Lee Defeats Grant

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Virtually all nineteenth-century ideologies were rooted in views of history as unfolding according to some single pattern, be it Marxist or capitalist or otherwise. Marxism’s crash is evident; the decline of capitalism’s unquestionability is less clear but just as sure: Mixed economies, changing rules of business, and uneven development have already made mid-century visions of progress look as hoary as the great socialist workers’ revolution. If history was once a single track, laid by the Union Pacific with generous land grants from the U.S. Congress, now it follows myriad parallel tracks or, better, layers of possibilities mica-thin and shimmery, a temporal phyllo dough.

Part of what alternate history does is play with the fact that things can change so fast. It always embodies an implicit commentary on real history. Exactly what you change when you change history shows what you think is important in that history. Also, the focus on individuals echoes the general shift of historians away from the cliometric history that became popular in the 1970s and early 1980s, looking at masses of data about societies, and toward the role of leaders and even ordinary people caught in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time—not only the world’s Mandelas and Walesas but its Oswalds and Rays and Lewinskys too.

Alternate history has its own history, of course. An early landmark was the 1931 publication of a collection of speculations called If It Had Happened Otherwise: Lapses Into Imaginary History, edited by a playful English poet named Sir John Collings Squire. One contributor was Winston Churchill, who offered an essay about the South’s winning the Civil War; others included André Maurois on a Louis XVI with some spine and Harold Nicolson on Lord Byron crowned king of Greece. In October 1936 The American Mercury published Virginius Dabney’s fantasy of a successful Pickett’s charge, “If the South Had Won the War,” whose ultimate outcome was that Huey Long became president of the Confederate States. A few more alternate histories sprouted among science fiction writers in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1960s that the genre gained real momentum.

For this writer alternate history struck home one day in the 1960s, when I came across MacKinlay Kantor’s book If the South Had Won the Civil War, originally an article commissioned by Look magazine on the eve of the war’s centennial and published in November 1960. It was witty and lively, with an unforgettable scene of Lincoln’s being hauled off by Jeb Stuart’s troops. That book emphasizes, as does much alternate history, the power of the individual to change events.

Kantor’s key move is to kill off Grant, depriving the North of its best commander. The story turns on minute twists too: A child holds a kitten that is chased by a dog that scares a horse that rears back and falls on Grant. However, Kantor also suggests a measure of inevitability, having the South, the North, and the Republic of Texas move toward reunification in the twentieth century. At one point he philosophizes that the “fruit of history contains many seeds of truth; yet unglimpsed orchards might have bloomed profusely in any season were all the seeds planted and cultured before they dried past hope of germination.” He also has fun with footnotes, citing imaginary reference works and drawing whole new characters, such as a son Jeb Stuart never had. Woodrow Wilson emerges as the Confederate president whose impulses toward international order will lead toward reunification.

The alternate novelist’s romantic strain finds expression in Stonewall Jackson’s not being shot by his own men in the evening of his greatest victory at Chancellorsville, so he is there at Gettysburg to execute Lee’s plans with his characteristic boldness. Kantor’s account, like most accounts of a Southern victory—one of the most popular alternate history themes—mines that single tremendous moment in which it is forever the afternoon of July 3, 1863; Longstreet’s brigades are assembling in the woods a mile away from the Union line, and the issue is still not decided. It’s a sweet spot in the Southern imagination, tantalizing, almost titillating. Southerners are drawn to it not necessarily out of sympathy for the Lost Cause but out of the very romance of its lostness. It is a form of Southern Gothic.

The prolific Harry Turtledove, probably the best-known practitioner of alternate history working today, offers a very different ending to the war in The Guns of the South. The premise is laughable when stated baldly: South African white supremacists use a time machine to send AK-47 rifles back to General Lee’s army, ensuring a sympathetic apartheid-based state to help defend them against the likes of Nelson Mandela. It’s the kind of idea a colorful and argumentative professor might choose to highlight an abstract classroom argument: “You’re not a technological determinist? Well, what if, say, General Lee had AK-47s?” But it is carried out in such effective detail that the distinguished Civil War historian James M. McPherson has called it the most fascinating Civil War novel he has ever read. Take that, Stephen Crane, Bruce Catton, and Shelby Foote!