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Authors: Harry Turtledove

American Front

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Harry Turtledove


For Steve and Peter,
who made it better.



The leaves on the trees were beginning to go from green to red, as if swiped by a painter’s brush. A lot of the grass near the banks of the Susquehanna, down by New Cumberland, had been painted red, too, red with blood.

A courier came galloping back to Robert E. Lee’s headquarters, his face smudged with black-powder smoke but glowing with excitement beneath the minstrel-show markings. “We have ’em, sir!” he cried to Lee as he reined in his blowing horse. “We have ’em! General Jackson says for me to tell you D. H. Hill’s division is around McClellan’s left and rolling ’em up. ‘God has delivered them into our hands,’ he says.”

“That is very fine,” Lee murmured. He peered through the thick smoke, but piercing it was impossible, even with the polished brass spyglass that lay on the folding table in front of him. He had to rely on reports from couriers like this eager young man, but all the reports, from just after the rising of the sun when the battle was joined till now with it sinking in blood—
more blood
, he thought—behind him, had been what he’d prayed to hear.

Colonel Robert Chilton, his assistant adjutant general, was no more able than the courier to contain his excitement. “Very fine, sir?” he burst out. “It’s better than that. With Longstreet holding the Yankees in the center, McLaws outflanking them on the left, and now Stonewall on the right, they’re in a sack Napoleon couldn’t have got out of. And if there’s one soldier in the world who’s no Napoleon, it’s the ‘Young Napoleon’ the Federals have.”

“General McClellan, whatever his virtues, is not a hasty man,” Lee observed, smiling at Chilton’s derisive use of the grandiloquent nickname the Northern papers had given the commander of the Army of the Potomac. “Those people”—his own habitual name for the foe—“were also perhaps ill-advised to accept battle in front of a river with only one bridge offering a line of retreat should their plans miscarry.”

“I should say they’ve miscarried,” the courier said. “Some of General Jackson’s artillery is far enough forward, it’s shelling that bridge right now.”

“We do have them, sir,” Colonel Chilton said. He stiffened to attention and saluted General Lee.

Lee glanced back over his shoulder. “Perhaps an hour’s worth of light remaining,” he said, then turned to the courier once more. “Tell General Jackson he is to exploit his advantage with all means at his disposal, preventing, as best he can, the enemy’s retreat to the eastern bank of the Susquehanna.” Better than any other man alive, Jackson knew how to turn a vague order like that into the specific steps needed to destroy the foe before him.

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant said, and repeated the order back to make sure he had it straight. Wheeling his bay gelding, he galloped off towards General Jackson’s position.

“The Army of the Potomac cannot hope to resist us, not after this,” Colonel Chilton said. “Philadelphia lies open to our men, and Baltimore, and Washington itself.”

“I’d not relish attacking the works those people have placed around Washington City,” Lee replied, “but you are of course correct, Colonel: that possibility is available to us. Another consideration we cannot dismiss is the probable effect of our victory here upon England and France, both of whom have, President Davis tells me, been debating whether they should extend recognition to our new nation.”

“They’ll have the devil’s own time not doing it now,” Chilton declared. “Either we are our own nation or we belong to the United States: those are the only two choices.” He laughed and pointed toward the smoke-befogged battlefield, “Abe Lincoln can’t say we’re under his tyrant’s thumb, not after this.”

“Diplomacy is too arcane a subject for a poor simple soldier to vex his head over its niceties and peculiarities,” Lee said, “but on this occasion, Colonel Chilton, I find it impossible to disagree with you.”


Both horses that brought Lord Lyons’ carriage to the White House were black. So was the carriage itself, and the cloth canopy stretched over it to protect the British minister from the rain.
All very fitting
, Lord Lyons thought,
for what is in effect a funeral

“Whoa!” the driver said quietly, and pulled back on the reins. The horses, well-trained animals both, halted in a couple of short, neat strides just in front of the entrance of the American presidential mansion. The driver handed Lord Lyons an umbrella to protect himself against the rain for the few steps he’d need to get under cover.

