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Literature / How Few Remain

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How Few Remain is the first instalment of Harry Turtledove's ambitious Southern Victory (AKA Timeline-191) series of Alternate History novels, which takes place in a universe where the Confederate States won The American Civil War, thus dramatically changing the course of history.

In Real Life, Special Order 191 was Confederate general Robert E. Lee's blueprint for troop movements during his 1862 invasion of Maryland, which by happenstance fell into Union hands, encouraging Union commander George McClellan to press on and fight Lee to a stalemate at the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the war, which blunted Lee's momentum and enabled Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby ensuring the European Powers would stay out of the war.

But in this universe, the orders were never intercepted... Instead, Lee defeated McClellan, marched on into Philadelphia, and Britain and France officially recognized the Confederacy as a nation-state and mediated a peace settlement. As a result, Lincoln is disgraced rather than assassinated, both Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart survive the war, Samuel Clemens stays in San Francisco instead of writing fiction, etc. In short, Butterfly of Doom ensues.

The story proper picks up in 1881 when resentment of their defeat and geopolitical concerns over the Confederate purchase of Mexican territory prompts U.S. President James G. Blaine to declare a new war on the Confederacy, and follows—in turn—eight historical figures:

Over the next decade, the novel was followed by ten sequels that carry the story forward through the First World War (the Great War trilogy), the interbellum years (the American Empire trilogy), and the Second World War (the Settling Accounts quadrilogy).

Tropes in the novel:

