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Literature / The Guns of the South


The Guns of the South is a Science Fiction Alternate History novel by Harry Turtledove, set during The American Civil War.

In January of 1864 the Army of Northern Virginia is in winter quarters at Orange Court House, trying to deal with its massive supply problems and the looming specter of defeat when operations resume come spring. General Lee is approached by a strange man with a strange name, who wishes to show the General a new breech-loading repeating rifle, with an unmatched rate of fire, which he claims to be able to deliver in almost endless quantities. He calls his weapon an AK-47...

Needless to say, the Confederacy wins the war pretty handily and gains its independence. The book follows the war, and the aftermath, from the perspectives of General Lee and Nathaniel Caudell, a Nashville Schoolteacher and First Sergeant of the 47th North Carolina. Notably, the war itself occupies only the first third or so of the novel, with the remainder focusing on the development of the Confederacy as a nation and how both Lee and Caudell are forced to change their thinking as time progresses.

This book provides examples of :

  • Action Girl: Mollie Bean, who fought at Gettysburg before the start of the novel and marches with the Army of Northern Virginia.
  • Airport Novel: On a long train journey, Robert E. Lee decides to partake of the then-new phenomenon of a railroad novel. He originally tries to purchase Ivanhoe, but the owner refuses to sell it as it is his last copy, so he buys Quentin Durward instead. Later in the story it is revealed that he never finished the book.
  • Alien Space Bats: The Trope Namer was a direct reference to this story.
  • Allohistorical Allusion:
    • When Lee and Ulysses S. Grant meet after the armistice, they briefly discuss their previous meeting during the Mexican-American War. At the real-life surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox, the two of them had also reminisced about their first meeting to briefly put off the primary subject of the meeting.
    • Forrest's Trees, Nathan Bedford Forrest's supporters in the 1867 election, are loosely modeled after the Ku Klux Klan (notably wearing robes and peaked hoods), which Forrest helped found in our real universe.
  • Alter Kocker: Mr. Goldfarb, a Jewish merchant living in Richmond, whom Lee recruits to translate the AWB's Afrikaner language books.
  • The American Civil War: Duh.
  • Amoral Afrikaner: Every single member of the AWB.
  • And Then What?: Lee is asked this a couple of times, first by Abraham Lincoln, and then by Lord Lyons, the British Minister to the USA who is himself an opponent of slavery and famous for having diffused the Trent Affair. They both tell him that he must put the Confederacy on a course for the future. Lee's response is that, whatever type of nation they become, they will be a nation.
  • The Apartheid Era. The AWB hope to prolong this by turning the CSA into a superpower so South Africa is not alone in its racism.
  • Badass Bookworm: Henry Pleasants. Two engineering degrees and a Lt.Col. commission in both the Union and Confederate armies, by the end of the book
  • Badass Teacher: Nate Caudell, though he would definitely not consider himself as such.
  • Bad Future: The AWB claim to come from a world of perpetual interracial strife and domination by Africans, where the South is an occupied territory. As the story progresses, it is revealed that the world they come from is the actual world, and they had made up plenty of their "facts" about the future.
  • Big Bad: Andries Rhoodie
  • Big Bulky Bomb: The Battle of the Crater that, in this timeline, takes place in North Carolina.
  • Book Ends: The book begins with General Lee drafting a letter to President Davis when he is interrupted by Rhoodie and his AK-47 demonstration. The last chapter has President Lee drafting a letter to British Minister Lyons, and is interrupted by a crowd of reporters informing him that his repeal of slavery has just passed in the Confederate senate.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": The Confederates do not know the names for some of the future technology and come up with their own names. They refer to a belt-fed machine gun as an 'endless repeater' and a computer as a 'qwerty', after the letters on the keyboard. Cup-of-soup are known as "desiccated meals", based on similarities to their own desiccated vegetables.
  • Camp Follower: Mollie Bean is a prostitute as well as Sweet Polly Oliver.
  • Character Development: Nate Caudell's move towards accepting blacks as regular people comes gradually and over time; after teaching a black man basic math (with him showing great aptitude), he thinks about the fact that his illiterate, racist landlady could buy the man in a heartbeat and remarks to himself "Damned if there's any justice in that".
  • Covers Always Lie: This happening to another author's book was actually the inspiration for this one—see below.
  • Cultural Posturing: Judah P. Benjamin's snarky comeback to an anti-semitic insult by Ben Butler.
  • Dramatization: In Turtledove's author notes, he reveals that he took names and occupations for the 47th North Carolina Infantry from real life service records, but made up their personalities based off of details (such as Billy Beddingfield being portrayed as a hot-headed Jerkass based on the real Beddingfield repeatedly gaining and losing non-commissioned rank).
