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The Great Burning

A personal memoir

To Whom It May Concern:

In recent years, ever since the rebellion in the south and the Great Burning, it has become common to hear slanders and insults directed at the memory of Abe Lincoln, President of the United States during the rebellion.  His memory is daily condemned in the halls of the Council of Europe.  The Japanese have adopted him as a guardian of their religions underworld.  The Southern mothers of the old school, of which there are few left, scare their children to bed with tales that ‘burner Lincoln will come and get you’.  Such insults may be inevitably directed at the public figure of Lincoln, but are quite unjustified.  Now that he had left our judgements for the judgement of the Lord of All Things, I feel free to tell the true story of what happened in the years 1860-62.

The coming of the Burning was not Lincoln’s fault.  Nor, despite the efforts of many revisionist historians, was it the fault of his predecessor: James Buchanan.  The crisis had been brewing for many years, since our nation was an unhappy section of the British Empire.  Counterfactual speculation having become popular, it is tempting to wonder if the crisis would have happened if we had all stayed loyal to the King of England instead of having a revolution. 

The causes were simple.  Our union had been built on a compromise between two very different systems.  One was the individualistic north, with it’s belief in the value of human life and the development of industry, the other was the south, with its slaves and a system that held down all, but the richest of the white men.  The black men, of course, were chattel.  That compromise allowed the South to keeps its ‘peculiar institution’ and its other peculiarities, at the cost of many of our souls.  God must have judged us harshly, for who can say that we did not deserve it?

That may not have an answer, but there were many people who said we did deserve all the trouble.  In 1852, it seemed that all was going wrong.  People were becoming anti-slavery.  No matter what happened, some one in our great nation would be unhappy and it all came to a head with Kansas.  Should slavery be transplanted there?  Such a question provoked the beginnings of a civil war in the area.  People were dying, southerners most of all, and yet few of them would ever hold any slaves. 

A strong president on either side of the political divide might have accomplished much.  Buchanan did nothing.  Afraid to choose a direction, he held the system in paralysis.  Eventually, something had to break and it did with the election of Lincoln.  The south had been threatening to secede, to leave our great union, for years.  No one thought they’d really do it.  We thought it was a bluff. 

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the union. 

It was followed by Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. 

Disaster had struck. 

Ironically, three 'slave states', Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky, did not secede.  Kentucky tried to declare itself neutral in the conflict.  Quick action by Lincoln arranged for Delaware and Maryland to be garrisoned by Union forces throughout the war to prevent their secession.  This act, which was of questionable legality, may have saved many people in those states from dreadful suffering. 

Lincoln needed a plan to end the new war quickly.  The South was weaker than the North in capital terms, but it had the best of the former US army on its side – although not everyone fought for the South – and it had the possibility of involving a foreign power in the war.  The British were looking for weakness in our union and the French had interests in Mexico.  Their involvement would guarantee the South’s victory. 

Both sides therefore needed a victory.  The Confederates, for thus the South called themselves, built up an army in Virginia, commanded by Generals ‘stonewall’ Johnston and Beauregard.  Learning of this, we sent an army of our own to destroy theirs. 

I was with Lincoln as he blessed them and wished them luck.  “You are green,” he told them, although how many heard I don’t know, “but they are green alike.”

Luck was with the Confederate, for our army was halted in the First Battle of Bull Run, and they were forced back to Washington, DC.  Our congress, in a fit of cowardliness, resolved and declared that the war was being fought to preserve the Union and not to end slavery.

The young napoleon, Major General George McClellan, was given command of the Union Army of the Potomac on July 26.  He was a cautious general.  The Confederates could not hand him the sort of defeat that would have crushed the Northern war effort or invited foreign intervention, but he was unable to defeat them either.  Examination of the Confederate records show that he held them in his grip more than once, but he let them go, often without knowing that he had. 

The British have a song about the grand old duke of York.  We could apply it to McClellan.  He reached the gates of Richmond in the spring of 1862, but the Confederates leadership advantage had finally come into play.  Robert E. Lee defeated him in the Seven Days Campaign McClellan was relieved of command, but his successor, John Pope, was beaten spectacularly by Lee at Second Bull Run in August.  Could anyone defeat Lee?  Emboldened, the Confederates prepared to invade, to head north towards Washington. 

