Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stonewall Goes West: The Alternate History as Historical Fiction

Guest post by R.E. Thomas.

Stonewall Goes West (on sale for $2.50 from July 1 to July 4, to commemorate Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the 4th of July) is the story of the man who was arguably the Confederacy's greatest military hero, Thomas J. Jackson, surviving his wounding at the Battle of Chancellorsville and going on to lead the South's western armies in the later years of the war against one of the North's great generals, William T. Sherman. Odd as it may appear, the idea behind the book was born out of a moment of annoyance and dissatisfaction.

One day in 2005, I was marking time in a Civil War internet forum before a flight, and for the umpteenth time the idea of Jackson surviving his death at Chancellorsville, going to Gettsyburg, and winning the war there was under discussion. Several problems plague such a scenario, and I discuss some in the introduction of Stonewall Goes West, and others on my blog. But the foremost issue in my mind is how the idea has been so flogged into gelatin over the last century and a half that no approach to it can be both imaginative and realistic.

My solution was to sidestep Gettysburg altogether, and in doing so I stuck closely one of the key rules of alternate history: make your changes small ones. Jackson was severely wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville, lost his left arm, and died of infection. Yet most soldiers who endured such amputations during the Civil War survived, so in my story Jackson does too, spending the summer of 1863 recuperating in Virginia rather than at a little crossroads town in southeastern Pennsylvania. When Braxton Bragg, the commander of the South's main western army, resigns in late November 1863, Jackson has returned to duty and covered himself with fresh glory at the Battle of Second Kettle Run just the month before. Historically, Confederate Jefferson Davis was so displeased with his options for replacing Bragg that he wrestled with the decision for weeks. If Jackson, by that time a general of worldwide renown, were still alive, his choice would have been almost a no-brainer.

The What If As Historical Fiction

In writing Stonewall Goes West, I aspired to produce a work of alternate history as historical fiction, meaning I wanted to explore real historical issues in telling a fictitious story. In my mind, that contrasts with the alternate history as a work of science fiction or fantasy. With many stories, the alternate history side of things is creating a setting that is both familiar and exotic at the same time, and however detailed that setting might be, it is still just the setting. Nothing is wrong with that approach, but to a large extent the setting might as well be Romulus or Westeros, which also borrow heavily from familiar historical concepts to create a fictional setting.

The point of good historical fiction, on the other hand, is to bring the past alive, explore historical issues, and sometimes also to put the reader inside the personalities of very real people. This is what authors like Colleen McCullough, Bernard Cornwell, and Sharon Kay Penman do, and the "what if" story can do the same thing. Even when an alternate history isn't strictly rooted in the past, it can still explore serious historical issues, as Robert Harris did by setting his detective thriller Fatherland in the Nazi Germany of 1964. One doesn't get that historical value from, say, a drama set in a 1770s world where the Aztec Empire is stronger than ever and encroaching on the 13 Colonies.

Jackson Lives

Stonewall Goes West keeps with that historical fiction spirit by exploring the two aspects of the Civil War that fascinate me most. Virtually every Civil War buff is drawn to the military side of what was the largest war that was ever fought on American soil, and first and foremost the story is a fast-paced, battle-driven thriller. Along the way, I also wanted to explore military issues ranging from the common soldier's experiences to the practicalities of feeding, moving, and directing a large army in the field. I also felt showing all these things to the reader could only help but enhance the historical realism of the story.

Leaving battle, strategy, and technical issues aside, I am also drawn to the colorful array of personalities the war brought to the fore. As I thought through the idea of Stonewall Jackson at the head of the Army of Tennessee, I realized that my fictional mixture brought out possibilities so wonderful that I wanted to read about them, and that is how I came to write it in the first place. The Army of Tennessee was and remains infamous for the poisonous relationships between its generals, and putting Jackson into that situation let me create a new chemistry that solved some problems while creating others, mixing him with friends and enemies both old and new.

In particular, the story allowed me to create an entirely new dynamic to the Civil War in the West. The South's western armies were always the hard luck outfits of the war, burdened with squabbling, second-rate leadership who could sometimes win on the battlefield, but then were forced to retreat despite it. Putting Stonewall Jackson in charge and allowing him to develop a team of (mostly) reliable subordinates from among the western Confederacy's star players let me change all that. Finally, the Army of Tennessee received some of the first team talent it always so richly deserved.

The changes also created an intriguing parallel along the way. If Grant and Lee were the best generals of the North and South respectively, then Jackson and Sherman were the #2's. In my story while Grant and Lee slug it out in Virginia, Sherman and Jackson duel for the fate of the Confederate heartland. Even as Jackson must make Leonidas Polk, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Patrick Cleburne work for him, across the table is Sherman waiting to match wits with him. And for his part, Sherman has his own cast of helpers and miscreants to manage.

* * *

R.E. Thomas is the Managing Editor of The Whiskey Reviewer, a freelance boxing and travel writer, and holds degrees in history and international relations. He has previously published a book about Port wine, and Stonewall Goes West is his first novel. The book is the first installment in a trilogy, with the sequel Mother Earth, Bloody Ground due out in the late spring/early summer of 2014. You can find Thomas on his whiskey website, his Facebook page, and his blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment