The Guns of the South – Book Review
The Guns of the South, written by Harry Turtledove and published in 1992, is one of the classic alternative history novels. It weaves a story around a fascinating premise: ‘What if time travellers gave the Confederate States modern assault rifles?’
The Guns of the South: Logline
During the American Civil War, white-supremacist time travellers supply the Confederate Army with modern assault rifles. But progress and justice are not so easily stifled as the time travellers expect.
The Guns of the South: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1864, during the US Civil War. The Confederacy is nearing defeat, blockaded and awaiting attack by overwhelming Union forces.
Confederate general Robert E. Lee is surprised to discover a man with a strange accent and an unusual gun in his camp. The man says his name is Rhodie and describes himself as being a member of the ‘AWB’ which he claims means ‘America Will Break’. He has something to show the general – a gun that he calls an ‘AK-47’. He demonstrates the gun’s fire-power, impressing Lee. Rhodie claims he can supply thousands of similar weapons to the Confederate Army.
Rhodie delivers the guns, to the gratitude of the Confederates, but Lee is suspicious because Rhodie and his compatriots don’t seem to have any factories or other means of supply. The Confederate’s best armaments manufacturer examines the AK-47. He says he cannot replicate the gun, or even its ammunition.
General Lee demands to know where Rhodie got the guns from. Rhodie claims he is from 2014, and stole a time machine to escape a world dominated by non-whites. He also claims that the motive of the AWB is to prevent the future destruction of the white race by non-whites.
Winning the War
Rhodie tells Lee that he knows the Union’s next attack will come in a densely-wooded area known as ‘The Wilderness’. The ensuing battle is a crushing victory for the Confederates, whose firepower is now far superior to the Union’s. The Confederates march towards Washington D.C. – aiming to end the war as fast as possible.
The Union deploys units made up of freed slaves which fight bravely but can’t overcome the superior firepower of the Confederates. Lee and Rhodie clash over how to treat the coloured prisoners. Rhodie wants them murdered, but Lee orders them to be treated the same as any other prisoners. Rhodie threatens to withdraw the AWB’s support, but Lee successfully calls his bluff.
Dozens of forts protect Washington DC, all bristling with cannon. Realising that his firepower advantage will be severely reduced by the cannon, Lee orders an almost unprecedented night attack. The attack is a complete success, and the Confederates capture the White House and President Lincoln.
Recognising that he has no power to prevent complete Confederate victory, President Lincoln accepts the Confederacy’s independence in return for a ceasefire. The USA and Confederacy agree to negotiate a peace treaty and the armies disband. Other countries recognise the Confederacy, but the British ambassador warns Lee that slavery prevents friendly relations.
Negotiations over the status of disputed areas – Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri – lead eventually to a compromise. Maryland and West Virginia remain in the USA. Kentucky and Missouri hold referendums on whether to join the CSA or the USA. The referendums lead to Kentucky joining the Confederacy while Missouri remains with the Union.
Slaves freed by the Union during the war refuse to return to slavery, preferring to fight a hopeless guerrilla war. Lee is more and more convinced that slavery must end and decides it’s his duty to run for the presidency. Both Rhodie and some of the slave-owners cajole him, but he’s undeterred.
The issue of slavery dominates the presidential campaign. Lee proposes to bring it to an end incrementally and voluntarily. He plans to buy existing slaves their freedom as funds permit, while preventing any more people being born or sold into slavery. Despite strong opposition, Lee is elected.
Furious at Lee’s plans, the AWB attempt to assassinate him during his inauguration…
They fail, although killing Lee’s wife and many other politicians and generals. Capturing the AWB offices in Richmond, the Confederates discover that AWB doesn’t stand for America Will Break. It stands for Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging or ‘Afrikaner Resistance Movement’. Books in the office show that Rhodie was lying: the world of the future is not one of race war and white subjugation. Rhodie and the AWB were seeking not to save their race but to maintain its supremacy.
The Confederate army remobilises to destroy Rhodie and his AWB organisation. However, the AWB have many technological advantages, including heavy machine guns, land mines and barbed wire. They stop the Confederate attack, inflicting huge casualties. Both sides dig in for what looks like a stalemate.
The Confederates dig a tunnel under the AWB line and detonate a huge mine. This breaches the AWB line and the Confederates charge though, flanking their enemy and using their superior numbers to overwhelm them. The Confederates destroy the time machine, one of Rhodie’s slaves kills him and the rest of the AWB men surrender.
Helped by anger at the AWB’s insurrection, Lee’s gradual emancipation legislation passes. The story ends with Lee wondering what the future holds for the Confederacy.
The Alternate History of The Guns of the South
The point of departure of The Guns of the South is the time-travellers arriving in 1864 with thousands of assault rifles. This makes it implausible alternative history as defined in What is Alternative History?
Implausible alternative history uses a point of departure that could only occur through supernatural phenomena or extremely advanced technology. Although the scenarios are effectively impossible they can lead to unusual and fascinating stories.
