Turtledove, Harry. The Guns of the South.

NY: Ballantine, 1992.

I read this above-average alternate history novel when it was first published and I was impressed. I knew who the author was via his several earlier Byzantine-themed stories, which I thought were pretty good (possibly because I had some background in the history of that period), but this was his first novel in a comparatively modern setting. It was also, I believe, his first real commercial success. Unfortunately, it kind of went to his head.

He soon began cranking out interminable series about various alternate versions of World Wars I & II (including one combined with an alien invasion), plus semi-juveniles about time travel to ancient Rome, and so one — and even though I keep trying them, and hoping, I find all of Harry’s later stuff to be totally unreadable garbage.

Anyway. The set-up here is that it’s January 1864 and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has begun its long, slow slide to defeat at the hands of a North that could out-man, out-manufacture, and out-transport him. Then a man with a strange, vaguely German-sounding accent, wearing a camouflage-print uniform, shows up and demonstrates for Lee a repeating rifle that can fire thirty rounds without reloading, either singly or on full auto, that can be reloaded by snapping out the empty magazine and snapping in a new one, that produces almost no smoke, and that weighs far less than the Southern army’s Springfield copies. He calls it an “AK-47.” The stranger and his colleagues want only to help the South gain its independence and will supply — from somewhere — all the rifles and ammo the rebels need. The Battle of the Wilderness, Grant’s first confrontation with Lee (which was inconclusive in the real world), turns out to be an overwhelming victory for the South. Suddenly, Lee has another shot at capturing Washington. And the story progresses from there, following the new fork in the history of the United States.

We see the war not only from the vantage point of Lee but from the ranks, in the person of First Sergeant Nate Caudell, Company D, 47th North Carolina Infantry, most of whose members come from Nash Company — the same county where the strangers with the amazing new weapons come from. Nate is as much a borderline-poor country boy as the men under him but because he’s a schoolteacher in civilian life, he’s more thoughtful and reflective about the wider world he’s seeing for the first time. Nate accepts slavery as a natural thing as much as anyone he knows, but he’s willing to change his opinions based on experience.

Turtledove goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate what ordinary Southerners thought about slavery, and why, and how they reacted to condemnation of their peculiar institution by the European nations whose recognition of their independence they needed so badly. Lee’s attitudes toward slavery were mostly negative, as well — but he was less concerned with defending the institution than with defending each state’s right to decide the issue for itself. Turtledove has a good grip on his history, as one would expect of a professional historian. He’s especially good at the military sequences and nearly as good at detailing events in the postwar world. His talents as a writer of narrative fiction are somewhat more problematical. The plotting is very detailed and perfectly convincing in its causes and effects, and the characters he develops are entirely believable — especially that of Nathan Bedford Forrest. His prose style, though, tends toward the clunky and the stilted. In trying to cast Sgt. Caudell’s thoughts, or Gen. Lee’s, he attempts to hew to a 19th century manner of speech, and he’s successful at this only about half the time. The rest of the time he overdoes it, occasionally to a laughable degree. Still, it’s quite a fascinating and enjoyable novel, both as an exploration of the way history might have gone had Lee suddenly acquired (by whatever means) an overwhelming advantage, and as a straightforward military adventure.

Oddly enough, as a long-time genealogist, I have reason to know that Harry has hewn closely to his sources. My ex-wife’s family comes, in part, from Nash County and several of the named members of Company D actually are real-life cousins of hers by several removes.


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