Prentiss, Will. Wll Prentiss was created by “Lieutenant Harry Lee,” the pseudonym of George W. Goode,” and appeared in Blue and Gray Weekly #1-32 (1904-1905) and Blue and Gray Weekly #1-8 (1906). Goode (?-1953) was a dime novel writer for the Frank Tousey company.
Will Prentiss begins, in the first Blue and Gray Weekly series, as the son of a Virginian Army Colonel (also a member of Jefferson Davis’ staff) who is a student at Fairdale College in New York when the Civil War begins. A patriotic Virginian, Prentiss immediately forms a group called the “Virginia Grays” and leads them south, where they enlist in the Confederacy and begin fighting against the Union. (Half the stories in Blue and Gray Weekly are told about Prentiss, and half about Jack Clark, Prentiss’ Union counterpart). In the final story of the series the Virginia Grays are surrounded by Union forces and have to surrender. Prentiss escapes, but very soon afterwards General Lee surrenders at Appomattox and the war is over. With the end of the war Prentiss goes to his family home in Virginia and settles down next to his b.f.f., Fred Randolph. In the second Blue and Gray Weekly series, set a few years later, Prentiss begins a new series of adventures on behalf of Virginia, fighting against communist strikers, violent former slaves, and immigrants.
With the exception of Blue and Gray Weekly v2n8, the final issue of the second series, the Will Prentiss stories are not exceptional in any way. They embody the politics of the era. Goode, a Tennessean, wrote stories in which both Southerners and Northerners were heroes during the Civil War, a war depicted in romantic and sentimental terms and one which isn’t exactly the fault of anyone so much as a general misfortune which just happened to take place. (In this Goode is hardly exceptional; if anything, his even-handedness was a rarity among Southern writers following the war. A more typical example is William S. Hayward, who wrote a trilogy, the “Black Angel” novels (1863-1870), about a heroic Southern privateer fighting against the unscrupulous and cruel Northerners). The racist and reactionary tone of the second series is common among dime novels as well. Few dime novels shared the labor- and immigrant-friendly politics of the “Deadwood Dick” and “Jesse James” series, with most dime novel series being much more conservative in their politics.
But then came Blue and Gray Weekly v2n8, “The War For Independence,” a story exceptional in many ways. In the final issue of the second series, set in the near future, Will Prentiss is suddenly a middle-aged man (the issue before he’d been in his early twenties) with a teenaged son, Will Prentiss, Jr., who is a brilliant teenaged inventor—an Edisonade. With the help of two older assistants of mysterious backgrounds (though hinted at in the text as being European adventurers) he has invented a steam-powered, armored war-dirigible and an atomic-powered submarine. Like his father, Will Jr. is a patriotic Virginian, and like his father Will Jr. has never forgiven the Union for beating the Confederacy in the Civil War. Now, with his new vehicles and their advanced weaponry (including automatic cannon and torpedoes), Will Jr. intends to refight the Civil War—and win it. And that’s just what Will Jr. does, launching his first attack on Fort Sumter and then carrying out a lightning campaign against the north, reducing New York, Boston, and Washington to rubble and forcing President Roosevelt to personally surrender to him in what is left of the White House. Will Jr. brings home the accumulated loot of his journey and his father becomes the President of the new Confederate States of America.
“The War For Independence” belongs to the subset of science fiction known as the “Future War.” Traditionally Future War stories describe the near-future invasion of a country by its enemy, and were written to warn the reader about the country’s lack of military preparedness. The Future War novel began in earnest in 1871, with George Chesney’s Britain-is-doomed wail “The Battle of Dorking,” and was popular through the 1890s, when it began to mix with other genres, from the anarchist novel to fantasy/horror to science fiction. “The War For Independence” appears at the end of the genre’s life and stands at the midway point between the Future War story and more generally science fictional stories.
Perhaps the most notable thing about “The War For Independence” is that it exists at all. “The Lost Cause” was of course always popular with Southerners, especially following the years of Reconstruction, so it might not seem surprising that Goode, a Tennessean, would write a story in which the South finally wins. But the truth is that such stories were vanishingly rare. There were a number of stories in mainstream magazines and the dime novels that were set during the Civil War and featured heroic Southerners defeating the Union. But stories that actually reversed the conclusion of the Civil War in a future setting simply did not exist. There were alternate histories, both fiction and non-fiction, written about the Civil War during this time—the Joseph Edgar Chamberlain essay anthology The Ifs of History (1907) has some—but no stories set in the future.
An interesting comparison, on a number of levels, is with 18th and 19th century Chinese popular literature, especially martial arts novels. A recurring theme is the heroic martial artist being a Ming loyalist and continuing the fight against the wicked Qing Emperor (usually but not always Huang Taiji (ruled 1626-1643)), despite the Qings having conquered China. It’s understandable that this is a recurring theme in modern Chinese popular culture, as the Ming were Han and the Qing were Manchu, and since most Chinese are Han, and the Manchus were seen as alien invaders and occupiers–a phrase that lingered for centuries (literally) was “Fan Qing, Fu Ming,” or “Overthrow the Qing, Restore the Ming”–it makes sense that popular culture was produced for the demographic majority. That’s how popular culture works, after all.
But such a dynamic was much less apparent in the American South, and there were no stories that posited a future war against the North. No stories, that is, except “The War For Independence.”
Will Prentiss Jr.’s two advisors are, as mentioned, mysterious Europeans. Given the textual hints dropped about them, the obvious conclusion to be drawn about them is that they are supposed to be Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and Robur the Conqueror. “The War For Independence” was published only six years after the first American edition of Robur (thirty-three years after the first American edition of 20,000 Leagues), and it seems clear that Robur in particular had an effect on Goode. Modern audiences might see the idea of Nemo and Robur fighting on behalf of the South absurd, but of course to Goode and his audience it is natural Nemo and Robur would help the oppressed South against the oppressor North.
The sudden aging of Will Prentiss in “The War For Independence” is similar to the sudden aging of Frank Reade in the first Frank Reade, Jr. story, and the sudden aging of Frank Reade, Jr., in the first Young Frank Reade story; such a sudden aging is a standard trope in Edisonade fiction. Frank Tousey, the publisher of Blue and Gray Weekly, was well-familiar with it, having been the original publisher of the Frank Reade stories. “The War For Independence” predates the Tom Swift novels by for years, but Tousey had last published a Frank Reade story until seven years before and likely well-remembered the genre.