Well… look, this is a novel that takes time travel as its premise. From that point of view it’s never going to be that realistic. However, if you don’t accept the premise then there’s not much point reading the book, so the question is, how realistic is it if we do?
And the answer is… not too shabby, but there are some issues, as explained below.
For me, the main realism problem with The Guns of the South was that Turtledove only pays lip service to the problem of logistics.
The main reason ‘repeaters’ were not in widespread use during the US Civil War was not that they hadn’t been invented, but the fact that the logistics to keep them supplied with ammunition didn’t exist.
As mentioned in the novel, the Union cavalry actually used a repeating rifle called the Spencer. The Spencer had an eight-shot magazine and could fire twenty rounds a minute, in theory. The AK-47 does have the advantage of full automatic, but in single shot mode is not that much of an improvement on a Spencer.
Given that the far superior Union logistical train was incapable of supplying the Union troops with enough ammunition to equip them all with Spencer rifles, it seems impossible that the Confederates could have kept their troops supplied with AK-47 ammunition.
Another problem I had was: where are the Union’s spies? The Union had an extensive spy network throughout Confederate territory and particularly in the capital, Richmond. The fact that the Confederates were rearming with ‘repeaters’ would have been well-known to them. Why then don’t they fall back to their forts – which Lee acknowledges the army will have trouble assaulting even with AK-47s – or at least start deploying repeating rifles like the Spencer to their troops? Even cavalry reconnaissance would have shown the boosted firepower and should have led to a withdrawal, rather than the Union throwing its troops away in banzai charges.
My third issue is the night attack on Washington D.C. Turtledove has Lee use this gambit to finesse the fact that the troops and artillery emplaced in forts around Washington would force a battle that largely negated the advantage given by the AK-47s.
There were some night attacks during the US Civil War, but they almost all failed due to the near impossibility of controlling the troops – attacks tended to degenerate into chaos. One of the dangers was friendly fire, and indeed sentries shot one of the Confederacy’s best generals, Stonewall Jackson, returning to his camp at night after a battle.
Really this struck me as Turtledove waving his hands to get the Confederate victory he wanted, rather than the more likely outcome: trench warfare.
Finally, I felt that the South withdrew and demobilised far too quickly after the armistice. An armistice is not the end of a war, a peace treaty is. For example, the armistice that ended WWI took effect in November 1918. The peace treaty was not signed until 1920. Allied troops occupied parts of Germany – primarily the industrial heartland of the Ruhr – until 1930. Withdrawing troops without a peace treaty is obviously going to lead to exactly the problem the Confederacy faces in the novel – inability to impose terms on the defeated enemy. It also gives the enemy time to rebuild their forces and potentially restart the fighting.
The Guns of the South: Analysis
Obviously, The Guns of the South is a novel about the Confederacy, but the viewpoint characters are either patrician gentlemen, like General Lee, or remarkably liberal by the standards of the day. Inevitably though, the characters express the views of the time using the terminology of the time. These racist views and terms are offensive to most people these days.
Note too that Turtledove treats the Confederacy very sympathetically. There’s more than a little glossing over of the realities of slavery, and although it’s one of the main plot issues, the characters discuss slavery almost entirely from the point of view of practicality, not morality. The author does attempt to contrast the attitudes of the South Africans and the Confederates to the slaves. The South Africans are out-and-out race-haters, whereas the Confederates have slightly more paternalistic attitudes.
Harry Turtledove is an extremely prolific author, producing two or three novels a year for the last several decades. One of the reasons he manages to do this is his books are very straightforwardly written and sometimes don’t seem to have been carefully edited. As such they don’t have much to offer to those people who like high quality writing. Having said that, they’re perfectly readable novels.
Alternative History and Time Travel
It’s interesting that so many alternative history novels involve elements of time travel. For example, Bring the Jubilee is another US Civil War alternative history caused by time travel.
My hypothesis is that alternative history novelists look for plausible reason for history changing and want to show that point of departure. There’s also a strong preference to ‘show don’t tell’ drummed into novelists. Without time travellers to act as protagonists, the author simply has no explanation for why history changed.
Of course many alternative history novels, like SS-GB and Fatherland, do take a ‘no explanation’ approach. Time travel though solves those problems, enabling the author to show why the world changed. The only other explanation is a ‘multiverse’ of the sort implied in The Man in the High Castle. There, the world of the story is not our own but a parallel world within a myriad of other possible universes.
Reality: The AK-47
During World War II, research showed that most infantry battles took place at relatively short ranges, making rate of fire more important than accuracy and power. In response, Germany designed the first semi-automatic ‘assault rifle’ the Sturmgewehr 44. Impressed by captured Sturmgewehrs, the Soviets ordered a weapon with the same capability. The result was the AK-47, which has been in service since 1949 with about 100 million AK-47 type rifles produced. It’s a reliable, cheap and effective weapon and is ubiquitous outside the western military.
The Guns of the South: My Verdict
The best example of implausible alternative history. A must read for alternate history fans.
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