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. Civil War alternate history has a long, strange background. Nearly 150 Civil War alternate histories (CWAHs, for convenience) have been written from 1900 to the present. Many are novels, but some have taken the form of sci-fi stories, essays, short films, plays, comic books, and video games. 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. All grapple with slavery and race, but some have confronted them with more sophistication than others.
Civil War alternate history merits consideration, if only as a testament to our continued fascination with the Civil War. Alternate history, in the broadest sense, is the practice of imagining alternative outcomes for episodes of the past that are alive to us today. The choice of episodes is not coincidental; they are moments we consider pivotal in determining the shape of our contemporary world. They may contain historical parallels that allow us to reflect on our present or contain agents and events that still capture our imagination. Very often, their true meaning in the course of history is still subject to debate. In the United States, the Civil War is a powder keg containing all of the above.
CWAHs have always been meaningful reflections of the ambiguous way American society looks back on its civil 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. How many other nations erect statues to the leaders of a failed rebellion? 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. 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. The abandonment of Reconstruction and the failure to check Jim Crow were among the results.
The first CWAHs echoed this national discourse of reunion. “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. 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. 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.
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. Many Civil War alternate histories written since this time address this process of negotiation between race and reunion. 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. But Kantor’s history betrays an anxiety over the persistence of racial inequality that previous CWAHs lacked. 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. Often, the parallels to contemporary racial tensions in these alternate histories of persistent slavery comment ironically on systemic racial inequities. 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? […] Get pulled over every time I’m driving? 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. In concert, they even become repetitive. 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. This is alternate history’s derivative relationship to the historical canon — the reservoir of shared knowledge between writer and reader. 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. Historical context also supplies narratives about a number of towering figures including Lee, Lincoln, Tubman, Brown, and Douglass. As the stuff of alternate history, these ideas and figures become motifs and characters that recur again and again. Take for example the famous story of Henry “Box” Brown, the enslaved man who mailed himself to freedom in a box in 1849. 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. Many CWAHs that have the South win its independence eventually reunite the country, because a truly divided America is apparently hard to imagine. 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. 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. Civil War alternate histories veer from playful to strident, from sardonic to sincere. Some are self-conscious to the point of preachiness or flippancy. Many are marked by a sincere ideological investment, which by the genre’s nature and convention is always obscured and implied. The point, if there is one, has to be teased out.
The result is a genre full of interpretive puzzles, letdowns, and discoveries. 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. 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. 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.
Yet all this complexity serves only to express historical sensibilities that are both offensive and banal. 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. 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.
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. 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. The Northerner becomes acquainted with this society — its benign paternalism and advanced social welfare — and decides he would like to stay. All in all, this narrative appears to be a typical Gilded Age romanticization of the Old South, and a badly written one to boot.
But gradually, Hallie Marshall reveals itself to be more. 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. “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. 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 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. This is perhaps the most important paradox of Civil War alternate history. 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. 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. 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 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! […] 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.
After the war, a nation built on slavery and the right to secession turns out to be untenable, and Robert E. Lee emerges as the unlikely champion of emancipation. This in turn sours the South’s relationship with its Afrikaner saviors, and a new conflict ensues. This time, however, the South’s rights to self-determination and slaveholding can’t be conveniently reconciled as twin ideological cornerstones of the conflict. 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. 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.
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. 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.
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) is another CWAH concerned with what kind of nation an independent Confederacy might have become. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. It mocks Gilded Age plantation novels that romanticized the Old South by turning them into elegies for the Lost Cause of the North. Our reality’s Birth of a Nation has a counterpart in C.S.A. — an alternate D. W. 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. C.S.A. itself lampoons the style and tone of Ken Burns’s influential 1990 documentary The Civil War, which often romanticized the war. 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. C.S.A. 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.
The Guns of the South and C.S.A. 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. 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. 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.
Civil War alternate history is not simply a genre that romanticizes the Old South, nor does it deny the reality of contemporary systemic racism. It ponders (but never seriously doubts) why the Confederacy has always deserved to perish. 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. 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. 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. As Churchill might have said, history is rewritten by the victors.
Civil War alternate history is a mixed bag. It enables a certain imaginative dexterity, but it also brings out the facile and the painfully earnest. It both challenges readers and insults them. 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. 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. 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. 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. This is not an idle or irrelevant question — as I was writing this essay, Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville over a statue memorializing a failed rebel general. Whatever Confederate has to say, it better be good.