The variety of fiction often called “alternate history” has a long tradition, and there are dozens of titles that fit the category. Alternate history fiction is fiction that explores the question “What if?” What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? What if Napoleon conquered Russia? What if JFK hadn’t been assassinated? The possibilities are endless, and the skilled alternate history novelist can propel us into fascinating realms of speculation that leave us reflecting on how things could have all turned out so differently. And at some level, the genre likely appeals to many of us because it corresponds to narratives we have spun within our own imaginations at one point or another. We wonder how our own lives might be radically different if we hadn’t met some person, gone down a different fork in the road, or pursued a different course of action in a challenging situation.
Alternate history fiction has become more widespread in the past thirty years. Even a mainstream literary novelist like Philip Roth followed an alternative history course in his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, in which the isolationist Charles Lindbergh is elected President in 1940. Revised treatments of World War II have long been popular. In 1962, one of the most famous and well-respected alternate history novels of World War II appeared—Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, a book dealing with the consequences of an Axis victory in World War II. Dick is one of the twentieth century’s great American science fiction writers.
The long story that is the subject of this post appeared two years before Dick’s novel. In 1960, in the pages of Look Magazine, a popular 20th century American magazine similar to Life, the noted historical novelist MacKinlay Kantor published “If The South Had Won The Civil War.” The story, published shortly before the beginning of America’s Civil War Centennial observations, brought a flood of mail to the magazine’s offices and was quickly republished in book form. Kantor had won the Pulitzer Prize just five years earlier for his famous Civil War novel Andersonville about the notorious Confederate prison camp in Georgia.
Kantor was a Midwesterner. He was born in Webster, Iowa on February 4, 1904. His father was of Swedish-Jewish background and his mother had a pattern of ancestry common to middle America—Scottish, Irish, German, and French. His parents divorced early in his life, his father having abandoned the family, and MacKinlay and his brother were raised as Presbyterians. Kantor became a newspaperman at age 17, working first in Webster for the Webster City Daily News and later for the Cedar Rapids Republican and the Des Moines Tribune. He worked as a journalist for a number of years while struggling to make it as a novelist and short story writer. He wrote a fair amount of crime fiction during the 1930s and early 40s. One of his crime stories, “Gun Crazy,” was later made into a movie that is considered a film noir classic.
Kantor was a successful novelist. His books sold well, and a number were adapted for the screen. His narrative poem Glory For Me, about three American veterans and their struggles to adjust to postwar life, was made into the Academy Award winning film The Best Years of Our Lives. Kantor was a war correspondent during World War II, and accompanied U.S. air crews on a number of bombing missions.
Kantor had a long career. His first novel, Diversey, appeared in 1928, and his last, Valley Forge, in 1975. Some of his best known novels—Long Remember (1936), Arouse and Beware (1936), and Andersonville (1955)–concern the American Civil War. A number of his books have Midwestern settings, including Chicago (Diversey, 1928), Iowa (Spirit Lake, 1961, and Midnight Lace, 1948), and Missouri (The Voice of Bugle Ann in 1935 and The Daughter of Bugle Ann in 1953; The Romance of Rosy Ridge, 1937).
Kantor also wrote nonfiction about the Midwest. These works include a memoir of childhood (But Look, The Morn, 1947), a series of reflections on Missouri (Missouri Bittersweet, 1969), and a work of photo-text with his son Tim entitled Hamilton County. This last volume is an examination of life in ten different counties across America called Hamilton, including Kantor’s native county in Iowa.
The version I have of Kantor’s If The South Had Won The Civil War is the paperback reissue by Forge Books in 2001 with the original illustrations by Dan Nance and Kantor’s afterword that appeared when he republished the story in his collection Story Teller in 1967. This recent edition includes an introduction by Harry Turtledove, one of the most successful alternate history novelists working today. The theme of an altered course of history in the American Civil War has been extensively explored by Turtledove in a series of books.
Kantor writes his history as if the altered course of events has already occurred. There are two key events that shape this altered destiny. One is the death of General Ulysses Grant in May of 1863. Kantor knew from Grant’s Memoirs that the general was injured in a fall from a horse in Mississippi at that time. In reality Grant was bedridden for a while, but in this story Grant’s head strikes a rock on the earth when the horse falls and he dies shortly after. Grant’s death is the first of a series of disasters, and the coup de grace to the Union cause is Lee’s victory at Gettysburg, opening the road to Washington. Vicksburg is also a victory for the South. It’s only a matter of time before the rebels are in Washington and Lincoln is in Confederate custody.
