During a Q&A panel that I took part in for the Civil War Trust’s Annual Teacher Institute in Charleston an audience member asked us to speculate on whether official recognition of the Confederate states by a European nation would have helped their cause. My response began by pointing out that even if some kind of recognition had taken place actual intervention would have been extremely unlikely. I then asked the audience to step back and reflect on why we are so caught up with Civil War counterfactuals and more importantly why the most popular involve imagining a scenario leading to Confederate victory?
What irks me is the playfulness of it all. Why are so many of us caught up in imagining a Confederate victory? Why would anyone even want to seriously consider it at all? Lost in this imaginative act is the United States and union itself. Think about it. Apart from a small group of extremist kooks, most of us who engage in counterfactual thinking are not actively campaigning for the dissolution of this country. I think it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of patriotic Americans hope that this experiment in republican government will continue, but its end is exactly what we are implying when we play this little game.
Today I arrived in Gettysburg, which owing to its place in our popular imagination as the great turning point of the war, has spawned countless counterfactuals. We should walk this field not imagining what might have been, but grateful that the United States won this battle and the war.
More in the next few days about why I am in Gettysburg.