Sunday, 22 December 2013


Following on from the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I chased down this alternate history novel I'd been meaning to read for a while. There's a long and distinguished tradition of alternate Civil War books; when I was a kid I read MacKinlay Kantor's If The South Had Won The Civil War—Grant dies in a horse fall just after Vicksburg, the South wins at Gettysburg, and the two separate nations become three when Texas seceeds from the Confederacy. Lee, as President of the Confederacy, frees the slaves, and eventually the US is reunited. I read Ward Moore's time-travel novel, Bring The Jubilee, in which the Union, again having lost at Gettysburg, is weakened and much industrial progress never happens (except, of course, for time travel). Harry Turtledove has approached the question from both angles; I've read his time-travel version, Guns Of The South, in which South Africans travel back in time to supply the Confederacy with automatic weapons to ensure a slave nation persists.

Robert Conroy's 1862 is a straight-forward alternate history, in which the blowback from the Union's seizing of the British mail packet Trent, carrying two Confederate ambassadors, grows into a declaration of war against the US, helped by an aggressive Lord Palmerston and a nebulous 'promise' from Jefferson Davis that the South would abandon slavery.

Conroy's take on the ensuing conflict is ingenious, helped by Lincoln and Winfield Scott recognising early the unique abilities of Ulysses Grant. How realistic this is, given the political troubles Lincoln faced, as set out in T. Harry Williams' Lincoln And His Generals. Grant's ambiguous standing within the regular army, is another interesting question, but there is no doubt it makes a huge difference. Grant leads a force against Canada, while the Union forces are able to hold back Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and the judicious use of snipers has disastrous results for the Confederacy. Thus, the British entry, rather than speed up a Confederate victory, has unexpected results.

Some of this depends on a relative and surprising degree of inaction from Davis and Lee, in effect the opposite of his take on Lincoln. One might wonder whether the Confederate plan would have been so passive when joined by their British allies. But Conroy has thought out his alternate scenario well, and it is for the most part convincing. Even his story framework—because you need a relatively neutral (and usually fictional) character through whom the story can be told—works well: Col. Nathan Hunter winds up in the exact centre of the Union decisions, and at the fronts when it matters, without the reader feeling he's been manipulated excessively.

Where the novel is let down is in the writing, which is rarely more than utilitarian, and sometimes lapses into a general sort of anachronism. It's not so much the modernity of Nathan's love-interest, which doesn't actually seem that much out of place—though the introduction of a lascivious French ambassador's wife helps lubricate the narrative—but the tone of conversation, rather less formal than we might have thought. But that is secondary, because Conroy's concern is with background and facts, and he takes great pains with the details. Once the book gets going, it proceeds at great pace, and is an extertaining diversion, and one of the best of the war's alternate histories.

1862 by Robert Conroy
Ballantine, 2006, $7.99 ISBN 0345482379

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