Civil War alternate history has a long, strange background. The genre purports to change history, but it only does so with deeply familiar images and patterns that are already part of the reader’s historical imagination, which it subverts, reverses, distorts, picks apart, and reassembles into something new-yet-familiar. Take for example the famous story of Henry “Box” Brown, the enslaved man who mailed himself to freedom in a box in 1849. As the stuff of alternate history, these ideas and figures become motifs and characters that recur again and again. To Crosby, this organic end to slavery would have been preferable to “the evils which we have entailed upon ourselves by the manner of its abolition.” Gradualist CWAHs like Crosby’s walk a fine line: they hope to question the balance of costs and gains of the war, but they often end up trivializing slavery. Nearly 150 Civil War alternate histories (CWAHs, for convenience) have been written from 1900 to the present. The point, if there is one, has to be teased out. This is alternate history’s derivative relationship to the historical canon — the reservoir of shared knowledge between writer and reader. A mockumentary, it presents itself as a documentary from an alternative reality in which the Confederacy won “the War of Northern Aggression.” In this alternate reality, Reconstruction is the postwar period in which the Confederacy successfully reestablished slavery by “reconstructing” freed slaves through violent intimidation — a clear echo of actual history. strike radically different tones, but both begin with the same ambitious objective: to venture an answer to the question of whether, given a change in historical course, America’s original sin might be redeemable. Since World War II and the Civil Rights movement, however, American politics and popular memory have come to acknowledge the centrality of slavery and race to the Civil War, even as the culture of reconciliation has not disappeared. The novel is a Rip Van Winkle fantasy: an industrious manufacturer from New England wakes up from a long nap to find himself inexplicably transported to an idyllic alternative “Southland” that won its independence in 1865 and remained a society based on legal slavery. This time, however, the South’s rights to self-determination and slaveholding can’t be conveniently reconciled as twin ideological cornerstones of the conflict. It both challenges readers and insults them. CWAHs have always been meaningful reflections of the ambiguous way American society looks back on its civil war. Churchill’s essay is a finely wrought piece of bitter irony that interprets the Civil War as a conflict of global importance: without it, Europe might have avoided the bloodshed of World War I. Very often, their true meaning in the course of history is still subject to debate. It ponders (but never seriously doubts) why the Confederacy has always deserved to perish. […] This here’s murder!” The slaughter marks the reversal of the Lost Cause myth that cast the North as the cruel conqueror and the South as the overpowered but virtuous loser: given the upper hand, the South immediately loses the moral high ground. achieves multiple aims with multiple layers: it chops up and reassembles the American historical canon to deliver a scathing critique of colonialism, both domestic and foreign, and it also attacks the way popular culture cheapens and distorts history to hide its ugly and thorny sides. All in all, this narrative appears to be a typical Gilded Age romanticization of the Old South, and a badly written one to boot. Winston Churchill (of all people) wrote a 1931 essay called “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” which, as the title suggests, portrays the perspective of a historian in an alternative reality who constructs his own alternate history that corresponds to our history exactly. This is perhaps the most important paradox of Civil War alternate history. “The slaves of the South,” one character in Hallie Marshall opines, “have to do with kind and considerate masters; the slaves of the North have to do with unfeeling, iron conditions. Through satirical subversions, The Confederate States of America offers familiar speculative portrayals of segregation, oppression, and international intervention from the 19th century to the present. This national discourse cast the war as a tragic but honorable “brother’s war” and prioritized national harmony over a true reckoning with the war’s causes and costs. “If the South Had Been Allowed to Go” (1903) by Ernest Crosby indicted American imperialism and political corruption and interpreted the Civil War as the United States’s first imperial war. — an alternate D. C.S.A. The choice of episodes is not coincidental; they are moments we consider pivotal in determining the shape of our