By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 1999, 2010. All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in 1999.
I enjoy Civil War alternative history, or “what-if,” books. At their best, these books challenge our perceptions of the war in intriguing ways, but remain historically plausible. These books show us how things might have gone, for want of this nail or that bullet. At their best, such books give us a good plot, solid characterization, and a few nifty twists on history as we know it.
Since (as you may have heard) the Union defeated the Confederacy, a common tactic for Civil War alternative history writers is to turn the tables and let the Confederacy win. Harry Turtledove did just that in his intriguing The Guns of the South. Once you got over your initial suspension of disbelief, Turtledove had a good story to tell. Now Turtledove has caught lightning in a bottle for a second time in a fine book, How Few Remain: A Novel of the Second War Between the States. The two books are quite different in concept and style, and How Few Remain is by no means a sequel.
The book begins on September 10, 1862 outside Frederick, Maryland. A Confederate courier manages not to lose Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191, wrapped around three cigars. Gen. George McClellan thus remains ignorant of Lee’s plans just before the Battle of Antietam. The Army of the Potomac is badly beaten there, and Lee pushes further north, decisively defeating McClellan in the Battle of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, on the Susquehanna River, on October 1. The book then jumps forward to early 1881. The Confederacy has had its independence for almost twenty years, helped not in the least by a generation of Democratic presidents in Washington, who have benefited from the Northern public’s longtime revulsion with the Republican Party for losing the Civil War.
But at last the Republicans have won back the White House, and a new administration led by James G. Blaine of Maine (in our history, a presidential also-ran in 1876, 1880, 1884, and 1892) decides to finally stand up to the Confederacy. When the Confederacy purchases the Mexican provinces of Sonora and Chihuahua from the cash-needy Emperor Maximilian, extending the C.S.A.’s western border all the way to the Pacific Ocean, President Blaine decides to draw a line in the sand. In due time, as you might expect, war breaks out again, twenty years after Fort Sumter.
All sorts of familiar names crop up throughout the book. Samuel Clemens is a cynical newspaper editor in San Francisco who clashes with Colonel William T. Sherman, commander of U.S. troops in the city. George Armstrong Custer is still alive, having apparently missed his appointment with destiny at the Little Bighorn in 1876, and is just as dashing and headstrong as ever. (Be warned, though, Turtledove is no admirer of Custer.) Gen. William Rosecrans is the overall Union commander, having come out of the Civil War in late 1862 with his reputation intact. The young Theodore Roosevelt, a rancher in the Montana Territory, raises a regiment of volunteers (an obvious precursor to the Rough Riders) to defend the Union’s northern border when Britain and France enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. James Longstreet is president of the Confederacy, and Stonewall Jackson, spared an early death at Chancellorsville, is his top general.
Frederick Douglass keeps fighting the good fight in 1881, still laboring against racism in a truncated United States, which blames blacks for the Union’s dissolution and couldn’t care less about slaves in the South. And Abraham Lincoln, defeated in 1864, is widely hated for losing the war, but nevertheless travels the country speaking on behalf of what we would now call democratic socialism. Turtledove also gives us cameo appearances by the Apache chief Geronimo, Alfred von Schlieffen, Gen. John Pope, and John Hay, among others. There are some interesting omissions in the novel, as well. Lee is nowhere to be seen, and is barely referred to in the Confederacy’s postwar years, a major difference from The Guns of the South, in which he succeeds Jefferson Davis as president. But, as in his earlier book, Turtledove writes well and holds your interest throughout, and I recommend the book.
But now I think it’s time for a new take on the Civil War alternative history novel, one in which the Union wins, but in a different way than we know. Perhaps Robert E. Lee accepts Lincoln’s offer to command the Federal forces and, with his military genius, brings the war to a much earlier conclusion. Maybe Meade decisively wins at Gettysburg, destroying Lee’s army soon after Pickett’s Charge. What if Lincoln never issues the Emancipation Proclamation at all, and the issue of slavery is still unsettled when the guns fall silent? Or perhaps Lincoln sidesteps fate at Ford’s Theatre and proves a better leader during Reconstruction than Andrew Johnson ever did.
Is alternative history unlikely? Yes. Implausible? Maybe. Interesting? Undoubtedly. Harry Turtledove has now made two important contributions to the genre.
How Few Remain: A Novel of the Second War Between the States by Harry Turtledove
From the publisher: From the master of alternate history comes an epic of the Second Civil War. It was an epoch of glory and success, of disaster and despair. Twenty years after the South won the Civil War, America writhed once more in the bloody throes of battle. Furious over the annexation of key Mexican territory, the United States declared total war against the Confederate States of America. And so, in 1883, the fragile peace was shattered.
But this was a new kind of war, fought on a lawless frontier where the blue and gray battled not only each other, but the Apache, the outlaw, and even the redcoat. Along with France, England entered the fray on the side of the South, with blockades and invasions from Canada.
Out of this tragic struggle emerged figures great and small. The disgraced Abraham Lincoln crisscrossed the nation championing socialist ideals. Confederate cavalry leader Jeb Stuart sought to prevent wholesale slaughter in the desert Southwest, while cocky young Theodore Roosevelt and stodgy George Custer bickered over modern weapons, even as they drove the British back into western Canada.
Thanks to the efforts of journalists like Samuel Clemens, the nation witnessed the clash of human dreams and passions. Confederate genius Stonewall Jackson again soared to the heights of military expertise, while the North’s McClellan proved sadly undeserving of his once shining reputation as the “young Napoleon.” For in the Second War Between the States, the times, the stakes, and the battle lines had changed . . . and so would history.
Once again, Harry Turtledove has created a thoroughly engrossing alternate history novel, a profoundly original epic of blood and honor, courage and sacrifice, set amidst the raw beauty of young America’s frontier wilderness.
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