  • Deal with the Devil:
    • Lee knows that the Confederacy is making one with AWB when they accept Rhoodies' help, and actually reflects on the story of the last temptation of Jesus. Unfortunately, even though he sees the trap, the South is desperate.
    • When Lee and the AWB began to break apart, Rhoodie tries to tempt Lee again, this time with the offer of medicine to heal his crippled wife. Lee finds the temptation almost too great to refuse, but this time he does refuse.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • The book analyzes the difference between conservative racism (people are racist from societal condition and what "they" say) and reactionary racism (active hatred and degradation based on personal beliefs). This is demonstrated in early chapters where one of Caudell's squadmates says that if he owned slaves, he would want a Rivington man as an overseer, but quickly recants when he sees how harshly they treat blacks, remarking that their attitude would either cause a lot of runaways or an outright revolt.
    • Mollie Bean writes to Nate that even the other Rivington men look down upon Piet Hardie, who is a sexual abuser of some kind. His depredations drove a slave to suicide after a failed runaway attempt, and no white prostitute in Rivington will serve him, although we never get specific details.
    • This is also the reason given for Gen. Forrest's Heel–Face Turn at the end of the book. He claims he never knew the true depths of the AWB.
  • Fatal Flaw: For the Rivington men, their fanaticism means they are completely inflexible, which is what starts driving Confederates away from them. Even the rank-and-file soldiers, who themselves have little use for blacks, get put off when they see how harshly the AWB treats slaves. When Rhoodie tries to horrify Lee by telling him that there are blacks in the British Parliament who always push for more black rights, Lee asks how they can be blamed if they were properly elected, which gets Rhoodie red in the face and halfway to starting a fight before Lee calms him down. Later on, after receiving The Picture History of the Civil War, Lee claims Rhoodie's extreme hatred for blacks makes him as much an outcast as John Brown's radical abolitionism.
  • Femme Fatale Spy: Molly Bean, who is brought into the headquarters of the AWB and becomes a favored bedmate after the war. Ignorant and only recently taught to read, she nonetheless becomes a vital part of the attempts by the South to destroy them. While she is spying on them, she sends letters to Nate describing futuristic things like electricity and books that haven't yet been published, causing him to figure out that they're from the future.
  • For Want of a Nail: In-universe, a gust of wind is what saves Lee from getting a bullet to the brain.
  • Fun with Acronyms: When Lee asks Rhoodie what the AWB sign means, he claims it stands for "America Will Break". It is later revealed to actually stand for Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging ("Afrikaner Resistance Movement"), which is the name of a real-life South African movement.
  • Giving Radio to the Romans: Actually the inspiration for the book as a whole; Turtledove mentions that fellow author Tanith Lee described the cover of her latest novel as being as incongruous as "Robert E. Lee with an Uzi", and decided to explain how such a thing could happen.
  • Graceful Loser: After Lee wins the 1867 elections, Forrest goes to his house to personally concede — a deliberate contrast to their first meeting, also at Lee's house, where their disagreement over slavery lead to Lee asking Forrest to leave. Forrest says that he still disagrees with Lee politically, but not personally, and he wants to make sure that Lee understands this; Lee is more than happy in this regard, since he doesn't like the idea of personal enemies.
  • Heel–Face Revolving Door: Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the first Act, Forrest does not appear, but is frequently mentioned as an excellent general and boon to the South. In the second Act, Forrest becomes the primary antagonist, siding with AWB. In the third Act, he recants his alliance with the AWB after their atrocities and personally leads the assault on Rivington.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: While the second Act of the novel treats him as the primary antagonist, Nathan Bedford Forrest receives surprisingly sympathetic treatment for being the founder of the Ku Klux Klan (which he noticeably doesn't do in the revised timeline, although his political supporters "Forrest's Trees" wear similar outfits as an Allohistorical Allusion).
  • Hoist by His Own Petard/Karmic Death: Andries Rhoodie is killed when one of his slaves stabs him in the throat with a broken bottle. The Confederates ignore the law and let him go, having learned how horribly Rhoodie (and indeed most of AWB) treated their slaves; one soldier even remarks "Reckon the son of a bitch had it coming."
  • It's Personal: After Lee and Forrest have a heated exchange about slavery, Forrest leaves in a loud and bitter rage. Lee reflects that previously all his adversaries had been professional enemies in his duty as a soldier, and Forrest is his first personal foe. He does not enjoy the prospect.
