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

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.


  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