Last month I started reading Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South. While I was excited at the beginning my enthusiasm quickly waned to the point where I haven’t picked it up in about 3 weeks. Perhaps I will get back to it over the summer, but it doesn’t look good. I’ve never been enthusiastic about counterfactuals in Civil War history. I find very little entertainment in their consideration. While I agree that there may be an epistemological pay off when handled carefully, I suspect that most conversations about counterfactuals in the Civil War are more about freezing time for some selfish purpose than about serious historical understanding about cause and effect. There is no better example of this than William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….
Ulysses S. Grant also pointed out the problems with such an approach in his autobiography. Here he reflects on the suggestion by some that Confederate Gen. A.S. Johnston’s death at Shiloh sealed their defeat. [Hat tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates]:
I do not question the personal courage of General Johnston, or his ability. But he did not win the distinction predicted for him by many of his friends. He did prove that as a general he was over-estimated. General Beauregard was next in rank to Johnston and succeeded to the command, which he retained to the close of the battle and during the subsequent retreat on Corinth, as well as in the siege of that place. His tactics have been severely criticised by Confederate writers, but I do not believe his fallen chief could have done any better under the circumstances. Some of these critics claim that Shiloh was won when Johnston fell, and that if he had not fallen the army under me would have been annihilated or captured.
Ifs defeated the Confederates at Shiloh. There is little doubt that we would have been disgracefully beaten IF all the shells and bullets fired by us had passed harmlessly over the enemy and IF all of theirs had taken effect. Commanding generals are liable to be killed during engagements; and the fact that when he was shot Johnston was leading a brigade to induce it to make a charge which had been repeatedly ordered, is evidence that there was neither the universal demoralization on our side nor the unbounded confidence on theirs which has been claimed. There was, in fact, no hour during the day when I doubted the eventual defeat of the enemy, although I was disappointed that reinforcements so near at hand did not arrive at an earlier hour.
While Grant was, no doubt, hoping to retain some credit for his victory at Shiloh he rightly points to the difficulty involved in identifying one single factor that explains a battle’s outcome. It is worth noting that the most famous What Ifs are formulated from a perspective that lead to a Confederate victory. Gettysburg, of course, looms large: What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg or Confederate General Ewell had advanced and taken Culp’s Hill on the evening of July 1, 1863. We could just as easily formulate a counterfactual around a Union mistake or defeat to achieve the same end, but that doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it. It’s as if the war was the Confederacy’s to win regardless of the broader sweep of events and the facts on the ground. We are like children in the scene that Faulkner so eloquently sketches stretching the imagination to bring about a different outcome to a battle and possibly the war.
I don’t fantasize about Confederate victory. I suspect that many people entertain these stories as a means to imagining the outcome that they wish had prevailed. That fantasy may be quite common among Civil War enthusiasts, as Faulkner suggests, but it does not necessarily imply anything nefarious about the individual in question.
I have never been attracted to such stories and I suspect that this is why I am having trouble with the Turtledove book. I guess I can’t imagine a Confederate victory without pondering the question of what would have happened to 4 million slaves as well as the rest of American history. Since my understanding of the Civil War and its outcome is so wrapped up in the issue of slavery I don’t have the luxury of being able to distinguish between the two. In the end I identify with the United States because it led to the end of slavery, even if the road to its eventual extinction was rocky and littered with moral landmines. Without speculating much and given the goals of the Confederate government it is reasonable to conclude that a Confederate victory would have left millions of slaves in bondage.
The other difficulty that I have in playing with such counterfactuals has to do with my own sense of nationalism and love for country. I find it strange to have to continually respond to critics who take me for some kind of “Lincoln lover” or partisan for the Union cause. I am not descended from anyone who was alive in this country in the 1860s and as many of you know I came to an interest in the war relatively late. In other words, there is nothing at stake for me in vindicating the cause of my ancestor or community. Actually, it’s my own sense of connection to this country as a citizen that prevents me from playing around much with fantasies of Confederate victory. My impatience with such counterfactuals has everything to do with my own identity as an American and a lingering belief that the right side won that war even if the moral principles dividing the two were not always transparent. I’ve always found it kind of strange that people who go out of their way to declare their loyalty to this country find it so easy to imagine and even wish for a Confederate victory. There is something contradictory about this.
That’s about it. I’ll let you know if I ever finish the Turtledove book.