From 1860 to 1865, our nation existed in dissolution; 11 states had seceded by April, 1861, and it took four years to ensure their reunion with the United States Government. What if this hadn’t happened and the South had stayed free? Would slavery still exist? Would the separate nations peacefully co-exist? Would the split power impede the development of either individual nation as a global superpower? Harry Turtledove, in his novel The Guns of the South, addresses what might be the greatest unanswered question in American history – What if the South had won the war?
This novel begins in January, 1864. Robert E. Lee, one of two protagonists, is writing to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, when he hears the report of an unfamiliar gun outside his tent. He goes outside to find 2 men from his staff escorting a man who has requested General Lee’s audience, with the offer of a gun that could win the war for the Confederacy. Andries Rhoodie, a man with strange clothing and an unusual accent, shows Lee a weapon far superior to anything in his army, or even the technologically advanced Federal Army. What Lee doesn’t know, thanks to Rhoodie’s carefully evasive conversation and impeccable, coldly polite manners, is that this weapon, the AK-47, has been brought back in time from the 21st century.
We are immediately treated to such a graphic depiction of Lee as would be expected from one of his personal acquaintances. Lee looks into Rhoodie’s eyes and immediately recognizes the focused, searching glare of an experienced sniper. Lee lightly probes for information on Rhoodie’s ways and means, which are clearly astounding, but does not press rudely, as he is a gentleman and the patriarch of Virginia’s first family, a family called the nation’s finest by George Washington. When leaving his tent in the middle of the night, he is pleased to find Rhoodie, his new comrade, still awake, reading the story of Gideon from a bible; the flesh-and-blood Lee, 150 years ago, could imagine no greater testament to a man’s character than this.
Rhoodie’s “company” quickly supplies the Confederate Army with over 100,000 of these amazing guns and ample ammunition, or “banana clips”, as well as dehydrated meals for the troops and nitroglycerine tablets for General Lee’s heart condition, which in fact ended his life 6 ½ years later. These supplies, as well as flak jackets, helmets and grenade launchers, which Rhoodie’s men (called “the Rivington men” by the Confederates, after their base of operation in North Carolina) use for themselves, enable to Confederate Army to easily cut through all Federal entrenchments and forts they encounter, resulting in an easy march to Washington D.C. and a Confederate victory, after a brief conference between Lee and President Abraham Lincoln.
This review contains no spoilers; from the beginning of the novel, a Confederate victory is so obvious that this outcome is announced on the book’s cover; indeed, the point of the book is to a) consider what would have resulted from Southern victory and b) to observe the clear differences between the 19th century-society of chattel slavery, and white supremacy in its modern inception. Without masking the cruelty of slavery, called “the peculiar institution” in Congressional sessions, Turtledove draws attention to the misguided fraternity whites imposed on blacks, as compared to the raw hatred felt by 20th century white supremacists (the earlier version of which is characterized by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate General who founded the Ku Klux Klan after the war ended).
The Rivington men do not disclose to the Confederates that they are members of the Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging (AWB) movement, a South African paramilitary organization which gained notoriety during the novel’s publication for their far-right, white supremacist doctrine. Feigning a sympathetic idealism to the Confederate government, their trip to the 1860s was a carefully calculated, purely practical method of preserving a widespread, influential brand of white supremacy to gain influence, upon returning to their own time. The AWB do not wish to ally with the Confederates; they wish to use them. After eventually confessing to Lee where they have come from, and the reason for their technological superiority, Rhoodie frightens Lee into acquiescence with lies about the brutal retaliation the North inflicts after the war. The malicious, under-handed design of the AWB becomes rapidly apparent to the reader, even as Lee views them still as allies and good Christians, albeit a bit misguided.
For all the flaws and brutality of the Confederate society, they were quite mild compared to these brutal men with whom they cast their lot. A Confederate general permitted a slave worker in his division to carry an AK-47; this event inflamed the AWB men, who tellingly lost their composure for the first time, but not the last time, and demanded the slave be disarmed. Upon losing his gun, the otherwise contented slave fled the army and attempted to escape up North, but was captured by a Confederate picket in the process and hanged on the spot.
The perception of societal changes are seen through the novel’s two main characters; Robert E. Lee, and a lesser known First Sargent Nate Caudell. Though their role in preserving slavery is reprehensible, these two characters, like many Southerners of the time, were basically decent men who fought as today’s soldiers fight; with a desire to protect their homeland and their people, coupled with a thirst for honor and adventure. One gift that these two characters possess is flexibility, particularly in admitting to their own mistakes. As the AWB becomes a force in the South, Caudell and Lee, both as soldiers and private citizens, take a good hard look at what they’ve done and continue to do, and the principles that motivate them to act.
Despite being fed misinformation by the Rivington men, Lee, not unlike the real life man, has the rare gift of seeing the true future of his society, compared his vision of the nation to which he dedicated his life. His thoughts to the course of the nation all blossomed in a pivotal visit to a British Minister. England constantly refused Confederate requests for recognition, due to their prior allegiance to the U.S. government and their dislike for slavery. At the close of this meeting, when Minister Lyons reluctantly grants recognition to the Confederate States of America, he asks Lee, “You Southerners may have made the Confederacy into a nation, General Lee, but what sort of nation shall it be?”
As a Civil War junkie, I can say that this novel is thrilling for those with a prior interest in the war. Turtledove’s picture of the South of the 1860s is uncanny, with detailed battle information, famous quotes and such descriptions of the characters involved that you’d think Turtledove emerged from that time into ours from a time machine of his own. To people without prior Civil War interest, the novel is a thoughtful musing on one of the most powerful questions in our country’s history. The vivid characters and fleshy prose will likely draw you in, and you soon realize that Turtledove speaks to you and about you, of a tale that you didn’t realize was yours to begin with.