The Guns of the South  
Author Harry Turtledove
Cover artist Tom Stimpson
Language English
Genre(s) Alternate History, science fiction
Publisher Del Rey
Publication date September 22, 1992

The Guns of the South is a novel by writer Harry Turtledove. It is an alternate history story, with an undercurrent of science fiction, set during the American Civil War, called the Second American Revolution in this version.

The Plot[]

The story deals with a group of time-traveling Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging members from 2014, led by Andries Rhoodie, who wish to alter the outcome of the Civil War and, as a result, ensure the success of their own cause in the future. In order to do this, they provide General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and General Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee with a large number of AK-47s. To all but a few Confederate leaders, who are told the truth, they are known as "the Rivington men" after the (fictional) North Carolina where they set up their base. They explain the AWB initials on their organizational flag as standing for "America Will Break".

The Confederacy, starting to reel towards defeat in the late winter of 1864, welcomes the guns and other supplies. The armies of the Confederacy are trained in their use, and when the opposed armies break camp to fight the Battle of the Wilderness, there is an overwhelming Confederate victory rather than the inconclusive result in OTL. Lee's army defeats the Union again at the Battle of Bealeton in Virginia, crosses the Potomac River, and in a daring night battle, captures Washington City. With parallel successes by Confederate troops on other fronts, US President Abraham Lincoln has little choice but to sign an armistice, agreeing to the withdrawal of Union troops, and negotiations to determine a final border.

These negotiations are conducted by three commissioners per side. CS President Jefferson Davis appoints Vice President Alexander Stephens, Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and General Lee. President Lincoln appoints Secretary of State William H. Seward, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Major General Benjamin Butler.

During these negotiations, the Confederacy abandons claims to West Virginia and Maryland, while the United States cedes the Indian Territory along with any areas within the Confederacy that the Union captured earlier in the war. Kentucky and Missouri are to hold state-wide referendum votes to determine which nation they will join. These are to be supervised by an Election Commissioner from each side. Lee is appointed by Davis while Lincoln appoints General Ulysses Grant. Also, each side appoints 500 Election Observers per state.

After the completion of the negotiations, voting, and political conversation — during which a minor incident occurs where two members of the AWB are caught by Union Election Observers attempting to smuggle AK-47s into the disputed states — referenda are held. Kentucky chooses to join the Confederacy while Missouri chooses to remain with the Union. General Lee returns to his duties in Virginia with the hope of finally settling down with his family, including his ailing wife, at their home, Arlington House, for the remainder of their days.

Such is not to be. President Davis makes clear his wish that Lee be the next man to hold the position. In fact his appointing Lee as one of the Peace Commissioners and then Election Commissioner was, in part, to keep his name in front of the electorate. The AWB, whose goal from the beginning had been to maintain the Confederacy as a bastion of Black oppression, feel that Lee is too soft on the question of slavery and rally behind General Nathan Bedford Forrest of the Confederate cavalry, in the hopes of electing him to office. A slave trader himself, Forrest is believed to be the perfect man for the job of maintaining the standard of white supremacy. Moreover, knowing how history went before they started interfering with it, the AWB people know that after the defeat of the South, Forrest would have been involved in founding the Ku Klux Klan.

The election is hotly contested, both men heroes of the recent War and filled with charisma, but Lee emerges the victor despite the introduction of 20th and 21st century campaigning techniques by the AWB to bolster Forrest's one-note campaign to preserve slavery in the South. Several of the states which voted for Forrest begin to call for secession from the Confederacy and the creation of their own nation, echoing the original Southern secession after the election of Lincoln to the Union's presidency. However, Forrest feels that such an action would be nothing short of petulance and concedes defeat, offering his personal service in the Confederate Army if any states do attempt to secede.

Lee is presented by a soldier named Melvin Bean with a book from the future that Bean stole from a Rivington man - The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War - proving that the Rivington men lied about the catastrophes which they claimed lay in wait for the South if it lost the war. He confronts Rhoodie. The AWB has no chance of influence over Lee, and, at the presidential inauguration on March 4, 1868, several of its members attempt to assassinate Lee. They attack now-President Lee armed with Uzis and shielded with bullet-proof vests (made of kevlar or a similar material), both still a mystery to the Confederacy. They manage to kill a number of prominent Confederates, including Lee's newly-inaugurated Vice President Albert G. Brown and General Jubal Early. Lee survives the attempt on his life by nothing more than pure luck, though his wife, Mary is killed. The AWB forces in Richmond are attacked, and, after a fierce battle, are finally defeated. Their offices contain many items from the 21st century that are a mystery to the soldiers who discover them — gas-powered electrical generators, fluorescent lighting, and a Macintosh computer — but most importantly contains dozens of historical texts that reveal not only the AWB's true intentions, but that they had twisted the historical facts so as to present the South's defeat in the original history as far worse than it actually was. All of these are contained in a secure area at the AWB headquarters in Richmond, behind a safe-like door which the Confederates lack the technology to defeat, but eventually "outflank" - instead of breaking down the door, they break through an outer wall of the building.