contemporary world. All this slipperiness in tone and subject hints at an important contradiction between CWAHs’ engagement with an unsettled episode in American historical consciousness and the genre’s demographics: its authors have been mostly white men from the North and Midwest. Hallie Marshall reads at first like a nostalgic portrait of slavery and turns out to be a Progressive critique of labor conditions in 1900 America. Yet all this complexity serves only to express historical sensibilities that are both offensive and banal. This in turn sours the South’s relationship with its Afrikaner saviors, and a new conflict ensues. This gives the CWAH its typical blend of gravity and levity: we can only rewrite history confident in the knowledge that we have already written it. W. This sets in motion a remarkable process: the South gains its ill-begotten independence and is forced to reckon with the unsustainability of its own national fantasies. The Southlanders’ defenses of slavery draw on a tradition of ideas about labor propagated by antebellum proslavery writers like George Fitzhugh, who attacked the European and Northern celebration of free-labor capitalism as more exploitative than the reliance on slavery in the South. We can be suspicious of this, so long as we understand the novel’s trade-off: the first Grand Wizard of the KKK appears as kind of an antihero, but in imagining the Confederacy into existence, The Guns of the South ends up discrediting and discarding it more effectively than real history ever did. Churchill’s counterfactual speculation is among the most structurally sophisticated CWAHs, yet it has nothing thoughtful to say about the attitudes and historical interpretations prevailing in its own time. This kind of story finds its way into alternate histories in altered form: in Underground Airlines, a FedEx employee is sent to prison after a black body is found “in a crate in a Cincinnati FedEx routing center, never delivered, substantially decayed.”
Because of the paradox of predictable creativity, CWAHs have a way of righting history even as they upset it. It enables a certain imaginative dexterity, but it also brings out the facile and the painfully earnest. When the narrator speculates about an alternative (to him) Reconstruction period, he mocks the effort to “graft white democratic institutions upon the simple, docile, gifted African race belonging to a much earlier chapter in human history.” The color question is “happily settled” with the forging of a “new fundamental relationship between master and servant,” as well as institutions for former slaves “suited to their own cultural development and capable of affording them a different yet honorable status.” Different yet honorable, separate but equal. The AK-47s allow the Southern army to mow down Union soldiers in a senseless massacre that has one Confederate soldier exclaim, “This ain’t war! After World War II (during which the CSA joins on the side of Germany), a witch hunt for abolitionists replaces McCarthyism, and the Confederacy’s expansionist war in Vietnam distracts President Kennedy from his mission to end slavery. In Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines (2016), for example, enslaved people in a dystopian contemporary America are reluctant to escape north for familiar reasons: “Go north? This is not idle or irrelevant question — as I was writing this essay, Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville over a statue memorializing a failed rebel general. The Guns of the South chronicles the redemption of the New South: the novel’s villains are so clearly evil that they allow a slew of controversial Southerners, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, to achieve atonement in opposing them. After the war, a nation built on slavery and the right to secession turns out to be untenable, and Robert E. All grapple with slavery and race, but some have confronted them with more sophistication than others. In Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (1992), for example, the Confederacy procures a supply of AK-47s from a time-traveling group of white supremacist Afrikaners. The Guns of the South and C.S.A. Many are marked by a sincere ideological investment, which by the genre’s nature and convention is always obscured and implied. Which slavery is the worst?” The Northerner’s conversion to this philosophy is ironic: half a century after the Civil War, Hallie Marshall uses alternate history to resurrect the rhetoric of a slavery apologist, not to argue for the return of slavery, but to offer wry commentary on the harsh labor conditions in its own time. The entire genre is evidence that the war still rankles in American historical consciousness, even as it is most often the imaginative domain of those least affected by their own “what-ifs?”