  • The Alcoholic: Downplayed with Ulysses S. Grant. He gets a brief scene as an audience member at a Frederic Douglass lecture. Douglass notes that his suit looks the worse for wear and his breath smells of whiskey.
  • Allohistorical Allusion: A Turtledove specialty. Overlaps a lot with the Historical In Jokes.
  • Alternate History: And not a very pleasant one either since the on-going rivalry between the two countries just results in being more militaristic, jingoistic, and less self-sufficient.
  • Alternate Universe Reed Richards Is Awesome: Played with by George Custer who rather than being massacred at Little Bighorn rises to prominence by providing the USA with its only conclusive victory of the Second Mexican War despite having the same Glory Hound and Leeroy Jenkins tendencies as Real Life.
  • Analogy Backfire: Schlieffen quotes the Latin phrase "Vae Victus" (meaning "Woe to the Conquered", first attributed to Brennus the Gaul after defeating the Romans in battle) when telling President Blaine that he has no choice but to accept defeat. Blaine quickly retorts that it was the Romans, not the Gauls, who ultimately won that conflict.
  • Anyone Can Die: As the end draws near, Jeb Stuart and Tom Custer both die. Tom's at least 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 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 beyond those to do with slavery.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Setting the interception of Special Order 191 as the point of divergence is thought-provoking but actually rather unlikely since in Real Life the main benefit of intercepting it was the chance to hit Lee's isolated forces, which McClellan immediately squandered by giving Lee an extra 18 hours to reassemble most of his army. Moreover, Lee's forces were already utterly exhausted by months of hard campaigning and outnumbered more than 2:1 in the whole campaign, so whatever their odds of winning another battle, their odds of destroying the Army of the Potomac and marching on Philadelphia were still insignificant.
    • The Richard Nixon, the Used Car Salesman portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant as a largely forgotten drunk is largely based on Dated History founded on hostile rumours with virtually no solid evidence and now considered a myth by most serious historians. At most, Grant may have occasionally drank too much, which would've been easy for a man who Can't Hold His Liquor in a profession where drinking was common for coping with boredom and stress. This is even more interesting since three of Turtledove's protagonists—Teddy Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, and Mark Twain—all idolized Grant in Real Life for his character even more than his generalship.
    • By the time of the novel, William S. Rosecrans has risen to General-in-Chief of U.S. forces basically because he didn't get a chance to fail in the last war, yet Ulysses S. Grant's victories at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Iuka, and Corinth (which had already made him a national hero for capturing an entire Confederate army and forcing them out of southern Kentucky and western Tennessee including Nashville) all receive next-to-no mention as far as 'Remembrance' ideology is concerned even though Rosecrans was merely Grant's subordinate until more than a month after the series' divergence point. This gets even weirder given how Custer and Roosevelt are lauded in-universe for their singular success in an otherwise embarrassing war.
  • 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.
  • Cavalry Officer: Custer, Roosevelt, and Stuart all love being one.
  • 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, instead of just 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 Chummy Commie.
    • 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.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: How Few Remain is the only standalone novel in the entire series, the only one told entirely through the viewpoint of Historical Domain Characters, and is separated from the rest of the series by a 33-year Time Skip.
  • 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 last action prompts the U.S. president to declare another war.
  • Gatling Good: Custer dislikes Gatling guns, but gets assigned a whole bunch of them anyway and they play a vital role in gaining him the only US victory of the war.
  • General Failure:
    • General-in-Chief Rosecrans admits to Schlieffen that he has no coherent plan to defeat the Confederates.
    • General Willcox's command of the Battle of Louisville fails, primarily because he displays little imagination and does everything too slowly. Schlieffen frequently muses that his strategies might have worked if he'd put them into effect a few days earlier. General Jackson, on the other side, repeatedly notes that Willcox is obligingly doing exactly what they'd expected him to do.
    • Custer and Roosevelt triumph in the end not so much through their own genius as because their opponent attempted to used mounted lancers against their Gatling gun emplacement.
  • 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 BSoD:
    • 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 Badass Upgrade: Turtledove is rather generous to Stonewall Jackson. He was certainly an excellent semi-independent corps commander but also overbearing, uncommunicative, and argumentative with his own subordinates and the kind of guy who wanted to court-marshal Richard B. Garnett for retreating without permission even though Garnett had already attacked bravely and was low on ammo and surrounded on three sides, leading many historians to consider any theoretical promotion for Jackson a prime recipe for The Peter Principle.
  • 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, which is fulfilled in the subsequent 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) even more so than 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, and Northern Maine is ceded to Canada as part of the peace settlement.
  • La RĂ©sistance: The Mormons in Utah.
  • 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 doesn't actually involve Mexico at all; the name refers to the fact that the war was sparked by the Confederates acquiring Mexican territory, which the US attempted to stop to prevent them from forming a transcontinental empire.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: 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. In the middle of a heated argument, Douglass even declares 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.
  • Point of Divergence: The novel—and the ten-novel series that follows it—is all happening because one tiny detail, the finding of Special Order 191. 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?"
  • Promoted to Scapegoat: Lincoln gets this treatment from basically everyone for losing the War of Secession.
  • Pun: Roosevelt dubs the coach he uses for going into Helena (the nearest large town to his ranch) "the Helena Handbasket".
  • Richard Nixon, the Used Car Salesman:
    • Sam Clemens the San Francisco new editor.
    • Stonewall Jackson and William Rosecrans, the USA and CSA Generals-in-Chief, respectively.
    • James G. Blaine and James Longstreet, the USA and CSA Presidents, respectively.
    • Abraham Lincoln the disgraced ex-president and prominent socialist.
    • Ulysses S. Grant the poor alcoholic.
  • Rubber-Band History:
    • Teddy Roosevelt leading a charge somewhere...
    • Custer making a Last Stand on the Great Plains...
    • Jeb Stuart being mortally wounded...
  • Rule of Cool: It debatable, but the CSA's success should be taken with a grain of salt considering it's a deeply nepotistic and socially and ethnically divided country still tied to a localized rural economy while the rest of the world is embracing nationalism and the Second Industrial Revolution, but hey, Turtledove wanted an American version of the Franco-Prussian War and wrote a pretty damned good one.
    • It is noted in the novel that the US both outnumbers the CSA and outstrips them in industrial capacity. Their victory is due to having better military leadership and alliances with France and England. The humiliation of the war finally prods the US to seek an alliance with Germany.
  • Second American Civil War: Played With - The book starts with the Confederates winning the Civil War at Antietam, and fast-forwards twenty years, and the North and South fight a second war over control of the West (and also Northern resentment for losing) in what is for all intents and purposes, a second round of the American Civil War, but by then, it's no longer a civil war, and instead, a regular war between two independent countries that just so happen to be the United States of America and the Confederate States of America.
  • 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 many historical characters end up doing pretty much the same things they did in our universe, it's remarkably well thought out.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Turtledove's own more outlandish The Guns of the South.
  • 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 positively vaults from level to level.
    • Douglass has some intense moments in Louisville.
  • What If?: What if the Confederacy won the Civil War?
  • Young Future Famous People: Most prominently with Theodore Roosevelt, who is 22 years old when the story begins.