  • Jerkass:
    • General Benjamin Butler. He is despised for his nasty occupation of New Orleans, where he said any woman who criticizes the presence of the Union army should be considered nothing more than a whore. His presence at the peace talks is considered an insult, and at the opening to the negotiations he mocks Judah Benjamin for being a Jew. This is later revealed to be little more than a ploy to gain an advantage in the negotiations, he is still a bit of a jerkass though...
    • A lot of the AWB are pretty awful. Aside from their sadistic treatment of slaves, they have pretty nasty and aggressive tempers towards anyone who disagrees with them, even during polite conversation. Rhoodie himself blows up at Lee on several occasions.
  • Jerkass Realization: Though not a bad person by any stretch of the imagination, Nate Caudell grows out of the institutionalized racism present in much of the South by interacting with blacks. In particular, after teaching Henry Pleasants' laborers to do arithmetic (and seeing the man's honest passion to learn and better himself), he reflects on the fact that the man could be bought by someone less intelligent and mutters "I'll be damned if there's any justice in that."
  • Lame Pun Reaction: Lee has one to his son Custis as they're discussing hiring black people to spy on the AWB.
    Custis: I promise, Father, I shan't be niggardly.
    Lee: Good, for mostly being poor, they are—you young scamp!
    Custis: I'm sorry, sir. I couldn't resist.
    Lee: You might have tried.
  • Make Wrong What Once Went Right: The villians' scheme is this.
  • More Dakka: The very first scene of the book. And the cover. And, well, the whole premise....
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: The Confederates repeatedly refer to the Federal commissioners as "Our honored guests, and Gen. Butler." They feel that Butler's actions during the war merit far worse, and limit themselves to such zingers because he now has diplomatic immunity.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Many of the Confederates have this sort of reaction to seeing the assortment of books from the future all describing slavery in such drastically evil terms.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: The inauguration massacre not only fails to kill Lee, but hands him the trump card he needs to get the manumission bill passed, meaning this South will likely have better race relations than its real-world counterpart.
  • Nice to the Waiter: The treatment of a black servant is a good gauge on a person's behavior. Henry Pleasants, the Ex-Union officer who moves to North Carolina and is described as having a disposition matching his name (i.e. very pleasant), was an abolitionist and hires only free labor to work his farm. Robert E. Lee, a man of great honor, treats his servants with respect and gradually halts holding slaves completely as the novel progresses. The AWB men who treat their slaves horribly are bastards who even most southerners can't stand.
  • No Hero To His Wife: Lee's wife does believe him a national hero, but is also understandably disillusioned with how little he can be present for her and their family, with the duty of serving the nation always foremost on his mind.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Lampshaded. Colonel Gorgias notes that the AK-47 is ridiculously more advanced than any rifle that has existed up to this point, yet no model of inferior quality or an even an experimental version was ever put forward. The "No Backup" part is averted, as the Confederates and later Union forces are able to develop their own versions of the AK-47.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: In-universe, Caudell sees Josephine, a sex slave, escape from one of the AWB men, only to be recaptured. Later, he learns from one of Mollie's letters that Josephine hung herself. Caudell wonders what that man did to push the slave into such a response. He is so shaken by the possibilities he immediately tears up the letter.
  • Oh Crap!: Lee when he realizes that the main ingredient in the explosives used in the AK-47 ammunition is nitroglycerine- the medicine the AWB men have been giving him for his heart condition. He briefly thinks they have been trying to kill him. After a moment he calms down and realizes that it is a very clumsy and roundabout way to get rid of him, and if the pills have not exploded after so much jostling in combat then they probably will not explode at all.
  • Our Time Travel Is Different: The time machine used is a square platform, a few square meters in size, that travels forwards and backwards exactly 150 years. It dematerialises travellers in much the same way as the transporter in Star Trek.
  • Overprotective Dad: At one point Rhoodie tries to scare Lee by asking if he likes the idea of his daughters marrying a black man; Lee's unspoken response is that he's not too keen on the idea of his daughters marrying anyone.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Rivington men just have "evil racist scum" written all over them. Given they're fanatical members of the AWB (in English, Afrikaner Resistance Movement), this isn't surprising.
