Literature / How Few Remain

How Few Remain is Harry Turtledove's excellent beginning to his Southern Victory (AKA "Timeline-191") series. It takes place in a universe where General Robert E. Lee's Special Order 191 was never discovered by Union troops, thus dramatically changing the course of history.

Order 191 was a US Civil War directive which contained extensive information about the rebel General Lee's proposed troop movements during his famous offensive campaign to take the US's capital. Because George McClellan had this information, he was able to position his troops in areas to ambush them. The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, and—both morally and mortally—diminished the Confederates. It was perhaps the most vital turning point in the entire war.

And in this universe, it never happened.

Lee marched into Washington and the Confederacy was recognized as a nation-state by Britain and France, who mediated a peace settlement. Abraham Lincoln was never assassinated. Both Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart survive the war. Samuel Clemens stays in San Francisco, instead of writing fiction.

In short: Hilarity Ensues.

The story picks up in 1881, when the Confederates' purchase of the Mexican territories of Chiuhuahua and Sonora prompts U.S. President James G. Blaine to declare war on the Confederacy.

The story follows, in turn, eight historical figures:
  • Thomas J. Jackson, old "Stonewall", General-in-Chief of the Confederate Army, is ready and eager to strike at the Yankees once more.
  • General J.E.B. Stuart defends the new Confederate territories from the Yankees, the Apaches under Geronimo being first his allies and then his foes.
  • Colonel George A. Custer, a frustrated Yankee cavalryman, serves on the Great Plains and helps put down the Mormon rebellion in Utah.
  • Theodore Roosevelt is a wealthy, patriotic young Montana rancher who raises his own cavalry force, known as the "Unauthorized Regiment".
  • Frederick Douglass, a former slave and a fiery orator, observes the Union forces at war.
  • Colonel Alfred von Schlieffen serves as the German military attaché to the United States.
  • Samuel Clemens is a sharp-witted newspaper editor in San Francisco.
  • Former President Abraham Lincoln, influenced by the writings of Karl Marx, is an orator struggling to keep the Republican Party united in the cause of the working man.

Tropes in the novel:

