In the 1990s it was common enough at my New Orleans high school to see copies of Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South. It offered a beguiling and humorous image of Robert E. Lee in his classic pose, only this time sporting an AK-47 assault rifle. I avoided reading it, only to decide in 2019 to see how Turtledove approached the subject in 1992.
The central figure of The Guns of the South is Lee. In 1864 he accepts Ak-47s from the time-travelling “Rivington Men” who turn out to be the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), a Neo-Nazi group from South Africa. The AWB think a Confederate victory will halt the spread of racial equality, but Lee foresees that slavery must be gradually abolished if the Confederacy is to survive and thrive in the wider world. The AWB tries to kill Lee, only for them to be defeated by Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lee, as president of the Confederacy, oversees the narrow passage of gradual emancipation.
Time travel is nothing new to Civil War novels. Ward Moore’s 1953 novel Bring the Jubilee is considered among the best of its breed, and its influence is all over The Guns of the South. One thing that is played up by Moore and Turtledove, is the North having an upsurge of racism after the war, with Turtledove discussing USCT formations and freed slaves being left behind.
At the time The Guns of the South was praised for its attention to detail, which is impressive. My complaints were more nit-picking. Lee offers terms not to Ulysses S. Grant, but to Abraham Lincoln himself, certainly something he would never do given the civilian-military relationship and nineteenth century America’s belief that the two were separate. Speaking of Grant, he is far more fair and magnanimous in defeat than the real Grant, who was petty and proud. Grant also seems more like a military simpleton here, a mere bruiser, than the actual commander. The parts where Lee jokes about George McClellan do not comport with his high opinion of him as an engineer, organizer, and strategist. Jefferson Davis seems fine with Lee’s move toward emancipation, which flies in the face of what I have read about the man. As to Lee, he might be too good in the narrative, but I have not made up my mind about him in this regard, particularly when so much written about Lee is hyperbole crafted to fit a narrative.
My biggest gripe here is also with most Civil War scholarship, which does not properly place secession as one of the central causes of the war. We inherited from the American Revolution not only the unresolved question of slavery, but also a legacy of rebellion and separation in defense a perceived threat to our rights. Before 1861 there were numerous secession crises in American history (most notably the Hartford Convention) and the legacy of the Civil War was to end secession as mainstream rhetoric.
These though are minor points, and The Guns of the South has more detail and accuracy than more celebrated fare of the same kind, including Bring the Jubilee. Of the later book, while I love it, I do have to admit Moore’s take on Gettysburg is incorrect. By contrast, I left The Guns of the South impressed with Turtledove’s knowledge and assessments. I was also impressed that he balanced out an honest assessment of slavery’s importance to the conflict while making the Confederates conflicted and compelling characters. He did all of this with decent prose and an ability to keep the narrative moving along while still stopping to fill in the details. It is a long book, but it moves at a good pace.
The Guns of the South is a window into how the Civil War as understood in 1992. The Lost Cause was fading, but reunification ruled the narrative. Today, the Just Cause is dominant, certainly among academics and journalists. I have grave doubts that The Guns of the South would be published today by a major corporation.
The Lee of these pages is not the Lee of the Just Cause imagination. Here he is a great commander, with a flexible intellect, and a strong moral compass. In The Guns of the South Lee is more a Southern patriot than an aristocrat. When confronted over his push to end slavery, Lee shoots back “We spent our blood to regain the privilege of setting our own affairs as we choose, rather than having such settlements forced upon us by other sections of the U.S. which chose a way different from ours and which enjoyed a numerical preponderance over us.” Turtledove explicitly pushes back against Thomas Connelly’s thesis. Back then it was controversial. Today Connelly is standard.
When Mitch Landrieu announced that the statues of Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard would be removed, Councilwoman Stacey Head tried to save both of them, while supporting the removal of Jefferson Davis and Liberty Place. Head saw a difference between Lee and Davis. When Landrieu spoke after Lee was removed, he never once then or now mentioned Lee’s complicated legacy. With those strokes the dominant interpretation of Lee became that of a traitor who should have been hanged after the war. When Stanley McChystal got rid of his portrait of Robert E. Lee he did not sell or give it away but threw it in the trash, Lee’s new destination being a landfill. His decision received wide praise and some substantial press coverage. To a person committed to preservation of historical artifacts, I was horrified.
Only decades before, Lee’s visage hung in the White House. He was on stamps and portrayed in a positive light in numerous works of art. The Guns of the South is Lee’s last hurrah, but even Turtledove’s Lee can see his current place in American memory, musing after reading a book from our timeline that “Watching his beloved South beaten had probably also helped break his heart…What point could his life have had, lived out among the ruins of everything he’d held dear?”
Beyond Turtledove’s take on Lee, there is another idea no longer en vogue. The Guns of the South puts forward the idea that without a war that despoiled the land and created bitterness, the South may very well have ended slavery on its own. I doubt it would have happened as foretold by Turtledove, but there is a lot of evidence it would have ended. The falling price of cotton and sugar and international pressure would have been considerable. It was enough to make Brazil end the practice without a civil war. In that way the book suggests that the end of the war was not the unalloyed good some think of it as. The book asks not to assume we know best.
The AWB men assume that the victory of the South is a victory for them. Yet, the two are not a perfect fit. The Confederates, despite some current hyperbole, were not Nazis since they believed in rule of law and democracy. The AWB concentrated on the Confederacy’s belief in white supremacy, but not their political culture nor what Bernard Bailyn called the “contagion of liberty” in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Lee notes in the books he reads from our timeline that there is “a continuing search for justice and equality between the races, one incomplete even in that distant future day, but nonetheless of vital import to be both North and South.” Lee, considering that as well as international pressure and the fact that the war had already loosened the slavery system, decides it is better to join the tide of history. It cannot be said for sure what the South would have done, but an end to slavery was plausible in time.
In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf tells Frodo “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” The Guns of the South tells us not to be too quick to judge or assume. After all, that is the fatal mistake made by the AWB. They assumed, much like Landrieu and McChrysal, that Lee was a hardcore white supremacist who would go along with their plans. As the late Shearer Davis Bowman once told me, history is about unintended consequences. I would add that it is also about fatal errors based on wishful thinking.