Feb 8 2010 12:18pm

Time travellers changing history: Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South

The Guns of the South (1992) was the first, or anyway the first I encountered, of the new kind of time-travel alternate histories, the kind where a group of people from the future, with their technology, turn up in a particular point in the past and change it. There were plenty of stories about organized groups of time travellers trying not to disturb the past, and also plenty about one person, without more than he could carry, changing things, starting from De Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (1939) but what made The Guns of the South innovative was doing it with a whole group of people and their stuff. It was followed with Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time (the island of Nantucket in the bronze age) and Flint’s 1632 (a US steel town transported to Europe of 1632) and at this point it’s pretty much a whole subgenre.

What makes the book so great is that it’s told entirely from the points of view of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and Nate Caudwell, a sergeant in the Confederate army. The reader immediately recognises what an AK47 is, and knows where the white supremacists have come from to help the South, but the way Lee and Caudwell learn about them and their intentions, and the way the tide of history is turned, makes for a compelling story. Only about a third of the book is about the way the AK47s help the South win the Civil War; the rest is about what happens afterward, and the uneasy relationship with the men from the future.


I have always been a pushover for stories of history of technology, but I’ve never been very much interested in the US Civil War. It wasn’t covered in the history I studied in school. Indeed, after reading about it in Fire On the Mountain (John Brown wins, Mars landing in 1950) and Bring the Jubilee (South wins at Gettysburg, only it’s cleverer than that) and then The Guns of the South, I decided I’d better read a book about the real history because I was getting confused. Indeed, after reading about it I’m still not all that much interested in it. Fortunately I read The Guns of the South before I got online, or seeing flame wars about States Rights might have put me off picking it up. Knowing what a thorny subject it can be, and how alive the issues are in the minds of many Americans even now, I admire how well Turtledove steered his way through so many potential shoals with this novel.

Turtledove clearly did his homework—the details of the past, and the way the soldiers react to the new rifles and to the dehydrated meals feel exactly right. The chant they set up once they have the AK47 “Enfield, Springfield, throw them in the cornfield!” has exactly the authentic ring of those marching chants. The details of how a woman gets away with being in the ranks are excellent, and the character of Lee comes over very clearly. The events of the changed history, the way Britain is forced to recognize the Confederacy, the settlement, the elections, and the war between the USA and Canada all flow from the Southern victory and its consequences in the kind of way things happen.

If the book has a flaw it’s that things are too easy. The Rivington men are Afrikaaners, fanatical white supremacist separatists from 2014, and they’re horrible. That they’re horrible makes it a much better book, because they do have their own agenda and it’s different from what Lee wants, and what the South would have wanted. Where it’s too easy is the way they try to assassinate Lee at his inauguration and make themselves his open enemies and allow him to declare martial law and assault them. They’re never shown as being idiots before. They could have stuck it out, or killed him quietly by a sniper Kennedy-style. Their attempt allows the last part of the book to be a war against superior technology, as the first part has been a war against inferior technology, but it’s a cheat. It’s the only thing that does feel like a cheat, and so it stands out more. I’m not entirely convinced that Lee and the South would have gone for abolishing slavery slowly—my goodness, I’ve met people online more in favour of slavery in the Confederacy than most of the Confederates in this book. But I’d rather spend time with nice people than evil ones, most of the time, so I’ll give it a pass on that.

This is a hugely enjoyable read, and I think probably still Turtledove’s best novel.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
One of the things that I really liked about this book is Lee realizing that the Confederacy doesn't have the tools to make the tools to make some of the things the Rivington Men have brought with them. It's an interesting moment. I'm also impressed by the way the various southerners react when they learn what the future thinks of them and their cause. Few today would care in the least.

There are a couple of interesting/amusing stories connected to this book. When Turtledove was writing it, he planned to include the woman posing as a man, since that did happen a number of times. He'd already written or plotted much of her part when he received some new research material (a diary from someone who was in Caudell's company). It turns out that there really was a woman in the company.

The book also won an award from some southern organization for best historical novel dealing with the South, awarded by some group that dreams longingly of Dixie. Turtledove went to the awards dinner and his description of the evening is fascinating. He's a big, hairy guy (not to mention Jewish) and he sat there with all these unreconstructed Southerners and he and they made each other more than a little uneasy.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Demetrios: I like that, and I especially like Lee looking someone up in a book called Lee's Generals published a hundred years later and better information than he ever had.