And then the strangers appeared.  Literarily. 

Just before the confederates headed north, three men appeared to see Lincoln.  They had a fantastic story; they claimed to be from the future – a future where the south managed to make its imprudent declaration of independence stick.  They brought devices made from material we could not identify as proof and they carried handguns of a make and design far beyond what we could devise.  Manufacture of such a precision would need a dedicated craftsman and, like the sniper rifle, could only be done in small quantities.  They appeared to indicate that such weapons were commonplace in their time, although we could not identify the nation that appeared to have made the weapon they gave us to study. 

They brought us many gifts, although some of them were far beyond our comprehension. 

They also brought us the Burning. 

They showed us history books by one of their most accomplished historians, a Harry Turtledove, who specialised in what, in their time, was called ‘The War of Northern Aggression’.  While short on details, this Turtledove was clear on what had – or would – happen to us.  The Battle of Antietam, which was coming, would lead to a massive defeat for us and the intervention of Britain and France.  We would loose the war of succession.

Lincoln was in a blind.  No general – and here the books of Turtledove were no help – existed in the north that could make the army fight better in the time remaining.  Turtledove’s books suggested that Custer might make a good general, but we had no time to develop weapons or set a trap in which Custer’s abilities could be used. 

Almost diffidently, the strangers suggested an alternative.  They had brought a form of weapon system that had ended a war fought in their timeline with complete surrender.  Lincoln was immeadentitly interested, as is noted in many places, the prospect of being hanged concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully.  They said that weapons like those were demonstration weapons; use two and the rest of the nation would surrender. 

Lincoln agreed to use the weapons at once.  The strangers took me, as Lincoln’s representative, to a small place they’d set up in the state near their arrival point.  The weapons were prepared and explained.  They carried a warhead that shocked, they said, and no one would want to face it in battle, particularly when they could not retaliate using the same kinds of weapons.  They were not precisely clear on what the weapon did and I, under instructions, contained my curiosity. 

I like to think that if I had not done so, the world would be a better place.

I noticed that most of the weapon crews were Negroes.  That too should have warned me that all was not quite right, but I saw it as a sign of the future, rather than the deliberate choice of people who hated the confederates with a fervour that white men might not have. 

The launch of the four weapons was remarkable.  They were like the rockets the British had used and we had copied.  They made a terrible noise and shot upwards and away.  Scarcely had out ears stopped ringing than there was a terrible flash of light from the horizon, then another and another.  Seconds later, we heard the terrible bang, which shattered windows all over the nearby cities and towns. 

The damage in the north was nothing – absolutely nothing – compared to the damage in the south.  Three of the weapons had struck cities, New Orleans, Charleston and Richmond had been hit – and wiped off the face of the planet.  The fourth had landed just next to Lee’s army as it advanced.  That one hurt the north as well, but the southern army was completely destroyed. 

The south disintegrated.  States that were close to the border surrendered at once, forsaking Richmond for the north.  Others fell into anarchy as crowds attacked the confederates and the people who had pushed them into secession.  Slaves revolted across the south, believing perhaps that the flashes were punishment for their enslavers from God, and many fled north.  Sadly, many slaves would die of the poison left by the weapons, as they were out in the open when they hit.  It took us years to realise that people who went near where the weapons were used caught a disease, although we never understood how that disease spread. 

I was with Lincoln when we learnt of what the weapons had done.  He collapsed inside, loosing all control for minutes, crying silently to himself.  His orders, he felt, had wreaked terrible havoc on the nation he loved.  He sent troops to arrest the strangers, but they had vanished back to wherever they came from and the pursuit was futile. 

Lincoln paid host to the British ambassador, Lord Lyons.  He was arrogant much of the time, hiding it behind a stuffy diplomatic front, but this time he was ashen.  He assumed, as did many others, that the union had more of those terrible weapons.  He offered British meditation to end the war – and enquired most carefully into the origins of the weapons – but Lincoln was able to inform him that his services were not required.  When the French ambassador arrived, Lincoln quoted the Monroe doctrine at him, and ordered him to have the French troops removed from Mexico. 

Reunification proceeded fairly quickly.  The states were readmitted one by one, with a purge of the remaining die-hard southerners, many of whom fled to South Africa and the British colony there.  Slavery was ended forever in the union; the loss of the plantations and the deaths of many slaves due to the poison killed the ‘peculiar institution’ far more certainly than northern pressure and arms.  People who years earlier might have joined a slave lynching often hanged those who tried to threaten the newly freed slaves. 

We North Americans tend to look at the Burning as mass murder.  Few would deny that Lincoln had already breached the constitution in his actions before the rebellion had really started.  Many northerners called for his impeachment, some even for the death penalty.  The south, on the other hand, those who were not keeping their heads down, believed that the Burning was a punishment from God.  Many preachers sprang up from both the black and white population with that as their theme.  The white preachers saw it as a punishment and called for days of fasting and repentance.  The black preachers saw it as their day when their God showed that he had not forgotten them after all, a liberation bought at the cost of the deaths of the black slaves caught in the blasts, and they made it a day of celebration. 

The outside world spent five years in stark terror.  German reunification was accomplished peacefully, with France declining to become involved in a war and the colonial powers drew together in fear of the US.  Britain and France divided Africa between them and prepared to fight the US.  The British had been lucky enough to see the weapons in flight and deduced how the delivery of the weapons worked.  The weapon itself and the explosive used remains a mystery.  The European powers reconvened the congress of Europe (soon to become the council of Europe) to solve their differences peacefully in the face of the terrible American threat.  The British decision not to contest the attack on Canada of renegade ex-US military Irishmen was caused by fear that the next target for the weapons would be London.  The loss of Canada caused English hearts to harden and they annexed Hawaii the year afterwards, acting to prevent further US expansion. 

Abraham Lincoln died in 1870, ironically of the poison spread by the weapon, just before the election.  Lincoln had nominated McClellan as the next president for the Republican Party – causing the ambitious general to switch parties – and everyone expected that he would have the election in summer.  The death of Lincoln in spring tipped the balance against him and while he tried to re-switch parties, he succeeded in only embarrassing himself.  The democrats won the election of 1870.

In the years before his death, many people and organisations, often with very different motives, attacked Lincoln’s character.  A faction from Charleston, for example, claimed that Lincoln had targeted the weapons so to destroy or poison much of the South’s black population before emancipation.  Another faction from the North believes that Lincoln had world conquest schemes in mind, although this faction failed to account for Lincoln’s lack of assertiveness in the Anglo-American border dispute in 1865, or the lack of any response to the British annexation of Hawaii.  A third simply proclaims him a mass murderer who deliberately targeted the south’s population centres. 

As I noted above, I now feel free to write my own account of what really happened during the Great Burning.  Lincoln knew very little of what the weapons could do – the strangers having been very vague about their precise effects – and had not had the time to conduct a careful investigation and a test firing.  The results of the weapons were indeed tragic (estimates of how many died are very variable and imprecise, ranging from 50’000 to 300’000) but the lost of the rebellion would have made life much worse for the majority of people in the south. 

To call Lincoln a hero or a villain does not do the man justice.  He was a person of strong convictions caught up in a situation that he did not fully understand or choose, but his actions restored the union and freed the slaves.  I make no judgement and I leave this record in your hands.  Make what use of it you will.


John Milton Hay

Short Note: John Milton Hay (1838-1905) was a secretary to Abraham Lincoln. His diary and writings during the Civil War are basic historical sources.  Hay was present when Lincoln died after being shot at Fords Theatre and Hay and his fellow secretary, John G. Nicolay, wrote a 10-volume biography of Lincoln and prepared an edition of his collected works.  Hay was named U.S. ambassador to Great Britain in 1897 when his friend William McKinley became President.  Some of the recognition of the longstanding community of interests between that country and the United States came as a result of Hay's stay there.  In August 1898, Hay was named Secretary of State and helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris (1898).

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