Even so, Civil War alternate history is not all about banality and ironic detachment, and sometimes even the bluntest narrative devices — like giving AK-47s to the Southern army — can create profound reflections on the legacy of the Civil War. Hallie Marshall, in using this awkward hypocrisy to its own end, both reflects its time and engages in irreverent dialogue with the politics of its contemporary moment. Griffith directs The Hunt for Dishonest Abe, in which Lincoln tries to escape to Canada disguised as a black man: in the Confederacy, the film’s use of blackface is actually valid. The narrator describes “the Negro problem” as “a mournful dowry which necessarily [the South] would fetch along into any future amalgamation of Americans.” Since Kantor, CWAHs have become grimmer and more interested in the idea of American slavery surviving into the 21st century. The fact that Frank Purdy Williams, the novel’s author, was a colleague and admirer of Henry George, the political economist who inspired several reform movements, confirms this suspicion. Many CWAHs that have the South win its independence eventually reunite the country, because a truly divided America is apparently hard to imagine. The black filmmaker answers a resounding “no,” while the white science-fiction writer a hopeful “maybe,” but they both exemplify the genre of alternate history at its best and most compelling: savvy, thoughtful, entertaining, and provocative. Civil War alternate history merits consideration, if only as a testament to our continued fascination with the Civil War. Some are self-conscious to the point of preachiness or flippancy. Civil War alternate history is not simply a genre that romanticizes the Old South, nor does it deny the reality of contemporary systemic racism. An online expanded timeline (2007) to the film calls the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the Confederacy’s “1st [and] 2nd Crusade[s].” The goal of the film, according to its director Kevin Willmott, “was not to speculate about what could have happened, but to show what did happen.” C.S.A. itself lampoons the style and tone of Ken Burns’s influential 1990 documentary The Civil War, which often romanticized the war. In contradiction to the adage that history is written by the victors, the popular memory of the war that stills looms large in American culture contains a curious sympathy with the losing side, even as it condemns the Confederacy’s motivations in the conflict. Lee emerges as the unlikely champion of emancipation. The satire reaches even to C.S.A.’s built-in commercial breaks, which advertise “Niggerhair” cigarettes and “Darkie” toothpaste — products that existed in our own world, as the closing credits reveal. The Northerner becomes acquainted with this society — its benign paternalism and advanced social welfare — and decides he would like to stay. Perhaps the strangest thing about it is that it rarely produces brilliant insights, yet it nonetheless titillates many reader’s imaginations in ways that deepen historical awareness. In contrast to Churchill’s inane complexity, consider the deceptive simplicity of Hallie Marshall: A True Daughter of the South (1900), the first true Civil War alternate history. In the United States, the Civil War is a powder keg containing all of the above. That these Southerners allow this gross violation of their racial code to go unpunished signals the extent to which Turtledove’s contrivance breaks open the previously held certainties of the South — not just the old South, but the one that persisted for another century in our reality. Our reality’s Birth of a Nation has a counterpart in C.S.A. How many other nations erect statues to the leaders of a failed rebellion? Get shot by some cop, walking down the street?” At one point, a black police officer tells a young black boy to make sure his hoodie is not covering his face, because one of his colleagues might “knock that kid’s head off, hoodie and all, put handcuffs on the corpse.”