After the capture of the AWB's Richmond offices, Lee presents before the Confederate leadership all the historical documents that the men from the future used to inform themselves of the events of the present time. With the view of hindsight, which is always 20/20, they see how the issue of slavery is near-universally reviled in the future and that, where they had hoped to be vindicated for their actions by their descendants, almost the entire world viewed the Civil War and Southern Secession to be nothing more than a crime against humanity itself. With this new information, Congress is more inclined to agree to Lee's plan to pass a bill for gradual emancipation of its entire slave population. The bill itself was modeled after a proposed act of legislation in slave-holding Brazil, though the real bill was not proposed until years after the setting of the novel, and Turtledove has conceded that it is, indeed, anachronistic.

Lee orders the Confederate army against the AWB. However, the AWB have managed to secure control over an area around Rivington, due largely to elements of their advanced technology which they have not shared with Lee's men (including "land torpedoes", mortars, walkie-talkies, flak jackets, and so-called "endless repeaters", in reality belt-fed machine guns that prevented any form of massed advance on the AWB lines), and they manage to successfully repel all Confederate attempts to retake their territory. With the AWB resupplied from the future, the conflict appears to be a stalemate. With a newly reinstated Forrest in command, it is a brilliant strategy by Lt. Colonel Henry C. Pleasants, a former Union officer who remained in the South after he had been captured during the War, that finally allows the Confederates to breach the AWB perimeter. The Confederate forces manage to overcome the AWB's superior technology through sheer numbers and determination. The AWB combatants are eventually defeated, and those who are unable to escape in their time machine are captured. Rhoodie surrenders, but is killed by one of his slaves in retaliation for severe mistreatment. Most of the Rivington men kept their slaves under deplorable conditions and, despite years of tradition which demand the slave be put to death, even the Confederate soldiers believe Rhoodie deserved what he got, quickly ordering the slave to flee the area.

The surviving AWB members are held in a Confederate prison under constant guard. While all face a sentence of death, proceedings are on indefinite stay so long as those willing to cooperate assist in bridging the gaps in the information presented in the historical texts and technological items recovered following the AWB's defeat. Although some gaps would prove almost impossible to fill due to numerous generations of technological advancements — 1870s technology would be far too immature to attempt to repair a 21st century computer at the component level, for example — most of the AWB survivors agree to cooperate.

A minor effect - but very important to Lee himself - is the introduction of nitroglycerin from the future, helping to stave off Lee's heart disease and possibly grant him a longer life than he had in the original history.

The book does not continue beyond 1868. The ending gives the impression that later relations between the Confederacy and the US, as well as between Whites and Blacks in the Confederacy itself, would be considerably better than in Turtledove's unrelated Southern Victory timeline, which proceeds from a different Point of Departure and does not involve a time-travelling incursion from the future.

Lee is one of two POV characters in the novel, the other being Nathaniel "Nate" Caudell, a North Carolinian schoolmaster who served in Lee's army during the war. Although Caudell was historical, very little is known about him, giving Turtledove a nearly blank canvas to work from in developing this character.


  • The book won the John Esten Cooke Award for Southern Fiction in 1993.
  • This is the only long time-travel novel written solely by Turtledove. All his other time-travel works are short stories, plus one novel Household Gods jointly written with Judith Tarr. He has also written the Crosstime Traffic Series, which involves travel between different dimensions but does not involve going back and forth in chronology.
  • Robert E. Lee's views on slavery are widely debated by historians. Turtledove made a judgment call in depicting Lee as enlightened as the novel makes him out to be.

Related works by other writers[]

  • The plot element of Robert E. Lee becoming president of a victorious CSA was used in two iconic alternate histories: Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee (1953) and MacKinlay Kantor's If the South Had Won the Civil War (1960). Turtledove has edited re-releases of both works and acknowledges that he cribs an idea from them every now and then.

See also[]