Harry Turtledove was born in Los Angeles, California, on 14 June 1949. He has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history, received in 1977. He is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and alternative history; perhaps his most-known works are the Worldwar and The Great War tetralogies. However, to many an alternative history fan, The Guns of the South, written in 1992, remains his best and most important work.
The Guns of the South begins at General Robert E. Lee’s tent in 1864. The American Civil War is raging on, and the Confederacy, whose side Lee is fighting on, is losing badly to the Union. However, all that is changed by a large man called Andries Rhoodie, who wears odd, mottled clothing, and bears an amazing new weapon he claims to be of his invention. He demonstrates his invention to Lee and his officers and amazes them with the weapon’s rate of fire. The weapon is called the "AK-47."
Of course, we the readers of the book know that the weapon isn’t of Rhoodie's invention, instead coming from the future – like Rhoodie and his compatriots. Rhoodie belongs to a small Afrikaner organization that wishes to preserve white rule in South Africa and plans to help the Confederacy become an independent nation that would help the cause of white supremacy all over the world. The Afrikaners settle in a small North Carolina town called Rivington, which they use as a shipment point for weapons. (For the duration of novel – and this essay – they are referred to as Rivington men.)
The novel is told from the perspectives of two main characters. One is General Lee, and the other is Nate Caudell, a first sergeant in the 47th regiment of North Carolina. Nate – and all his fellow soldiers – soon get introduced to their new weapons, which allow the Confederate armies to go on the attack instead of defending or retreating. Soon, thanks to their increased firepower, the Confederates attack and occupy Washington D.C., thus achieving a peace which guarantees an independent Confederacy.
Nate returns to his North Carolina hometown, which is located near Rivington, and resumes working as a teacher. Meanwhile, General Lee first serves as an observer for referendums held in Kentucky and Missouri to decide whether they’ll be part of Confederated States or United States, and then, at the Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s suggestion, begins his own run to succeed Davis, on a platform of gradual emancipation. He, however, has to run against another Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is supported by the Rivington men. Nevertheless, Lee ekes out a narrow victory.
Meanwhile, Nate Caudell receives a history book from the future through his ladyfriend, Mollie Bean. Mollie, who had also served in the 47th North Carolina disguised as a man, now lives in Rivington, working as a prostitute. She had stolen the book from one of her clients, a Rivington man. The book describes history as we know it, where the Rivington men didn’t arrive and the Confederacy didn’t win the Civil War. Nate sends Mollie (again disguised as a man) to deliver the book to President-elect Lee, and Lee then confronts Andries Rhoodie with the book’s information. Rhoodie threatens revenge on Lee, and makes good on his threat, as the Rivington men attempt to assassinate Lee during his inauguration to the Presidency.
The Confederacy begins a process of stamping the Afrikaner organization out, and after some hard fighting in and around Rivington, the Rivington men are killed or captured. The book ends with Nate Caudell, who participated in the fighting in Rivington, marrying Mollie Bean, while President Lee, using history books from the future which had been seized from the Rivington men, gets a Congressional resolution passed which gradually abolishes slavery in the Confederacy.
Many of the words used in the book clearly show the novel’s language to be SAE, not SBE. Following are some examples of the book’s words where the spelling differs from SBE:
And some examples where the vocabulary differs from SBE:
- p. 3: color (as opposed to "colour" of SBE)
- p. 18: honor (honour)
- p. 23: maneuvered (manoeuvred)
- p. 25: center (centre)
- p. 146: neighbors (neighbours)
- p. 176: defenses (defences)
- p. 201: realized (realised)
- p. 2: corn (as opposed to "maize" of SBE)
- p. 66: nightgown (nightdress)
- p. 215: sidewalks (pavements)
- p. 242: storekeeper (shopkeeper)
The Guns of the South provides an interesting picture of American English as spoken in the area of the Confederacy – in other words, the southern parts of the current United States – during and after the Civil War. Much of the dialogue of common soldiers is spelled differently from standard written English to indicate their differing pronunciation. (General Lee and other Confederate higher-ups speak in a more refined manner, as does Nate Caudell, who is, after all, a teacher.)
Take, for instance, a passage where the soldiers of 47th North Carolina discuss a surprisingly spirited attack by black Union soldiers:In this passage are many typically Southern terms. Dempsey Eure casually uses the word "nigger" to refer to black men. From his mid-19th-century perspective, he doesn’t necessarily mean it as an intended derogative, the way it would be considered now in the 21st century. While his thoughts about black Union soldiers attacking him most likely are none too positive, the word ‘nigger’ is used by many characters throughout the books, including Nate Caudell, who has a somewhat more positive image of the black race than many of his compatriots.
Dempsey Eure said, "Heard tell the Yankees’d given ‘em guns. But if you give a man a gun, that don’t mean he can fight with it. Never reckoned in all my born days that if you give a nigger a gun, he’d fight the way them fellers did.
"They’s too stupid to know they’s gettin’ whipped," said a private named William Winstead. (153)
Similarly, there are typically Southern choices in grammar and spelling. Turtledove illustrates the typical "Southern drawl" way of speaking by replacing the last "g" in private Winstead’s "getting" with an apostrophe. Private Winstead’s line also has the replacement of the word "are" with the word "is", as "they’re" becomes "they’s." And instead of saying "defeated" or possibly "beaten", private Winstead uses the word "whipped." There are a few Southernisms in Dempsey Eure’s lines, too, such as "reckon."
There are many Southernisms throughout the pages: 1
- "might could" (p. 34)
- "rasslin’" (p. 37)
- "whup" (p. 45)
- "hell-beatin’-tanbark" (p. 48)
- "damnyankees" (p. 91)
- "y’all" (p. 137)
- "awfully", instead of "very" (p. 211)
- "them as has, gits" (p. 237)
- "cussin’" (p. 435)
In a way, the whole book is one big cultural reference. The Civil War is, after all, a very important part of American history; thus many of its events and persons figure prominently in the American consciousness. The book references some of the famous battles – for instance, on page 24 Nate Caudell is writing a letter for a private to send back home, and the private tells Nate to write that his Gettysburg wound doesn’t hurt any more.
Likewise, many of the generals and politicians of the Civil War make an appearance – after all, General Lee was one of the main characters. We see him meeting Abraham Lincoln on the steps of the White House, observing the referendum which will decide whether Kentucky will be part of the United or Confederated States with Union general Ulysses S. Grant, and arguing about slavery with Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. And when General Lee makes his argument against slavery in the Confederate Congress, he uses parts of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address – never held in Turtledove’s history, but which Lee found in the Rivington men’s history book.
- Most of the Southern terms come from the Glossary of Quaint Southernisms or were such that I had known them beforehand. However, some terms are referred to as "Southernisms" in the book.
- Beard, Robert. Glossary of Quaint Southernisms. YourDictionary.com. Last viewed 03 December 2003.
- Turtledove, Harry. The Guns of the South. New York: Ballantine, 1992.
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