I can just picture Harry Turtledove in that situation. I've seen him in one a little similar. A couple of years ago he and I were co-winners of the Prometheus Award from the Libertarian Futurist Society, even though neither of us are Libertarians -- it's a very broad minded award given for books that oppose totalitarianism, but of course all the people at the award ceremony were enthusiastic libertarians. He made a terrific speech and was charming, and I'm sure he did just the same with the Southerners.
3. Foxessa
I will spare you my opinion of writers exploiting slavery and then making it not all that important, particularly in alternate history fiction.
4. Doug M.
Turtledove had to have his Confederacy abandon slavery, since otherwise they'd be completely unsympathetic. We'd finish the book thinking that the bad guys had won. And who wants that?

Doug M.
Per Jorgensen
5. percj
It has been a while since I read the novel, but one of the things I appreciated was the eye for detail, such as Lee encountering instant coffee at the beginning of the book. I also enjoyed the fact that not everything was spelled out, as I believe (hope I remember this correctly) we never got to know for sure whether the Afrikanders deceived Lee about what the results of a US victory and following reconstruction would be, or actually came from another timelime - and thus another future - where reconstruction was harsher.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Percj: No, they lied to him, because he later finds books from our future that deplore slavery and this is in large part what makes the Confederacy give it up.
Marcus W
7. toryx
There are actually a number of people who have studied U.S. history surrounding the events of the Civil War (myself included) who believe that if the South had won they would indeed have given up slavery, especially if they'd earned the support of the British.

As an institution slavery could not continue indefinitely and quite a few of those in the Confederacy (Lee and Jefferson Davis as two notable examples) knew it.

I suspect Turtledove was recognizing that when he wrote the book.
8. Doug M.
I'd like to see a cite for Jefferson Davis "knowing" that slavery could not survive. (And no, not his reluctant back-to-the-wall consideration of black troops in the war's final weeks.)

Yes, there are plenty of people who believe the South would somehow have given up slavery. Most of them are following reasoning along the lines of "well, everyone else did, so surely...".

The South's entire economic system was based on slavery. Giving it up would have required massive, drastic transformation of their society and economy. I have yet to see any would-be alt-historian explain how this would happen in less than a generation.

To bring this back to Turtledove: he rather implausibly elides this, because anything else would make the book unacceptable to modern readers. But it's an anachronism, and a fairly huge one.

Doug M.
David Levinson
9. DemetriosX
Slavery probably wouldn't have lasted more than another generation in the South. Arguments in favor of that view go far beyond "everyone (in the western world) else did," though that is also a factor -- international pressure. Great Britain would have been a major ally for an independent Confederacy, and they would have brought a great deal of pressure to bear. Lee himself did not like the institution. Yes, he kept slaves and only would have freed them all in his will, but he appears to have seen that more as an economic necessity, than anything else.

But the main thing that would have put an end to slavery in the South was the rapid growth of mechanization in the second half of the 19th century. Fewer and fewer people became necessary to work a given piece of land or process a given crop and the skills required by those farm workers also increased. The economic viability of slavery was fading rapidly by the time of the Civil War.
10. CarlosSkullsplitter
"But the main thing that would have put an end to slavery in the South was the rapid growth of mechanization in the second half of the 19th century. Fewer and fewer people became necessary to work a given piece of land or process a given crop and the skills required by those farm workers also increased. The economic viability of slavery was fading rapidly by the time of the Civil War. "

... the rapid growth of mechanization of cotton agriculture? Because that's what the South grew.

Look up when the first practical mechanical cotton picker was invented. Go on, I'll wait.
11. CarlosSkullsplitter
The other leg of this argument implies that moral revulsion on the part of the British would have had sufficient leverage on the Southern economy to cause the Confederate government to change its institutions -- altogether illegally, incidentally, since the right to own slaves in the states without interference from the central government was enshrined in the Confederate constitution.

The British weren't going to intervene militarily, the British weren't going to ban imports of Confederate cotton -- I don't think they even banned rubber from the Congo Free State -- and the British were still going to buy Confederate bonds.

That leaves... what? kicking them out of the UN? a sternly worded memorandum to Richmond? withholding the privilege of helping a minor royal get his ashes hauled in a New Orleans bordello?
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Can we not have a fight about the Confederacy outside of the context of the book, please? Within the context of the book, they just barely vote to gradually relinquish slavery after seeing what the results were in our world.

If anyone wants slavery plus mechanical advances, try S.N. Stirling's Draka books.
13. CarlosSkullsplitter
Sorry Jo. It gets on my nerves: it's the Matter of America and they're getting it wrong.
brightening glance
15. brightglance
I have a comment there stuck in moderation (one link means spam? I suppose there's a good reason for it) but I gave the wrong link anyway, it should be

Ta-Nehisi Coates on how slavery in the South effectively required continued expansion of slave-holding territory - it almost worked like a Ponzi scheme.
16. Doug M.
Okay. Within the context of the book, it doesn't work. It's like... ohh, say the 1950s USSR under Khrushchev learning about 1989-90 from time travelers, and then 'just barely' voting to give up communism and become a liberal free market democracy.

