I’ve been discovering lately that telling stories shorter than novel length preserves what I enjoy about my favorite authors while often keeping them from indulging themselves in some of the habits I like less. To be more specific, when I read Harry Turtledove’s alternate history story, Lee at the Alamo, I found it engaging without using Turtledove’s common device of rotating point of view characters and time jumps of indeterminate length between chapters. The story did have a stilted and overly formal feel to it, but that did conform to my pre-conceptions about how things were done in the 19th century.
If you’re not familiar with the conceit, alternate history is a genre with its roots in real history. The author looks at a historical occurrence and speculates on what might have happened if it had occurred differently. It’s a genre I find speaks to my own need to consider all sides of a decision (which generally leads to indecision). I also feel like it teaches a little history, encourages critical thinking regarding consequences to your actions, and points out how so many seemingly disparate things are linked.
The historical event Turtledove chooses to ‘what if’ in this story dates back to the beginning of the civil war. Texas has just seceded from the union due to Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and is in the process of taking over the U.S. Army’s supply depot at the Alamo and sending all U.S. Army troops, including Lt. Colonel Robert E. Lee, back to Washington. In our history Lee’s commanding officer, General Twiggs, capitulated to the Texans right away and was appointed a general in the Confederate Army.
In Turtledove’s version Twigg was delayed by illness and unable to take command in Texas leaving Lee in command. Lee decides to resist the Texans demands and makes a stand in the Alamo with all his troops who are loyal to the U.S. The Texans lay siege to the Alamo and antics ensue.
I enjoyed reading the story, but not so much for the work itself. The questions raised by the ending were the most interesting part of the work. In our history Lee did not want to join the confederates, but decided to do so because his Army superiors wouldn’t let him remain neutral. (Spoilers ahead, skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to read them.) In the story Lee is eventually forced to surrender to the Texans, but his resistance provides the first Union victory in the Civil War and makes Lee a hero in the north. In light of his hero status, President Lincoln allows Lee to sit out the war without fighting on either side.
Lee’s leadership is responsible for many of the Confederate State’s biggest victories so removing him from the war could have a lot of far reaching implications. The war might be much shorter resulting in less loss of life and destruction throughout the south, which could in turn mean less resentment from southerners and a much shortened reconstruction period. I’m no historian, but I think a case could be made that the civil rights era might have been much less tumultuous if southerners hadn’t still been nursing so much resentment toward northerners and blacks for the perceived slights of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
So there you have it. While it was a little rough around the edges, it was an interesting story and I did learn a few new things about Lee as a historical figure, and about the Alamo. I found Lee at the Alamo to be an interesting story for the questions it raises and I’d love to hear what someone else thinks. You can get it for your e-reader ($0.99 in the Kindle store) or you can read it for free on the publisher’s web site.