A Poor Southern Yarn and the What-Ifs of North Anna

My grandmother always told me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” That’s been some pretty good advice. I’ve learned to often employ strategic silence.

While such silence is generally golden, on occasion, it can be problematic. Take, for instance, an otherwise excellent review in America’s Civil War of The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War. The reviewer ended with what he called “a minor complaint”:

I do wish more attention had been paid to the counterfactual literature already out there. In ‘What If Robert E. Lee had Struck a Blow at the North Anna River,’ for instance, Ronald Richard’s A Southern Yarn—in which Lee does just that, and the Confederates win independence by taking Washington—isn’t mentioned.

And therein lies the rub. I intentionally didn’t mention A Southern Yarn because of my grandmother’s good advice.

At North Anna, Robert E. Lee suffered from debilitating dysentery that left him too delirious to strike a blow against Ulysses S. Grant’s forces, which had stumbled into an ingenious Confederate trap. In A Southern Yarn, fast action from Lee’s doctor allows the Confederate commander to recover from his dysentery quickly enough to direct Wade Hampton to conduct a reconnaissance, which in turn uncovers a route for John Brown Gordon to slip infantry around the Federal right flank. The Confederates carry the day, driving Federals all the way back to Washington. Lincoln, fleeing the capital, gets captured by John S. Mosby. The South wins its independence.

As a “yarn,” it’s little more than Lost Cause porn.

There’s no examination of credible possibilities; it’s all just wishful thinking. History changes through the action of a “magic bullet” in the form of anti-diarrheal pills.

A Southern Yarn was self-published in 1990. As policy, we don’t review self-published works on Emerging Civil War’s blog, and I didn’t think it appropriate to mention a self-published book in the survey of alternate histories and counterfactual literature that appears in What If’s introduction. That would open all sorts of unwelcome rabbit holes.

Still, one could stretch an argument that Mr. Richard’s novel merited at least a mention since I wrote an essay in the What If book that touches on the same topic as my own essay. For that, I went beyond ECW’s policy and leaned on my grandmother’s good advice.

A Southern Yarn was poorly written and shabbily copyedited. The characters were poorly realized, and the dialogue “sounded” like it was all spoken by the same person. The artwork on the cover looked homemade. The title, A Southern Yarn, tells a reader exactly nothing about the story; nearly anything could be a “southern yarn.”

For these reasons, I did not want to mention the book because doing so would call attention to it that it did not merit. Better to say nothing and let Mr. Richard’s book languish in obscurity than write about it—as I’m now forced to do because the review begs the question. And now some unsuspecting person out there is going to go buy a book they would have otherwise never heard of because I’ve now mentioned it.

As someone who has a deep interest in North Anna, I was actually excited when I first found A Southern Yarn. So little has been written about the battle that anything is welcome to me. I figured, even as brain candy, the novel would be fun to read, even if it turned out to be something I shouldn’t take seriously.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed on every level.

Still, I understand how hard it is to write a book. I respect that—and so, out of respect for Mr. Richard, I chose to stay silent.

So, that’s the story of why I didn’t mention A Southern Yarn in The Great What Ifs. The introduction of The Great What Ifs does offer an otherwise good overview of the literature already out there (and there is plenty of good stuff, written as both nonfiction and fiction). If Mr. Richard has, in the intervening thirty-three years since the self-publication of his novel, gone on to additional writing, I hope that he’s had nothing but good luck in his endeavors.

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8 Responses to A Poor Southern Yarn and the What-Ifs of North Anna

  1. Larry Meier says:

    If it is so bad then why are you bothering us with it? Just curious.

    • Carl Cusumano says:

      Because, Lost Cause mythology has set our country back decades. It’s important to stamp out all Lost Cause porn, because the reality is that the Confederates were NEVER going to win. Lost Cause celebrates those that attacked, fought, killed, and injured United States soldiers, sailors, and civilians. We should never venerate those who betrayed the United States

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      That’s a fair question Larry. My original intent was to NOT bother folks with it. But since a reviewer called me out for not mentioning it, I felt like I had to go on record somewhere to indicate that the omission was one of intent, not ignorance or incompetence.

  2. mark harnitchek says:

    perhaps a better title would be “What if the South had Kaopectate?” … and maybe there’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek by the author in his use of “yarn” in the title — “a long or rambling story, especially one that is implausible (Oxford) … there, i said something nice 🙂

    • Ken Noe says:

      But the south did have Kaopectate. The ground under and around Andersonville is rich with kaolin. Had its properties been known, a lot of prisoners could have survived.

      • Kathy L says:

        To bad the prisoners at Douglas Prison didn’t have anything good to save them.

  3. Brian Swartz says:

    Why is so much modern Civil War fiction of the “possible Southern victory” genre?

  4. Peter Williams says:

    If the confederate’s had won then would the West and North not of formed their own nations? Three or four states from sea to shining sea? I’d of thought then that the C.S.A. would of had a swan song much like the fading days of Spain in Cuba. The vain glory of war has given life to the myth. The reality of a long decline with revolution and separatist groups breaking apart the Lost Cause state in all likelihood.

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