Matching pasts

The Guns of the South

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I do believe this is the first book both DH and I have read and reviewed on our respective blogs, so I will refer you to his take on this book for his discussion of its historicity, which leaves me to focus on how it worked for me as a novel. After all, I’m the first to admit that my prior knowledge of 19th Century North American history comes largely from novels and television series about it. What I remember most are John JakesNorth and South trilogy, which I saw the television series of before seeking out the books. He, having grown up in the USA, has far more knowledge of the history than I do.

18. The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

So, we have two main viewpoint characters in this novel, both attested real historical people, although far more is known of the one than the other. We begin with General Robert E. Lee, in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia, and alternate with one of his First Sergeants, Nate Caudell. At the opening of the novel the army is under-supplied and demoralised, up against an enemy with not only more soldiers, food and weapons, but far more technologically advanced equipment as well, and Lee as their commander is thoroughly aware of the fact.

He is approached by a strangely dressed and unrecognisably accented man who offers him weapons far better than anything available anywhere, in vast numbers at a nominal price and despite some qualms about what this gift horse might be hiding in its mouth, sees some hope for his cause, the right to self-determination of his beloved state of Virginia. As the fortunes of the Confederate States of America dramatically change, both his hopes and his fears in the new situation are validated, and he is inescapably drawn into politics and nation-building, even when the direction his conscience takes him is completely opposite to the desires of his strange new friends of the AWB.

Both Lee and Caudell, neither of whom fight on a principle of keeping slavery, but rather through loyalty to their respective states (Virginia and North Carolina), gradually grow less and less enamoured of the behaviour and arrogance of the AWB and more and more convinced that an end to slavery must come – Lee because he feels this is the way his new country must go if it is to receive any respect in the community of nations, and Caudell (who was never well-paid enough to be a slave-owner, even had he wished so to be) because his horizons are widened in the war, and he sees that given the opportunity to be so, Negroes are just as good soldiers and men as anyone else. (To simplify vastly in both cases.) Through these two perspectives, as well as the view of people around these two, we are shown how some attitudes and people can change.

While the AWB men are thoroughly evil, with it being made clear although thankfully not generally shown in graphic detail that besides their supremacist ideology at least some of them are complete sadists happy to take advantage of their new ability in the past to own, control and hurt others, we are also shown that some of them at least do actually believe wholeheartedly in the supremacist position. I don’t personally see this as a redeeming feature, although I think the lack of hypocrisy is supposed to be one for at least one of the vilest characters. It is their inability to change, or to allow the Confederacy to be other than what they wanted which is ultimately their downfall, but that downfall comes at a great cost in lives of all sides.

As a novel this works, and certainly I think we can all hope that even if the US Civil War had ended with two nations rather than one that slavery would still have ended shortly thereafter. Who in sanity can but be glad that’s officially gone? Now for the world to work to rid us of all forms of slavery in modern fact as well.


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