  • Punch Clock Villain: Ben Butler opens the negotiations between the USA and the CSA by uttering an anti-semitic insult intended to infuriate Judah P. Benjamin. When Benjamin cooly deflects the insult, Lee is surprised to see that Butler does not seem upset, and then realizes that Butler does not actually care that Benjamin is Jewish, he had only uttered the insult as a ploy to open negotiations. Lee is repulsed at such calculated effrontery, but recognizes that it reflects Butler's sharp mind and political drive.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The Confederacy may have gained independence, but the war has already freed many slaves throughout border states, many of which have begun a fierce rebellion. Aside from a newfound moral stance, Lee recognizes that the only way to prevent societal collapse is to abolish slavery.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. Though numerous characters point out that he can be extremely fractious and lets his personal animosity effect his ability to work with certain people, he is on extremely good terms with General Lee throughout the course of the novel. He supports Lee in all his military campaigns, agrees with him regarding the dangers of the AWB, and pushes Lee to run for President himself.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Robert E. Lee gives a couple of these, once by Shaming the Mob and once when he calls out Rhoodie after learning about AWB's deception and true intentions.
  • Retired Badass: When the Rivington men attack Lee's inauguration, several civilians pick up weapons dropped by slain bodyguards and shoot back. When Jefferson Davis calls for a guard for Lee, the narration remarks that it's probably the highest-ranking guard in history since several generals came in order to see one of their own take office.
  • Ridiculous Exchange Rates: The Confederates are befuddled by the Rivington men selling their AK-47s for 50 Confederate dollars, given the currency's complete worthlessness. They also buy merchandise and pay Confederate soldiers with gold, which is worth far more than the face value of the currency/pay vouchers. Although it's never stated in the book, it is possible that the Rivington men were transporting the Confederate money to the future and selling the pristine banknotes to collectors, thus making a profit.
  • Rock Beats Laser: And strategically placed TNT can beat a whole passel of future weapons.
  • Samus Is a Girl: "Melvin" Bean is introduced as just another Confederate soldier being taught how to use the Ak-47, but the next scene reveals he is actually Mollie Bean.
  • San Dimas Time: Justified. The time machine only works over a period of 150 years; the AWB stole it in 2014, so they could only go back to 1864 and no earlier. This prevents them from interfering with the earlier portions of the war, such as the crippling Battle of Gettysburg which is mentioned repeatedly throughout the story.
  • Schizo Tech: The Guns of the South gets this on purpose.
  • Shaming the Mob: Happens literally in one scene where a mob, egged on by a Rivington man, attempts to lynch a free black blacksmith. Lee comes upon the incident and gives the men holy hell, defusing the situation, though the Rivington men later try to use Manipulative Editing to make Lee look bad.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Very much so, as Turtledove is quite the expert on The American Civil War. An appendix describes the history of the real 47th North Carolina Infantry, and the contemporary characters are mostly drawn from real people. He also calculated out the election results in the United States of the novel (1864; just after losing the Second American Revolution), and that of the Confederacy in 1867. And explains how he calculated it, state-by-state.
    • Much of the slave auctioneer's patter is verbatim from an 1850s account of a real slave auction, as is the curious mention of the slave oiling the train wheels in Rivington being more careful than slaves elsewhere.
    • Nathan Bedford Forrest's opinions and Heel–Face Revolving Door are rather close to his actual denouncing and dissolution of the Klannote  in Real Life, after it went from a legally-organized political group to a terror organization.
  • Skewed Priorities: Slavery is looked at as a skewed priority from both sides.
    • General Lee and several other members of the Confederacy do not understand why the rest of the world is so intensely focused on the sole issue of slavery. To them, the world's condemnation of the Confederacy for slavery while ignoring all of its other merits is a bizarre fixation.
    • The rest of the world condemns the Confederacy for slavery and view all of their other lofty and philosophical claims to fall by the wayside of this singular horror. AT several times they point out that the Confederacy's proud claims are false within their own borders.
    • To be fair, when reading the various books brought back from the future, Lee and the other Confederate leaders do begin to finally understand how and why future generations look back at slavery as a horror.
    • When Lee talks to Lincoln, he says that he couldn't go against his home state of Virginia. Lincoln chuckles that Lee acts as if that explains everything and Lee is confused as, from his viewpoint, it does.
  • Smart Ball: When Lee gets a telegraph message mentioning Henry Pleasants, the name sounds familiar and he goes to The Picture History of the Civil War; after realizing that Pleasants executed a similar plan in the original timeline, he orders General Forrest not to use Pleasants' name in any further communications, fearing that the Rivington men may be tapping the lines and might catch on to the Confederates' plan.
  • The Squadette: Molly fought at Gettysburg, y'all.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: The Notahilton.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Mollie Bean, who disguises herself as a man to serve in the Confederate army. She returns to the guise when the CSA takes on the AWB and her commander's reaction ("Haven't you grown a beard yet?") makes it clear he (and most of the rest of their squad) had figured out she was a woman but kept quiet out of respect for her bravery.
  • This Is My Boomstick: Played straight, almost to the point of deconstruction.