  • Anyone Can Die: As the end draws near, Jeb Stuart and Tom Custer both die. Tom is in battle, so it's sad but not surprising—but killing off one of the main characters, out of nowhere, is a real shock.
  • The Alcoholic: Ulysses S. Grant, embittered by the outcome of the war, gets a brief scene as an old, drunken vagabond.
  • Allohistorical Allusion: A Turtledove specialty. Overlaps a lot with the Historical In Jokes.
    • There's a Colonel Sherman stationed in San Francisco, who has a rather burnt-up attitude toward what he might have done in the last war.
    • von Schlieffen, at the end, coming up with his brilliant new battle-strategy.
      • ... which wasn't a real strategy, just a thought experiment (just look at that Other Wiki article - not a single primary source, albeit on account of the fact that none exists). But the breadth and depth of the stuff Turtledove touches makes it inevitable he'll fall behind the cutting-edge of historical research somewhere, especially as new research surfaces. Though there was that egregious depiction a WWII Chinese peasant as both liking the Chinese Communist Party and believing that it fights Japan (and that the Guomindang doesn't!) that sounds like it was lifted verbatim from a PRC school-textbook.
  • Alternate History
  • The American Civil War
  • Antebellum America: Unlike some attempts to show what the world would be like if the Confederates won, How Few Remain actually explores socio-economic and cultural issues that don't have to do with slavery.
  • Badass in Charge: Roosevelt and Custer.
  • The Captain: Custer was born to be the Captain, and will do anything to show people how awesome he is as a commander.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: According to George Custer, his brother Tom is more of this than he is.
  • Brick Joke: Pocahantas, Arkansas.
  • British Teeth: One of the soldiers in the raid on San Francisco is noted to have a pair of these.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": In-universe variation; Alfred von Schlieffen has a little trouble remembering that they're states in America, not provinces.
  • The Cavalry: Custer loves being the Cavalry.
    • The Unauthorized Regiment does this too.
  • Colonel Badass: Yet again, Custer and Roosevelt. Eventually, they have to compete.
  • Cult Colony: The Mormons. Plus, having Custer stationed there...
  • Da Editor: Sam Clemens has become one—complete with chomping cigars.
    • Unlike most instances of this trope, where we mostly see Da Editor shouting at people, we actually get to see a lot of his editorials. And they're awesome.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Abe Lincoln basically walks around doing this all the time. Oh, and being a Dirty Communist.
    • And Sam Clemens, of course. Who seems to speak pure Snark.
  • Divided States of America: As a consequence of Confederate victory in the Civil War.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Hosea Blackford, for later in the series. He's just a kid from a mining town who runs into Lincoln on the train. There's also a very brief appearance by the girl who will later carry the name of Nellie Semproch; she's a child who runs out into the street in Washington, D.C.
  • Expanded States of America: Expanded Confederate states that is. The CSA acquires Kentucky and Indian Territory (later Sequoia) from the United States, purchases Cuba from Spain, and later buys Sonora and Chihuahua from Mexico. This latter actions prompts the U.S. president to declare another war.
  • For Want of a Nail: The novel—and the ten-novel series that follows it—is all happening because one tiny detail, the finding of Order 191. Which could so very easily have happened in this universe. And if it did, it would have (if not necessarily guaranteed a Confederate victory) given Lee an incredible strategic advantage which might well have changed the course of the war.
    • It's even lampshaded in the prologue, where the messenger who dropped the Order is effusively telling the two soldiers who noticed it how grateful he is, and how "this could have cost us the war!"
    Then, as he rides off, one of them turns to the other and says "Lost the whole war? He don't think much of himself and the papers he carries, now does he?"
  • Germanic Efficiency: von Schlieffen is constantly amazed that Americans get anything done.
  • Glory Hound / Glory Seeker: Custer would die to be a hero...
    • In the prologue, he's on the verge of making a one-man charge against the Confederates.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Custer is an ass, but when Tom is killed while fighting the Brits in Canada, it's hard not to feel bad for him.
    • Douglass shuts down for a bit after having to Mercy Kill a suffering soldier, despite the man's own cousin thanking him for it.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Aside of the eight main characters, there are many more, both obvious and obscure.
  • Heroic Willpower: It has been confirmed that Teddy Roosevelt is made of solid Willpower.
  • Historical In-Joke: Too many to count.
    • Custer standing at the top of a ridge as the Indians ride toward him, thinking "This could be our last stand" This time, Custer has Gatling guns. It goes considerably better for him.
    • Clemens speaking sarcastically about what might have happened if he'd tried writing fiction.
    • Someone telling Roosevelt that he should think about going into politics.
      • Fulfilled in the next book of the series (the Great War trilogy), where TR has become president (though a good ten years after he did in Real Life).
  • IKEA Erotica: As usual for Turtledove, with the extra Squick that the man of the couple is Mark Twain.
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: Given, we're following eight historical figures to begin with, but they do seem to bump into an inordinate number of familiar faces (see Historical-Domain Character, above).
    • Not as much so in the rest of the Timeline-191 series, where the famous people rub elbows with an extensive cast of Turtledove originals.
  • Invaded States of America: San Francisco is shelled and raided by the British. A British invasion of Montana is defeated in what turns out to be the highlight of the war for the USA. Northern Maine is ceded to Canada as part of the peace settlement.
  • Large Ham: Truth in Television, for Custer and Roosevelt.
  • Mercy Kill: A soldier with his guts hanging out begs Douglass to put him out of his misery, and the man's cousin thanks him for it. He's still badly affected.
  • More Dakka: George Custer. With Gatling guns.
  • Military Maverick: Custer comes close, sometimes.
  • Nonindicative Name: The Second Mexican War does not actually involve Mexico at all.
  • Not So Different: After coming face to face, both Jackson and Douglass are surprised at how human they find each other—things aren't quite as black and white as they thought.
  • Number Two: Tom Custer is this for his older brother.
  • Odd Couple: Lincoln and Douglass.
    • Douglass gets a bonus for, in the middle of a heated argument, saying that they're having a "Lincoln-Douglass debate"
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Jackson, to the letter.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Turtledove plays with this in the first section following "Thomas Jackson", knowing that most of the readers won't catch on until someone says "Hey, Stonewall!"
  • Only Sane Man: At times, Lincoln expresses the feeling that he might be one of these. Not that anyone cares.
    • Mark Twain's newspaper editorials, providing running commentary on the events leading up to the war, fill the role nicely.
  • Promoted to Scapegoat: After losing the War of Secession, Lincoln gets this treatment from basically everyone.
  • Pun: Roosevelt dubs the coach he uses for going into Helena (the nearest large town to his ranch) "the Helena Handbasket".
  • Rubber-Band History
    • Teddy Roosevelt leading a charge somewhere...
  • Shown Their Work: Turtledove does. All the time. So much so that it's easy to forget you're reading a work of fiction.
  • Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility: Type I. It's actually scary how very plausible it is. Even given that all the main characters would done pretty much the same thing as they did in this universe, it's remarkably well thought out on every level.
  • Start My Own: When his local recruiting-station won't take volunteers, Roosevelt takes it on himself to pull together his own Unauthorized Regiment.
  • Start of Darkness: After being humiliated by the Confederacy again, von Schlieffen offers the USA an alliance with the German Empire, later leading to the USA becoming a brutally ultra-militaristic, German-trained power.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Teddy Roosevelt vaults from level to level.
    • Douglass has some intense moments in Louisville.
  • What Might Have Been
  • Young Future Famous People: Most prominently with Theodore Roosevelt, who is 22 years old when the story begins.