What About What-If?

Alt History Covers

Our question of the week this morning, which dealt with a hypothetical what-if scenario, coincidentally touched on something that’s been on my own mind lately.

Do you have your own favorite Civil War alternative history? If so, what is it, and what do you like about it? And perhaps most importantly, how has it helped you re-think history?

I know many people poo-poo alternative history (and if you’re one of those people, don’t feel obligated to play along here—although you might miss something worth thinking about). I admit, for me, it can be a guilty pleasure. When I’m looking for a little brain candy, I usually turn to fiction and read a good story. Earlier this summer, I decided to re-read Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain: A Novel of the Second War Between the States.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Lee’s “lost order” never got lost and he ended up beating McClellan in the Battle of Camp Hill across the river from Harrisburg—and that’s just the prologue. The rest of the book centers on events twenty years later when the Confederate States of America buy a pair of provinces from Mexico; the U.S. sees it as a security threat and declares war. James Longstreet is the Confederate president and Stonewall Jackson is the general in chief of the army; James Blaine of Maine is the president of the U.S.

The book springboards to a series of 10 other books that extends Turtledove’s alternative history through World War II. I’m not ashamed to admit it’s fun.

Besides the fun, though, I also find alternative history useful as a tool to sharpen my critical thinking. I never write counterfactual history myself, but what-if questions can be good lenses for challenging assumptions and examining context.

So, for those of you who do like to read alternative history, what are your favorites?

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10 Responses to What About What-If?

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (first released in serial form beginning 1912) is the story of Confederate cavalry officer John Carter, who somehow finds himself on a populated and war-worshiping Red Planet a year after the end of the War Between the States and engages in supreme swordsmanship, force of will, and the ability to fly air-scout vessels in order to win recognition as Chieftain (and gain the hand of the woman he loves.) If Captain Carter had possessed these same skills before the Civil War ended, he could have won that contest for the South almost single handed.

  2. Andy Hall says:

    Turtledove’s Lee at the Alamo.”

    https://www.tor.com/2011/09/07/lee-at-the-alamo/

  3. Bob Huddleston says:

    My favorite “what if” book on the Civil War is Ward Moore’s _Bring the Jubilee _, originally published in 1953, and considered a SciFi classic. Pringle, _Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels_ ranks it as #11. However, the Lost Cause and other devotees of the Lee cult ignore it. A fine first edition with a price clipped dust jacket, will set you back $75-150. However you can find paperback reprints for $6-10 at http://www.bookfinder.com

    The plot was quite daring and avant guarde in the early fifties — and still not the popular version of alternative history of the Civil War. Most of these, a al Turtledove, have the South win and the result is positive, with slavery either not mentioned or the victorious Confederacy immediately frees the slaves.

    But Moore took a dim and very dark view of what would have happened. The novel takes place in the 1920s. After the Confederates won the Battle of Gettysburg — thanks to the quick initiative of a Rebel colonel taking Little Round Top — the Confederates consolidated their slave empire by taking Cuba and then Mexico and Central America, historically all dreams of the 1850 filibusters and slave expansionists. Their new capitol, Leesburg, nee Mexico City, is the center of a prosperous slave empire.

    Europe is now united under the Kaiser, Germany having won the World War. Meanwhile the remainder of the United States have degenerated into a parody of a gangster dominated Chicago in the thirties. Northern blacks and foreigners are despised and the wealthy live in fortresses.

    The Hero travels from upstate New York to Pennsylvania is a series of adventures showing what the United States had become. He ends up near Gettysburg in an Utopian community started by that colonel who had won the Battle of Gettysburg and run now by his descendents. The Heroine is the colonel’s granddaughter.

    The community is involved in historical research on the Civil War, especially how the Battle of Gettysburg was so important, with minor deviations into how important the taking of LRT really was, and are also developing time travel (hence the Sci-Fi tie). It is of course inevitable that the Hero will travel back in time to July 1, 1863 to solve the mysteries of what actually happened that day!

    I won’t ruin the rest of the story except to say that the book is the crazed reminiscences of a bitter old man, living in solitude in the 1920s, with his wild and insane stories of how the South Won the Civil War.

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      Just to let you know, your well-written summary encouraged me to see if I could track down Ward Moore’s work on the internet. Having discovered a copy at HathiTrust, I decided to glance at the first several pages and determine if it was composed in a style I would care to read: five hours later I finished the book and can admit that I quite enjoyed it. Combining elements of The Blade Runner, H. G. Well’s “Time Machine,” and “1984” the author introduces and cleverly discusses concepts of Fate, Chance, cycles, and “might makes right.” The “trouble with reporting History” is also discussed; my favorite quote from the work: “Books are the waste-product of the human mind.” The Alternative History, with after-effects… all quite believable. And there is a love interest, or two. Easily the best alternative history of the Battle of Gettysburg I’ve ever read. For those interested in investigating for yourself:
      babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.$b120175&view=1up&seq=5

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I’d never heard of that one. I’ll have to go hunt it down!

  4. Eric J. Wittenberg says:

    There aren’t words to describe how much I hate this stuff. There’s enough that actually happened to keep me busy for the rest of my life that I have substantially less than no interest in reading science fiction, for that’s what this stuff is.

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      A story…
      As a lifelong student of the Lincoln Assassination, a controversy arose some years ago IRT “What was it Booth really said when he jumped from the Presidential Box?” Some claimed, “The South is avenged.” Others asserted, “Sic Semper Tyrannus.” How to determine the correct answer?
      I stumbled upon a book that claimed to present “100 eyewitness accounts of the Assassination at Ford’s Theatre” and read through most of them. One gentleman claimed he heard Booth exclaim, “I’m sick. Send for McManus.” Obviously, Booth NEVER said that. This claim is fiction. But, what does it sound like?
      The point: we all know fact from fiction. (We have to, just to be able to get through “The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.”) And sometimes it helps to read a “different perspective” for its own sake. What results can be called “serendipity.”
      Have a great day!

  5. geneofva says:

    Despite my good friend Eric’s opinion, I recently ventured into this field. I also would note that my inspiration included “what if” articles written by three gentlemen named James McPherson, Stephen Sears, and Winston Churchill in “What-If” anthologies about the Maryland campaign and Gettysburg.

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