  • Timeline-Altering MacGuffin: The Picture History of the Civil War, an ordinary (perhaps even elementary) history book, is what really causes Lee and the Confederates to turn away from the Rivington men.
  • Time Travel: Duh. Again.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: The Rivington Men are from 2014. Besides fitting the idea of a time machine that can only travel a neat 150 years, Turtledove probably chose this date because it was just enough years ahead for a time machine not to be totally absurd, but still close enough for the Rivington Men's weapons and technology to basically be equivalent to the 'present day'.
  • Vindicated by History: In-Universe, the Confederates were convinced that while slavery was far from ideal, future generations would recognize that it was the best way for blacks and whites to co-exist. The Picture History of the Civil War proves them wrong, which helps President Lee pass a bill that leads to the end of slavery.
  • Void Between the Worlds: Possible fate of one of the AWB men, who had the the misfortune of using the time machine just when Caudell shot it up. He theorizes that the man was either dumped in a different time, or stuck in a time limbo.
  • Weak, but Skilled: Beddingfield, a soldier with a huge build, and his fellow soldiers are amazed when Benny Lang throws him to the ground with his "fancy wrasslin'".
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Robert E. Lee thinks of Rhoodie's Afrikaner accent as "not-quite-British" and is constantly guessing where this man originated from.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • Abraham Lincoln to General Lee. Later Nathan Forrest assumes that role.
    • Caudell himself admires black soldiers who continued to battle his regiment, even when faced with their overwhelming firepower.

It averts:
  • A.K.A.-47: Averted. The rifles are specifically referred to as the AK-47 and their care and maintenance is based on the real rifle. All other real-life guns that make an appearance are also given their proper names by the Rivington men.
  • Bottomless Magazines: The soldiers are carefully instructed that full-auto is actually mostly useless except in extreme circumstances — it's the ability to fire single shots without stopping to reload that is their primary advantage.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Caudell is a Baptist, and the two ministers shown are Baptist and Episcopalian. Not surprising as it's set in the South, which has been dominated by Protestantism from the beginning.
  • Easy Logistics: The difficulties of supplying an army in the field come up a number of times, though the AWB are tripped up by this a little - they have a huge stock of AK-47s and ammunition ready to supply to the Confederacy, but weren't expecting them to be interested in their field rations.
    • This is also a reason for concern in the end of the novel. Even with the new technological boon the CSA has gained, the fact that the North has used its massive industry to start mass producing functional copies of the AK has the characters fear that said advantage might not be enough.
  • Magic from Technology: The AK-47s are never treated as magic, simply as weapons of amazing quality whose appearance makes no sense. Neither are MREs and instant coffee. The Confederates are well acquainted with the desiccated vegetables the Federals have, they just didn't know anyone was preparing whole meals or coffee that way. Even given a bit of a lampshade, when Lee comments on the "desiccated stew" he is offered, and notes that Rhoodie seems disappointed that he isn't more surprised.
    • The Confederates become accustomed so quickly to their marvelous new rifles, indeed, that Mollie Bean is soon as readily cussing out a refractory AK-47 that she's trying to disassemble as she might curse a Springfield that she was having difficulty cleaning. Nate Caudell himself is actually a good deal more astonished by Bennie Lang's body armor, as he is well aware that any iron plate strong enough to stop a rifle bullet would be far too heavy for a man to wear.
  • Technobabble: Nobody has to explain one bit of the science behind the machine, since it was stolen from who-knows-how-far into the future in the first place, and all they could do was try and work the controls.
  • What Could Have Been:invoked
    • Along with being the premise of the novel itself, it is actually meta-lampshaded in the first chapter by the characters themselves:
      "Pity they couldn't have come a year ago," Walter Taylor said. "Think what we might have done with those rifles at Chancellorsville, or up in Pennsylvania."
      "I have had that thought myself a fair number of times the last few days, Major," Lee said. "What's past is past, though, and cannot be changed."
    • This is something of a Running Gag with Turtledove; when Lee and Lincoln run into each other in 1865, Lincoln says he might write a book about how things would have been better if Lee and the South hadn't won.
    • An acknowledged moment occurs when Lee reads the Picture History of the Civil War and sees that in the original timeline, Lincoln was killed on Good Friday of 1865; Lee shudders when he remembers that he spoke to Lincoln on that day (in a scene depicted earlier in the novel).
  • Science at the Speed of Plot: When Colonel Gorgas states his disappointment at not being able to figure out smokeless powder, General Lee bluntly states that The Smart Guy having the Applied Phlebotinum rejiggered and ready exactly when The Hero needs it is something that only happens in stories, and that he does not share Gorgas' disappointment in any way.