The thing is, Turtledove has done his homework, and knows it wouldn't work. So he goes to considerable lengths to force it.

A single example: the bit where the Confederates find books condemning slavery in the library from 2014. We'll put aside the improbability of the hyper-racist Afrikaners bringing these. The problem is, there's no shortage of histories of the ACW era that do /not/ aggressively condemn slavery. Pretty much everything written between 1880 and 1950 just handwaved the issue.

For example, I just reread Charles Beard's classic, landmark two-volume history of the United States. Written in the 1920s; hugely influential and constantly in print for two generations afterwards. Beard discusses slavery largely in economic terms and hardly condemns it at all. (Jim Crow never even gets mentioned once. In a magisterial history of America written in /1927/.)

Point being, you could fill a large library with books that cover every aspect of the ACW in painstaking detail while condemning slavery very little or not at all.

I don't want to be a history nerd here. But OTOH, it's a work of alternate history. So I do think discussing "is this plausible, given the actual history" is within bounds.

Doug M.
17. JaniceG
I love this book, quibbles about certain historical notes aside. As for the story that DemetriosX mentioned, the John Esten Cooke award is given by the Military Order of the Stars & Bars, "a fraternal organization comprised of Descendants of the Confederate Government, Officer Corps, and Civil Officials." When Harry tells the story, he says when he arrived at the award ceremony, he was pretty sure he was the only Jewish person ever to enter their hall who wasn't carrying a musical instrument :->
18. Calimac
Full agreement that there's a weak and fanciful ending to what is otherwise a very strong book.

It's true, though, that Lee was never very enthusiastic about slavery, even though he was a slaveholder himself. He joined the Virginia military, and perforce the CSA, because he felt that loyalty to his seceding state trumped loyalty to the federal union, not because he necessarily agreed with what they were seceding over. So it might not have taken much to turn a CSA President Lee against slavery. But that still leaves the ending too pat, and requires, as you note, for the Rivington men to act too stupid.

I searched a long time before I found a broad overview history of the US Civil War that was neither too sketchy nor too detailed, and sufficiently enjoyably written. Until then it was a fuzzy spot in my otherwise pretty solid knowledge of general US history. So I recommend my finding to you, Jo: James M. McPherson. Either Battle Cry of Freedom (which cuts off abruptly at the cessation of hostilities, but has more on the economic background of the war) or Ordeal By Fire (which goes into Reconstruction as well).
19. Neil in Chicago
There are really only a few things you need to know about the Civil War. Assuming that since you're breathing, you're already aware that not all the passions have cooled. (iirc, it's the subject of more books than just about any other subject ever.)
It killed 2% (from memory) of the total population. It has been described as Napoleonic tactics with weapons ten times as accurate.
The North had the industry; the South had the generalship.
That's about it.
There were a number of remarkably colorful incidents, including women serving as men, and including implausible events like Andrews' Raid.
Personally, I would add that the States Rights bit is as bogus as the more recent sophistries of the extreme right.

And, personally, I wish turtledove would go back to novels from n-ologies, but either that's what his publisher is selling, or that's what he's wanted to be involved in . . .
20. mark49
I vote for a different ending to his book. When the South Africans return to the present, they find the current President of the USA is black and the USA is whole again. In 1992 that would have been a cool ending.
John Armstrong
21. JohnnyYen
or the other Ordeal by Fire, by Fletcher Pratt
22. Johnboy
The one thing I would point out about Turtledove and his supposed "mastery of alternate history" is that whenever he deals with the Civil War, as in this book, Kentucky joins the Confederacy. By 1862, Kentucky had so firmly cast its lot with the Union that virtually everyone who didn't live in Lexington ignored Bragg's army. Five times as many Kentuckians served in the Union forces as in the Confederacy. It's pure balderdash, as any objective historian would know.
23. Phil777
I agree with Johnboy's above comment- Kentucky gets put into the Confederacy too much. In essence, Kentucky is a Union state, and the South would not want Kentucky anymore if they knew the truth- the truth being that Lincoln was born in Kentucky. And yet, Illinois gets the credit. Also. there's yet to be an alternate history where the South does indeed rise again- thus re-creating the C.S.A. (this time not championing slavery, just a return to the founding fathers-style political beliefs that were destroyed by the Union victory in the Civil War). Finally, I'll say that even if there was a Confederate victory, it would not even be 1900 and slavery would have just died off. (END OF RANT)

Anyways, I read this book back in May of this year (2012) and it was very interesting. I rented this book not doubting Turtledove's excellency in alternate history, and finished it undissappointed. Turtledove's books are MUST-READS for historians and alternate historians all alike.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment