The Actual Civil War Was Also Preceded by Fiction That Imagined, “What if America Had a Civil War?”

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The year is 1849. Martin Van Buren has just been sworn in for his fourth term as president. Every state from the Carolinas on south secedes from the Union. The U.S. Army occupies Richmond to keep Virginia from joining them. Separatists take to the western mountains and organize a guerrilla campaign. In Washington, Van Buren assumes dictatorial powers, hangs traitors on a whim. The sons of the Old Dominion have to choose between the Union they have been raised to admire and the state they deeply adore.

An intriguing alternate history? Not quite. The novel in which this story appears flashed forward in time, not back. Well, actually, it did both: Published in 1836 but with a date on the title page of 1856, as if remembering a war that had already occurred, The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future didn’t so much relate a different version of the Civil War as prophesy its coming, missing the eventual start date by only a dozen years.

That makes it the little-known granddaddy of a whole subgenre of American literature (and now film): blood-drenched imaginings of what it would be like to witness the crackup of the country. Americans have always been at once horrified and titillated by the prospect of these states becoming disunited. If the U.S. is an “imagined community,” as the anthropologist Benedict Anderson described the modern nation-state, one of the things its citizens most love to imagine is its violent undoing.

Lately, even more so than usual, a profound sense of decline and disintegration has come to define the national mood. How obvious, then, even inevitable, to pair this primordial form of American catastrophism with the evidently deathless genre of big-budget disaster movies. Americans fighting Americans, the country falling apart, the breakdown of civic order—what could be more popcorn-worthy than that?

As a genre, disunion fantasy fiction has often showcased bad politics and even worse art. The hypothetical scenarios of such works tend to be hilariously implausible, the authors’ intentions murky at best—or, sometimes, clearly mercenary. Even in this context, however, Alex Garland’s much-ballyhooed Civil War stands out for its eagerness to exploit popular fears of mass political violence without offering any meaningful reflection on the underlying factors that have led to it. Experience it in IMAX! the promotional poster urges, in a tone that sits uncomfortably with the director’s claim that he made the film as a warning of what could occur if we are not careful. If the past is any guide, such macabre depictions of what Edmund Wilson called “patriotic gore” may only accustom us to the likelihood that it will.

Obsessing about a potential future civil war was a favorite activity of Americans in the years before they ventured into the fields to murder one another en masse. As the crisis over slavery deepened, a bumper crop of new novels depicted a Southern breakaway movement and a bloody conflict with the North. The books’ authors tended not to deplore the possibility but to welcome it. They wanted readers to envision, from the safety of their armchairs, what the destruction of the nation would look like—and to help bring it on.

The Partisan Leader, though published under a pseudonym, was widely known to be the work of a Virginian named Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, a son of the slavocracy who taught at the College of William and Mary and landed sooner than most Southerners on the conclusion that secession offered the only guarantee for the continuation of Southern institutions—slavery above all. As early as 1820, Tucker swore never to rest until he saw the Union “shattered into pieces.” A professor of law at William and Mary for nearly 20 years, Tucker trained a generation of Southern leaders in how to think about the Constitution. Later, his students would lead their states out of the Union, just as Tucker had hoped.

But Tucker’s ambitions as an educator went beyond formal instruction. Turning to fiction and using the novels of Walter Scott as a model, he wanted to help Southerners imagine how the breakup of the Union might happen, and to show where their loyalties should lie if it did.

Duff Green, a prominent Washington publisher and close ally of South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun, printed 2,000 copies of the book in two volumes. The Southern Literary Messenger, an influential periodical then edited by Edgar Allan Poe (who corresponded with Tucker and sought advice from him), praised the artistry and plausibility of the novel, as well as its argument for Southern resistance to federal tyranny: “The reader rises from the perusal of the book with solemn impressions of the probable truth of all the writer’s speculations; and he naturally asks himself, by what means the evils he has seen depicted may be prevented.” Northern journals ignored the scandalous work, and booksellers refused to stock it, but The Partisan Leader found new relevance a quarter century later, with the secession of the seven southernmost states. In 1861 a New York publisher reprinted the book with the title A Key to the Disunion Conspiracy. The novel seemed to have predicted the future. Events were following Tucker’s script.

