of conventional military strategy and tactics."2
Therefore, it would have been just like Lee to launch a surprise
assault on Washington.

After
losing the Civil War, the Northern states launch a war against the
British over the Canadian provinces. This scenario is highly plausible
because Abraham Lincoln, by becoming a "constitutional dictator,"
concentrated power in the executive branch; governments with powerful
executives are far more likely to pursue aggressive foreign policies
than governments with restraints on executive power. Thomas DiLorenzo
demonstrates this in his book The
Real Lincoln
when he writes that one of the consequences
of the North's victory was an increasingly aggressive government.
For example, after defeating the South, the American government
challenged the British government, demanding that it pay reparations
for trading with the South. Moreover, General Grant prepared for
war against Mexico, and the U.S. Army conducted "a campaign
of ethnic genocide" against the Plains Indians.3
In sum, it is highly probable that, after losing the Civil War,
the American government would have pursued a war with England.

Some
may object to this point by arguing that, after losing a long and
bloody war, the U.S. government would have toned down its aggression
and reduced the power of the executive. Under this view, an angry
public would have voted Abraham Lincoln out of office and replaced
him with someone who would lead a return to "normalcy."
This argument, however, is flawed. While Lincoln would almost certainly
have been voted out of office, the executive branch would have maintained
a considerable amount of the extralegal powers that it claimed during
Lincoln's administration. This conclusion can be reached because
of economist Robert Higgs' "ratchet effect." Higgs has
persuasively argued that, after states claim extraordinary powers
during crises (like wars), they rarely give them all up once the
crisis passes. According to Higgs, "each emergency leaves the
scope of government at least a little wider than before."4
Therefore, the executive branch would have retained its newfound
superiority over the legislative branch; and, as history has shown,
powerful executives pursue aggressive foreign policies.

Turtledove's
treatment of the slavery issue is plausible as well. In the novel,
Robert E. Lee is elected president of the Confederacy and implements
a policy of gradual emancipation. Had the South won, it probably
would have followed a policy of gradual emancipation. Several pieces
of evidence support this conclusion.

First,
slavery was slowly losing its political support due to the Enlightenment
philosophy of freedom. According to Thomas DiLorenzo, Americans,
even in the South, were beginning to realize that slavery contradicted
the Enlightenment principles they professed. Second, slavery had
already begun to decline in border states like Kentucky, where slaves
could easily escape to the North; moreover, since these states did
not grow cotton, slavery was less economical. Therefore, if a Confederate
president had abolished slavery, he would have encountered little
resistance in states like Kentucky. Third, the Industrial Revolution
would have hastened slavery's decline. Industrial workers, unlike
slaves, work for wages, and this makes them more productive, since
they have incentive to work hard.5
Southerners, then, would probably have accepted the gradual end
of slavery, a system that contradicted their fundamental principles,
had already become unpopular in border states, and was becoming
less profitable due to the Industrial Revolution.

In
Turtledove's novel, Robert E. Lee succeeds Jefferson Davis as president
of the Confederacy. Had Lee run for president, he almost certainly
would have won. After the war, many Southerners, particularly proponents
of the "Lost Cause" interpretation, saw Lee as "nearly
Christlike, half-man, half-god, humble, honorable, inherently peaceful,
but driven to war by a just and noble cause."6
If Lee received such praise in defeat, he would have been even more
popular if the South had won. Therefore, if he had run for president,
he would have easily won.

However,
Turtledove's account of Lee's election in 1866 contains one potential
implausibility. Nathan Bedford Forrest, with financial support from
the South Africans (who turn on Lee, fearing that he will free the
slaves), campaigns vigorously throughout the South and nearly defeats
Lee; the electoral vote hinges on Tennessee, which Lee narrowly
wins. This is probably the least plausible aspect of Turtledove's
novel because, as has been demonstrated, Lee was extremely popular
in the South; Forrest, even with millions of campaign dollars, would
probably not have come so close to defeating the beloved Lee.

One
could argue, though, that Forrest's financial advantage would have
tightened the race. Also, Forrest ran a negative campaign against
Lee, telling Southerners that Lee, if elected, would abolish slavery.
This strategy, however, may well have backfired. Many Southerners
would undoubtedly have been deeply offended by a negative campaign
against Robert E. Lee.

However,
one could still argue that Southerners, having just fought a war
to preserve slavery, would have been loathe to abolish it; in this
view, Forrest's success is more plausible. This argument's weakness,
though, lies in the assumption that Southerners fought strictly
to preserve slavery, which is not the case. Most Southerners, in
fact, did not even own slaves. Moreover, four states – Virginia,
Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas – only seceded when
the North utilized military force against the South; fears of Lincoln
abolishing slavery did not prompt their secession. Historian James
McPherson, who studied thousands of diaries in an effort to understand
why soldiers fought, has shown that most Southerners fought for
patriotic reasons, not to preserve slavery. The right of self-government,
not the right to own slaves, motivated men to fight.7

If
one accepts the implausibility of time travel, Harry Turtledove
offers a plausible account of the path history may have taken if
the South had acquired an incredible military advantage like the
AK-47. Lee, who had a reputation for taking risks, probably would
have gambled by attacking Washington, D.C. After all, he had previously
taken enormous risks when the odds were against him; he would certainly
have taken risks if he had AK-47s. The North, with power concentrated
in the executive branch, would have pursued aggressive foreign policies,
especially since Northern politicians would have wanted to "make
up" for losing the Southern states. Lee, who, even in defeat,
is widely loved in the South even to this day, would easily have
won election had he decided to seek office. Turtledove's novel only
becomes implausible when he underestimates Robert E. Lee's popularity.

Notes

  1. Michael
    Fellman, Lesley J. Gordon, and Daniel E. Sutherland, This
    Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath
    (New York:
    Longman, 2003), 228.
  2. Ibid.,
    228.
  3. Thomas
    J. DiLorenzo, The
    Real Lincoln
    (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003), 269.
  4. Daniel
    McCarthy, "Enemy
    of the State
    ," American Conservative (May 9, 2005):
    28.
  5. DiLorenzo,
    op. cit., 276–77.
  6. Fellman,
    op. cit., 376.
  7. Thomas
    Woods, The
    Politically Incorrect Guide to American History
    (Washington,
    D.C.: Regnery, 2004), 69–71.

May
16, 2005

Andrew
Young [send him mail] is a
senior history major at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro,
Kentucky.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • Podcasts