Monday, October 20, 2003

I stopped at the local Barnes & Nobles on Saturday, nominally on the way to visiting a friend in State College. I bought Tsouras' Gettysburg: an Alternate History based on a reference someone had made on one of the Civil War groups. I'm afraid to say that I never actually made it to that friend's apartment. Instead, I spent the rest of the day walking around the grounds of the Nittany Mall and the rest of the Benner/Rt. 26 strip, reading the book straight through. The fit occasionally takes me in this fashion; it really freaks some people out to see someone walking around in broad daylight reading a book. I don't know what they're getting excited about: this is what God invented peripheral vision for! Well, that or hiding from large predators - aggressive drivers in SUVs, for instance.

Anyways, Tsouras. He was writing for a specialist press that apparently does hard-facts counterfactual fiction - there isn't supposed to be anything utterly impossible in the course of these books. Confederate AK-47s, for instance. For those of you who are big on carnography - history books on war - it's a pretty neat read. It's written as if it was the five-billionth history of the Gettysburg campaign; it's full of footnotes, two-thirds of which seem to be valid citations of various sources and secondary-source analysis like Coddington's book and Douglas Southall Freeman's various multivolume apologetics. Tsouras also quotes a lot of utterly fictional sources and books of analysis, which he usually marks out with asterisks to separate them from the valid ones. I think I caught him dropping asterisks a few times, but I'll give it a pass.

I'm a sucker for counterfactual history; I think most history majors are in one fashion or another, though some mask it with violent denunciations and rants against the very notion. American Civil War counterfactuals are by far and away the most popular examples of this genre, composing a subgenre all their own, in a certain sense. Partially, this is because American Civil War history is a major publishing category in and of itself - entire counties of clear-cut timber have given their all in the service of Civil War publishing. I'll even still buy Harry Turtledove novels on the residual strength of my fascination with counterfactual history; it overwhelms my disdain for his feeble and declining capacity for minor literary trifles such as character, pacing, flow, prose, or style.

This is the second alternate history I've read this season on Gettysburg alone. A local named Douglas Lee Gibboney wrote an interesting alternate history of the Gettysburg campaign in the war-memoir style entitled Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg. Gettysburg: an Alternate History, Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg and a third book entitled Lee at Chattanooga all share a quirk that is becoming more and more common in alternate-history - a might-have-been which results in either the same result in the end, or else an unexpected intensification of the historical result.

Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg gives those that bewailed Jackson's death after Chancellorsville, who thought that his presence would have won the battle at Gettysburg, exactly what they wished for. Jackson is present at the battle, which in this alternate series of events, becomes a disastrous but limited defeat, as Jackson's troops push a portion of the unprepared Army of the Potomac off of the heights to the southeast of the town. Then follows a week of hard campaigning as Meade falls back to his prepared Pipe Creek lines, re-enacting Sickles' and Longstreet's battles and "Allegheny" Johnson's disastrous frontal assault in northern Maryland. Finally, Jackson leads a wild ride around the deep Union left, wins one small battle and loses a larger one, echoing his punch-drunk ineptitude during the Seven Days. In the end, the Army of Northern Virginia is driven back in disorder on the Williamsport crossings, with the same exact result. Gibboney's most excellent conceit is the way he preserves a certain conservation of historical event, by fatally wounding A.P. Hill in the same friendly-fire incident at Chancellorsville that would have eventually killed Jackson in this world. At the end of the war, Jackson is killed in the exact same fashion as Hill was - shot down by Union skirmishers within the lines of a collapsing Petersburg defense in the last two weeks of the war.

Lee at Chattanooga, by one Dennis P. McIntire is a minor work that supposes that somebody could have talked Lee into leaving his Virginia theatre to relieve the hopeless Bragg just before the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. McIntire doesn't do nearly as good a job as Gibboney or Tsouras - Lee does everything right, and yet inexplicable disaster unhinges everything at the end, leading to a devastating defeat. McIntire no doubt intends to demonstrate the same bewilderment as the Confederates of the Army of Tennessee displayed over the historical result - a wild, unplanned assault up the sheer mountain-face of Missionary Ridge - but instead it simply reads like deus ex machina.

Gettysburg, an Alternate History differs from the above two works in that the end result is quite different from the historical result; it is, however, in the opposite direction from the usual Confederate-victory supposings of a different Gettysburg. Tsouras allows the vagaries of fate to bring Stuart orders from Lee to meet him at Cashtown earlier than the historical event; thus, Stuart appears on July 1st instead of late on the 2nd. This gives Lee back his eyes, which leaves him ambitious enough to allow Longstreet his wide flanking move behind the Round Tops. It also hurries Ewell & Early to make disastrous night attacks that end up replicating the historical result on that field in a fashion I've only seen in indifferently-coded historical wargames. Longstreet's flanking move causes a very silly series of flankings and outflankings that requires Lee to personally intervene to preserve Hill's flank at one point (thus setting up his full-scale heart attack later in the book), and a lot of wild, bloody battles. The eventual, mortifying failure of the flanking move causes Longstreet to swing fully behind the Pickett assault, and inspires him to make it a full six-division assault rather than the three-division attack of history. This results in a much closer battle on the 3rd, with much higher Confederate casualties, the wounding of Meade instead of Hancock, and a Waterlooesque counterattack that captures a large fragment of the attacking column, their cannon, and Longstreet, effectively destroying the Army of Northern Virginia. The war ends a year later, and Hancock eventually becomes President in place of Grant.

As I said, the events start out in a historically reasonable fashion, but things become more and more unlikely as the book wears on. Additionally, Tsouras cheats. Good counterfactual history should be based on single-fault causation - one change from which all additional differences descend in proper butterfly-wing fashion. For want of a nail, and all that. Instead, Tsouras enhances his initial Stuart-arrives-early with the arbitrary and pointless addition of two brigades to Pickett's division, which had been detached for other theatres. This isn't really necessary for the flow of events which Tsouras is devising - it just gives Longstreet more forces to throw into the July 3rd assault. Additional events occur without any apparent causation - such as Sedgwick talking Buford into returning to the field with his division on the 2nd. In the end, Tsouras' book is lacking in that very virtue for which his publisher is most proud of - rigour.

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