Seizing on Tucker’s prescient vision, other writers saw a market for similar works, only now they added elaborately detailed portrayals of interstate violence—the CGI of the time. In 1859 John Beauchamp Jones, a successful Maryland novelist (also once praised by Poe), published Wild Southern Scenes: A Tale of Disunion! And Border War! Thirteen Southern states abandon Congress, then send an army to occupy New York City and abduct free Black people and bring them back as slaves. A villainous Northern general proclaims himself “Lord Protector of the United States,” invades the South, and wields the guillotine to gruesome effect. Great Britain leaps into the fray, keen to take advantage of the chaos and reclaim its lost colonies. North and South join together to expel the foreign foe. The Constitution is restored.

A New York–based businessmen’s magazine found the book full of “ingenuity and invention” and hoped it would “have the effect of opening the eyes of the more conservative to the terrible results that will follow from the sectional madness and folly now disturbing the country.” By contrast, Edmund Ruffin, an eccentric, long-maned agricultural reformer from Virginia and a passionate advocate of Southern separatism, thought Jones’ book “very foolish”—especially its feel-good ending—and decided he could do better. The result, Anticipations of the Future (1860), was both impressively timely and remarkably unhinged.

The novel, serialized in a pro-secession South Carolina newspaper, then packaged as a book by a top Southern publisher, took the form of fictional dispatches by a correspondent to an English newspaper about a crisis following the Lower South’s secession from the Union. To suppress the rebellion, the president of the United States, New York’s William Seward, sends an army into Virginia, prompting the rest of the slave states to leave. A gruesome fight ensues, climaxing with the wholesale slaughter of mixed-race Northern armies, described by Ruffin in gory detail. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison is hanged, his corpse defiled by vultures. Meanwhile, the Western states secede and join the rebellion. Northern cities go up in smoke, leaving “many thousands of charred and partly consumed skeletons.”

Writing these scenes, Ruffin confided to his diary, was “alike amusing to my mind, & … conducive to immediate pleasure.”

Only about 400 readers bothered to pick up Ruffin’s overwrought novel, much to the author’s chagrin. That might have been because the future he anticipated was already becoming a reality. In the novel, South Carolina seizes Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor—just where the actual fighting would begin only months after the publication of Ruffin’s book, when the 67-year-old author, a volunteer with the militia, was himself given the high honor of firing one of the first shots in the war he had fantasized about with such pleasure.

The unfathomable devastation that ensued, leaving three-quarters of a million dead, hundreds of thousands more wounded in body and mind, and much of the South a smoldering ruin, took the fun out of imagining what a nation-rending conflict would look like. The genre disappeared for a time. Ruffin shot himself in the head after the surrender at Appomattox. The reality of Southern secession hadn’t matched up to the turgid fantasies of his fiction.

In the decades after the Civil War, expectations of national division over slavery were replaced by fears that mass immigration would undermine American unity. In 1880 Canadian-born San Francisco lawyer and journalist Pierton W. Dooner published Last Days of the Republic, which depicted a Chinese army overthrowing the Pacific states, then marching east all the way to Washington: “The very name of the United States of America was thus blotted from the record of nations and peoples.”

Perhaps one of the strangest disunion-fantasy novels ever published was Imperium in Imperio (1899), by Sutton E. Griggs, a 27-year-old preacher and son of formerly enslaved parents. The novel revolves around a secret government⁠ of, by, and for Black Americans⁠, based in a bunker beneath a Texas college. Devoted to racial progress and fighting discrimination, the Imperium recruits a rising generation of ambitious, educated Black men who have grown frustrated at being denied the most basic rights and privileges of citizenship. “They grew to hate a flag that would float in an undisturbed manner over such a condition of affairs,” Griggs writes. “They began to abuse and execrate a national government that would not protect them against color prejudice, but on the contrary actually practiced it itself.”

After a black postmaster is lynched in South Carolina⁠—an event that really happened, a year before Griggs published his novel⁠—the Imperium decides to take Austin and declare war on the United States. “Thus,” the president of the Imperium proclaims, “will the Negro have an empire of his own.”

The turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s, breeding a new wave of concern about national failure and societal collapse, led to another boomlet in fictional depictions of the United States’ cracking up. The Texas-Israeli War: 1999, written by sci-fi authors Jake Saunders and the late Howard Waldrop at the peak of the 1973 oil crisis, depicted the reestablishment of the independent Lone Star Republic in a world torn apart by biological and chemical warfare. After Texans kidnap the American president, mercenaries from the Jewish State attempt to rescue him. On Wings of Song (1979), by Thomas Disch, portrayed an America destroyed by economic inequality and culture war, divided between a liberal “Babylon” on the coasts and a semiautonomous conservative region, “Columbia,” in the heartland, populated by “undergoders”—an astute depiction of the rural-urban divide that would only worsen in the coming years. In Margaret Atwood’s now-canonical The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), a turn to religious fundamentalism brings a second civil war and the rise of a theocratic, women-enslaving dictatorship.