“Thank you, Miller,” Lord Lyons said, unfurling the umbrella. “I expect they will make you and the animals comfortable, and then bring you back out here to drive me off to the ministry upon the conclusion of my appointment with President Lincoln.”

“Yes, sir,” the driver said.

Lord Lyons got down from the carriage. His feet splashed in the water on the walkway as he hurried toward the White House entrance. A few raindrops hit him in the face in spite of the umbrella. Miller chirruped to the horses and drove off toward the stable.

In the front hall, a colored servant took Lord Lyons’ hat and overcoat and umbrella and hung them up. John Nicolay stood waiting patiently while the servant tended to the British minister. Then Lincoln’s personal secretary—Lincoln’s
de facto
chief of staff—said, “The president is waiting for you, sir.”

“Thank you, Mr. Nicolay.” Lord Lyons hesitated, but then, as Nicolay turned away to lead him to Lincoln’s office, decided to go on: “I would like the president to understand that what I do today, I do as the servant and representative of Her Majesty’s government, and that in my own person I deeply regret the necessity for this meeting.”

“I’ll tell him that, Your Excellency.” Nicolay sounded bitter. He was a young man—he could hardly have had more than thirty years—and had not yet learned altogether to subsume his own feelings in the needs of diplomacy. “When you get right down to it, though, what difference does that make?”

When you got right down to it (
American idiom
, Lord Lyons thought), it made very little difference. He was silent as he followed Nicolay upstairs. But for the personal secretary and the one servant, he had seen no one in the White House. It was as if the rest of the staff at the presidential mansion feared he bore some deadly, contagious disease. And so, in a way, he did.

John Nicolay seated him in an antechamber outside Lincoln’s office. “Let me announce you, Your Excellency. I’ll be back directly.” He ducked into the office, closing the door after himself; Lord Lyons hoped he was delivering the personal message with which he had been entrusted. He emerged almost as quickly as he had promised. “President Lincoln will see you now, sir.”

“Thank you, Mr. Nicolay,” Lord Lyons repeated, striding past the secretary into the office of the president of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln got up from behind his desk and extended his hand. “Good day to you, sir,” he said in his rustic accent. Outwardly, he was as calm as if he reckoned the occasion no more than an ordinary social call.

“Good day, Mr. President,” Lord Lyons replied, clasping Lincoln’s big hand in his. The American chief executive was so tall and lean and angular that, merely by existing, he reminded Lord Lyons of how short, pudgy, and round-faced he was.

“Sit yourself down, Your Excellency.” Lincoln pointed to a chair upholstered in blue plush. “I know what you’re here for. Let’s get on with it, shall we? It’s like going to the dentist—waiting won’t make it any better.”

“Er—no,” Lord Lyons said. Lincoln had a gift for unexpected, apt, and vivid similes; one of the British minister’s molars gave him a twinge at the mere idea of visiting the dentist. “As Mr. Nicolay may have told you—”

“Yes, yes,” Lincoln interrupted. “He did tell me. It’s not that I’m not grateful, either, but how you feel about it hasn’t got anything to do with the price of whiskey.” He’d aged ten years in the little more than a year and a half since he’d taken office; harsh lines scored his face into a mask of grief that begged to be carved into eternal marble. “Just say what you’ve come to say.”

“Very well, Mr. President.” Lord Lyons took a deep breath. He really didn’t want to go on; he loathed slavery and everything it stood for. But his instructions from London were explicit, and admitted of no compromise. “I am directed by Lord Palmerston, prime minister for Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, who is, I am to inform you, operating with the full approbation and concord of the government of His Majesty Napoleon III, Emperor of France, to propose mediation between the governments of the United States and Confederate States, with a view to resolving the differences between those two governments. Earl Russell, our foreign secretary, generously offers himself as mediator between the two sides.”

There. It was said. On the surface, it sounded conciliatory enough. Below that surface—Lincoln was astute enough to see what lay below. “I do thank Lord Palmerston for his good offices,” he said, “but, as we deny there is any such thing as the government of the Confederate States, Earl Russell can’t very well mediate between them and us.”