This genealogy of Civil War alternate histories as reflections of racial zeitgeists doesn’t yet get at the central paradox that makes the genre so curious: despite the creative freedom to change history, many CWAHs are surprisingly predictable. But Kantor’s history betrays an anxiety over the persistence of racial inequality that previous CWAHs lacked. Historical context also supplies narratives about a number of towering figures including Lee, Lincoln, Tubman, Brown, and Douglass. If the creators of Confederate want to wade into this, I hope the controversy they aroused motivates them to pause and carefully consider what they are trying to accomplish with an alternative Civil War in our current moment. ¤
Renee de Groot is a graduate student in American Studies at Smith College in Massachusetts. In concert, they even become repetitive. […] Get pulled over every time I’m driving? Civil War alternate histories veer from playful to strident, from sardonic to sincere. And there is still more to The Confederate States of America: the film uses its construction as a film-within-a-film to invite its audience to challenge the manipulation of history that often occurs within popular culture. shows alternate history’s potential for satire at its best: at every turn, it confronts its viewer with parallels to US history that dare them to wonder if it would have made any difference if the racists had won. The first CWAHs echoed this national discourse of reunion. Many are novels, but some have taken the form of sci-fi stories, essays, short films, plays, comic books, and video games. But gradually, Hallie Marshall reveals itself to be more. OCTOBER 20, 2017
THE RECENT BACKLASH against HBO’s Confederate has cast a spotlight on fictional alternate histories of the Civil War, but lost in this controversy is a deeper consideration of this curious genre itself. C.S.A. Yet it’s not surprising that the current climate of confrontations over Confederate statues, systemic racism, and the continuing role of white supremacy in American culture and politics would produce new speculations about the meaning of the Civil War. By the end of the novel, the fanatical leader of the Afrikaners is killed by his own slave in front of a group of Confederate soldiers, who allow the murderer to escape. Often, the parallels to contemporary racial tensions in these alternate histories of persistent slavery comment ironically on systemic racial inequities. Historians who have studied the memorialization of the Civil War argue that for at least a century, American popular consciousness embraced a culture of compromise meant to imaginatively reconcile the Union victory with the Southern refusal to let go of the Lost Cause. The standard Civil War alternate history is a juggling act in which motifs from our collective historical memory are repurposed in order to see how they function in different contexts, and the resulting ideological sophistication (or lack thereof) rests on the skill of the author. There is nothing inherently lofty or profound about this tradition, and nothing in particular gives Confederate any right or reason to exist. Whatever Confederate has to say, it better be good. MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War (1961) is gradualist in spirit: it imagines a shortened war and an independent Confederacy that reconciles with the North. Its intricate construction and use of dramatic irony also proposes a theory of history, in which the course of human events is predictable, calculable, and created both through and by Great Men like Churchill himself. This is not to say that the two can’t coexist: Woodrow Wilson, the Progressive president, screened The Birth of a Nation in the White House and presided over the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, a landmark moment of reconciliation culture. As Churchill might have said, history is rewritten by the victors. Civil War alternate history is a mixed bag. The absence of nostalgia goes back to the fact that these alternative histories are overwhelmingly written by white Northerners and Midwesterners comfortable in the certainty that history ultimately went their way. They do more than speculate about history as it might have been: they challenge their audience to think about history as it is, and history as it is told. The result is a genre full of interpretive puzzles, letdowns, and discoveries. C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) is another CWAH concerned with what kind of nation an independent Confederacy might have become. The Southern victories in CWAHs serve a purpose more complex, and often nobler, than nostalgia: to contrast, to shame, to satirize, and to experiment with what we know to be true. Some are thoughtful exercises in historical contingency, others are vehicles for biting social critique, and others are more absurd and abject than Confederate will ever be. Alternate history, in the broadest sense, is the practice of imagining alternative outcomes for episodes of the past that are alive to us today. They may contain historical parallels that allow us to reflect on our present or contain agents and events that still capture our imagination. It mocks Gilded Age plantation novels that romanticized the Old South by turning them into elegies for the Lost Cause of the North. The abandonment of Reconstruction and the failure to check Jim Crow were among the results. CWAHs are constantly positioned in relation to historical memory, and this intertextuality invites a kind of dramatic irony: CWAHs tend to be self-aware, contrary, and irreverent. The history of the Civil War and its aftermath presents a catalog of recurring concepts, ideas, and images, including the evolution of slavery into sharecropping, the failure of Reconstruction, and men in white masks holding burning crosses. In Crosby’s plot, the continuation of slavery in an independent South would lead masses of slaves to escape North, thus emptying the South of slavery and rendering the question of emancipation moot. And while many stories are limited in the range of their content, they make up for this with a great variety of tones and moods. Many Civil War alternate histories written since this time address this process of negotiation between race and reunion.