A few novels rejected dystopian warnings in favor of, like the antebellum Southern writers, actually proposing disunion as an improvement on the status quo—a stance shared by authors of vastly different political stripes. Ecotopia, a 1975 novel by the environmentalist Ernest Callenbach, imagined the establishment of a separatist West Coast republic whose residents live in dynamic, sustainable harmony with one another and with nature, while far on the other side of the political divide, William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries (1978) records the events of the “Great Revolution of 1991–1999,” in which Black people, Jews, and other non-Aryans are slaughtered and white “race traitors” hanged from lampposts. Seizing nuclear bombs from a military base, a shadowy group called the Order starts an atomic civil war with the federal government.

It can hardly be a good thing that the antebellum era’s obsession with concocting increasingly bloody disunion scenarios has reappeared with fresh vigor in recent years. There have been too many next-civil-war books to count, and most, true to the form, have been absolute garbage—maudlin, contrived, clichéd.

But not all. In Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines (2016), set in a 21st-century United States where slavery remains legal in four states and the titular rescue network helps “Persons Bound to Labor” escape to Canada, the alt-history is only a provocative premise for airing matters relevant in both its fictional world and our real one: What compromises hold a country together, and when are those not worth the cost? Omar El Akkad’s American War (2017) shows a country split apart at the end of this century over an attempt to ban fossil fuels. El Akkad at once lays out a clever, thought-provoking scenario—more stable Middle Eastern powers intervene as the U.S. often has in the civil wars of other nations—and delves into complexities of identity, loyalty, and the human cost of civil conflict. Christopher Brown’s harrowing Tropic of Kansas (2017) paints a harrowing picture of a nation in the grip of authoritarianism and ecological collapse and celebrates the relentless pursuit of justice in the face of overwhelming odds.

And now we have director Alex Garland’s new film, with a title as bland as the movie itself. Like so much in our culture right now, Civil War isn’t nearly weighty enough to bear the load of discourse that’s been based on it. Focused on the ethical dilemmas and psychological torments involved in war photography—which, OK?—the movie takes advantage of our dark fascination with the possibility of political polarization leading to constitutional crisis and political violence, while refusing to actually explore those themes.

For all the ear-splitting explosions and hair-raising exchanges of gunfire across a variety of modern American landscapes—and, yes, the IMAX experience is intense—the film seems to be conscious of its own essentially pornographic nature. There is something cheap and unseemly in the way the camera lingers on a pile of human bodies, or the Lincoln Memorial blown to smithereens. Just as Southern secessionist Edmund Ruffin found writing gory scenes of executions and massacres “conducive to immediate pleasure,” Joel, one of the war photographers in Civil War (played by Wagner Moura), looks out on a night sky filled with arcing mortar shells and grunts, “This gunfire is getting me so fucking hard!”

The viewer is meant to be implicated, and we are. But instead of any profounder meditations on why mass slaughter both attracts and sickens us—for even Joel is eventually reduced to a puddle of tears—the film offers 90 more minutes of picturesque wreckage, bone-chilling executions, and, finally, the eagerly panted-after “money shot” (a phrase one of the journalists actually uses as the film’s climactic scene unfolds). At least Ruffin had an excuse for pleasing himself by turning his fantasies of American carnage into art: He wanted to bring it about. Garland claims he wants his film to do the opposite, but it’s strange, then, that not a single line or moment even implicitly alludes to what if anything could have been done to keep things from reaching such a breaking point.

In interviews, the filmmaker has claimed, “It’s a film about the product of polarization and division.” But if we are to understand that the president (played by Nick Offerman), who appears only fleetingly in the movie, has turned “fascistic,” as Garland explains—claiming a third term, abolishing the FBI, bombing American citizens—why is it bad that insurgents have risen up to overthrow him? If it’s not bad, how can the movie be described, as lead actress Kirsten Dunst has put it, as “anti-war”?

This deeply unserious film is not interested in probing those tensions, or, more to the point, its creator is too scared of alienating half the public by addressing them. It’s neither pedantic nor partisan to object to such explosive material being used to such shallow ends. Far from deterring the violence it depicts, Civil War may well convince some content-addled moviegoers that it sure would be something to see.