Lord Lyons sighed. “You say this, Mr. President, with the Army of Northern Virginia encamped in Philadelphia?”

“I would say it, sir, if that Army were encamped on the front lawn of the White House,” Lincoln replied.

“Mr. President, let me outline the steps Her Majesty’s government and the government of France are prepared to take if you decline mediation,” Lord Lyons said, again unwillingly—but Lincoln had to know what he was getting into. “First, the governments of Great Britain and France will immediately extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederate States of America.”

“You’ll do that anyhow.” Like John Nicolay, Lincoln was bitter—and with reason.

“We shall do more than that, at need,” the British minister said. “We are prepared to use our naval forces to break the blockade you have imposed against the Confederate States and permit unimpeded commerce to resume between those states and the nations of the world.”

“That would mean war between England and France on the one hand and the United States on the other,” Lincoln warned.

“Indeed it would, Mr. President—and, as the United States have shown themselves unequal to the task of restoring the Confederate States to their allegiance, I must say I find myself surprised to find you willing to engage in simultaneous conflict with those Confederate States and with the two greatest powers in the world today. I admire your spirit, I admire your courage, very much—but can you not see there are times when, for the good of the nation, spirit and courage must yield to common sense?”

“Let’s dicker, Lord Lyons,” Lincoln said; the British minister needed a moment to understand he meant
. Lincoln gave him that moment, reaching into a desk drawer and drawing out a folded sheet of paper that he set on top of the desk. “I have here, sir, a proclamation declaring all Negroes held in bondage in those areas now in rebellion against the lawful government of the United States to be freed as of next January first. I had been saving this proclamation against a Union victory, but, circumstances being as they are—”

Lord Lyons spread his hands with genuine regret. “Had you won such a victory, Mr. President, I should not be visiting you today with the melancholy message I bear from my government. You know, sir, that I personally despise the institution of chattel slavery and everything associated with it.” He waited for Lincoln to nod before continuing, “That said, however, I must tell you that an emancipation proclamation issued after the series of defeats Federal forces have suffered would be perceived as a
cri de coeur
, a call for servile insurrection to aid your flagging cause, and as such would not be favorably received in either London or Paris, to say nothing of its probable effect in Richmond. I am truly sorry, Mr. President, but this is not the way out of your dilemma.”

Lincoln unfolded the paper on which he’d written the decree abolishing slavery in the seceding states, put on a pair of spectacles to read it, sighed, folded it again, and returned it to its drawer without offering to show it to Lord Lyons. “If that doesn’t help us, sir, I don’t know what will,” he said. His long, narrow face twisted, as if he were in physical pain. “Of course, what you’re telling me is that nothing helps us, nothing at all.”

“Accept the good offices of Her Majesty’s government in mediating between your government and that of the Confederate States,” the British minister urged him. “Truly, I believe that to be your best course, perhaps your only course. As Gladstone said last month, the Confederate States have made an army, a navy, and now a nation for themselves.”

With slow, deliberate motions, Lincoln took off his spectacles and put them back in their leather case. His deep-set eyes filled with a bitterness beside which that of John Nicolay seemed merely the petulance of a small boy deprived of a cherished sweet. “Take what England deigns to give us at the conference table, or else end up with less. That’s what you mean, in plain talk.”

“That is what the situation dictates,” Lord Lyons said uncomfortably.

“Yes, the situation dictates,” Lincoln said, “and England and France dictate, too.” He sighed again. “Very well, sir. Go ahead and inform your prime minister that we accept mediation, having no better choice.”

“Truly you will go down in history as a great statesman because of this, Mr. President,” Lord Lyons replied, almost limp with relief that Lincoln had chosen to see reason—with Americans, you never could tell ahead of time. “And in time, the United States and the Confederate States, still having between them a common language and much common history, shall take their full and rightful places in the world, a pair of sturdy brothers.”

Lincoln shook his head. “Your Excellency, with all due respect to you, I have to doubt that. The citizens of the United States
the Federal Union preserved. No matter what the Rebels did to us, we would fight on against them—if England and France weren’t sticking their oar in.”

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