Plot has a high level of importance in alternate history. One of the thrills of the genre is the description of events that never occurred but still evoke dread or wonder when we consider what might have been. Kantor writes of Confederate soldiers walking through the empty halls of the White House and Congress. Mobs of southern sympathizers cause chaos in the streets of Washington until the arrival of Lee and more troops restores order. Confederate partisan cavalry leader John Mosby arrives in Washington first and escorts Lincoln and his family safely to Richmond, Virginia.
Lincoln is imprisoned in Virginia and resigns his post. Northern and southern officials hammer out a peace settlement. The contentious border states of Maryland and Kentucky become part of the Confederacy, and given Washington’s placement so close to Confederate territory, the remaining U.S. states decide on Columbus, Ohio as the new national capital (!!) while Cleveland becomes Ohio’s new state capitol. The southern states retain all of the original Confederacy. Indian Territory is a disputed possession overseen by commissioners from north and south. West Virginia and Missouri are part of the Union, and pro-southern loyalists in northern Missouri decamp for states such as Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The U.S. holds all of its states that were allied within the Union (minus Kentucky and Maryland) along with remaining western territories. One country in Maryland remains within the Union and one county in Delaware becomes part of the Confederacy.
The physical records, artifacts, and artwork belonging to the federal government are shipped to the temporary capital of Philadelphia to await future transport to Ohio. On the fourth of July, 1864, the Confederates hold a ball in their new capital of Washington, District of Dixie. Kantor created a scene that accentuates the achievement and triumph of the Confederacy and the bitter loss and humiliation felt by the north:
“Monday night, July 4th, 1864, the Confederacy celebrated President Davis’s arrival at the White House in Washington with a fabulous reception and ball. This event assumed a social and political importance unrivaled in southern history. Fifty years afterward, if an elderly woman whispered, “I was at The Ball,” everyone understood the reference; and the proudest boast of any aging poverty-stricken one-time politician was assuredly the same.
A few Northern dignitaries were invited to attend. Almost to a man the civilians declined, with the exception of the peace commissioners of the previous winter, who felt that their presence might have a salubrious effect upon relations between the two countries. Some of the military did accept, but they paid their respects with restraint, and most of them retired from the scene at an early hour. Dancers whirled in waltzes in the East Room and the parlors; old portraits of Washington and new (posthumous) portraits of Stonewall Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston looked down solemnly at the revelers. As well as the original Fourth of July, the first anniversary of the victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg was being observed officially.”
However, the old bugaboos of slavery and state rights continue to haunt the Confederacy. A rebellion that resisted a centrally organized United States government struggles to form its own union to become an effective nation, and growing abolitionist sentiment throughout the Western Hemisphere pressures the south on the issue of slavery. General Robert E. Lee is elected President of the Confederate States of America in large part because of these issues. And yet a third nation will be born out of the continental United States in the years after the war.
I don’t want to say much more about this narrative as I hope people will read it for themselves and discover the unveiling of an alternative destiny born out of both Kantor’s imagination and his rich knowledge of the Civil War. One clever touch I also like in this story is Kantor’s salting his narrative with quotations from fictitious books. One such book is A Tale That Is Told by Confederate General (and Episcopal bishop) Leonidas Polk. In reality, Polk was killed in Cobb County, Georgia in 1864. Little brushstrokes like these add charm to his illusion of an altered America and are fun to read—Kantor captures the ornate diction of earlier days, and even has Jeb Stuart reciting a bit of poetry at the victory ball that could have come straight from a musty book of antebellum verse.
So here’s hoping you will read Kantor’s If The South Had Won The Civil War. It’s a quick, fun read, and it will have you thinking–and for many of us, grateful that things turned out the way they did, despite how awful that conflict was.
If The South Had Won The Civil War by MacKinlay Kantor. Introduction by Harry Turtledove, illustrations by Dan Nance, afterword by MacKinlay Kantor. Forge (Tom Doherty Associates, LLC), New York, 2001. Kantor’s afterword–“An Historical Inversion,” was first published in his volume Story Teller by Doubleday in 1967. The story was originally published in Look magazine in 1960.
The Oxford Companion To American Literature, Fifth Edition. Edited by James D. Hart. New York and Oxford, 1983.
Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Philip Leininger. Harper Collins, New York, 1991.