Following in Faulkner’s Footsteps

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.

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27 thoughts on “Following in Faulkner’s Footsteps

  1. Brooks D. Simpson

    But what if you actually decided to consider these counterfactual musings on their merits? What then?

    No one says “What would have happened had John Reynolds not been killed on July 1, 1863?” “What if Phil Kearny lived?” I’ve become know for asking “What if Charles F. Smith had not gotten injured?” The only big “what-if” involving Union victory is “What if McClellan takes Richmond in 1862?”

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      But what if you actually decided to consider these counterfactual musings on their merits? What then?

      I think we can probably have an interesting discussion about what goes into a good counterfactual, but that doesn’t seem to me to be what is involved for most people. They slide into the standard counterfactual narratives regardless of region.

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  2. James Harrigan

    Kevin, I find counterfactuals to be a useful way of understanding what did happen. It helps us think about what was crucial, and what was incidental. In my professional life as an economist, I use counterfactuals all the time.

    My favorite Civil War counterfactual is “what if Joe Johnston had not been injured at Seven Pines”?

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi James,

      I am not suggesting that counterfactuals cannot be used constructively just that they typically are employed as a way to imaginatively come closer to Confederate independence. I wonder why we have this need.

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  3. Robert Moore

    “Why are so many of us caught up in imagining a Confederate victory?”

    I wonder if it’s driven by the “grass is always greener” philosophy. I don’t know, but for me, speculative history is a matter of spinning one’s wheels and getting nowhere.

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  4. Ken Noe

    Last Wednesday at the Peace Light, I actually heard a discussion of what would have been different if Reynolds had lived. The conclusion: not much. But that started with a professional historian who has written about the battle. The others wanted to know what would have happened if Jackson had been there. Wishful thinking can be involved, has been for 150 years, but beyond that is the broader power of kabuki Civil War theater. The standard issue ‘what-ifs’ are part and parcel of a Lee/Eastern-centered canon, starting with a more vigorous pursuit at Manassas and ending with ‘what if Lincoln had lived.’

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      The standard issue ‘what-ifs’ are part and parcel of a Lee/Eastern-centered canon, starting with a more vigorous pursuit at Manassas and ending with ‘what if Lincoln had lived.’

      That’s a really good point, Ken. I think it is reasonable to suggest that this reflects the place of those battles and characters in our collective memory rather than more analytical considerations.

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  5. Pat Young

    When I spoke recently with Central American immigrants about the Civil War, one audience member pointed out that Central America, briefly united, had divided into El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. They then became too small to defend themselves against Colombia, Mexico, the U.S., and various European powers. He said that had the US split up we could have been the northern version of Central America.

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  6. Lyle Smith

    “Why are so many of us caught up in imagining a Confederate victory? ”

    Probably because a Confederate victory is what didn’t happen. What other counterfactual is there to think about when it comes to great outcome of the war?

    I’d also argue the United States wouldn’t have ended with a Confederate victory. It would have just been smaller and history would have taken a different course leading to who knows what. Another conflict between the North and South perhaps?

    Furthermore, I’d argue that it is not unpatriotic to speculate on such an outcome to the Civil War. The United States could have failed at bringing the Confederate states back into the Union. The founding fathers themselves worried about whether or not the republican experiment could perpetuate itself (especially over the peculiar institution), and I’m pretty sure they were all patriots.

    Failure will forever be a possibility when it comes to the United States. It’s probably patriotic for us to appreciate this reality. I don’t think it is a pressing issue today, but maybe some time in the future it will be. Some people are wanting more governance from international governing bodies. Maybe that will be the end of the United States. Who knows?

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I’d also argue the United States wouldn’t have ended with a Confederate victory.

      I guess it depends on how we define it. Clearly, the notion of government by the people would have been dealt a severe blow.

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      1. Lyle Smith

        I agree, it probably depends on how we define it. I think many founders would have been disappointed; then again some might have been like, “good riddance”.

        I wonder what Frederick Douglass would have thought. How would he have handled a Confederate victory? Would he have skulked away in disappointment or doubled down on his abolitionism?

        Maybe there is a second war and Reconstruction proves more fruitful. Would that have been a better outcome?

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  7. TF Smith

    A lot of the “paths to Confederate victory” concept is part and parcel of the neo-confederate meme; I doubt you get many of these sorts of questions from, for example, students of Reconstruction or social historians looking at gender roles in the sectional conflict.

    From a “military professional” point of view, staff rides, field and CPX exercises, and war games (in the umpired, realistic sense) are very useful educational functions – but that’s not what you are asking about.

    Best,

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      A lot of the “paths to Confederate victory” concept is part and parcel of the neo-confederate meme[.]

      You might be right, but you would need to fill in that picture for me.

      Like I said, I am not suggesting that counterfactuals cannot be used constructively.

      Reply
  8. Bob Huddleston

    With one significant exception Civil War counter-factuals the Rebels win and then President Lee effortlessly frees the slaves and everyone lives happily ever after.

    For a different view see Ward Moore’s _Bring the Jubilee_, originally published in 1953, and considered a SciFi classic. Pringle, _Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels_ rank it as #11.

    In Hodge Backmaker’s alternative world, 20th-century New York is a city of cobblestones, gas lamps and 10-story skyscrapers. In his world, the Confederate South won its independence and North America is divided with slavery and serfdom still facts of life. Its portrayal of the implications to African-Americans of a Confederate victory is not what neo-Confederates want to hear!

    After winning the Civil War at Gettysburg by the brilliant occupation of Little Round Top – Grant and Vicksburg are ignored – the Rebels go on to conquer Cuba and Mexico, moving their capital to a more central location in Leesburg, formerly Mexico City. In the novel Hodge travels to a Gettysburg think tank built by the retired Confederate colonel who captured LRT. There he falls in love with the daughter of the colonel (the novel takes place in the 1920s) and finds that the think tank is involved in constructing a time machine which he uses to go to Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 – with predictably disastrous results.

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    1. Matt McKeon

      I read that book. Very interesting.

      CW counterfactuals are often of the “if only” variety. If only this had happened, southern victory! How tenuous is the possibility of Confederate victory if it depended on a series of lucky breaks?

      There is a literature around Axis victory in WW2, but its more “nightmare scenario” rather than “if only.”

      There’s a recent book out, “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” As someone once said, science fiction and historical fiction is always about today, regardless of where they’re set. This goes for a lot of counterfactuals as well.

      Reply
  9. Bob Matthews

    Wise men consider the counterfactuals of this conflict because it was one of several that have and will take place to decide geopolitical control of the continent.

    Yet, the South , however outnumbered and nascent, saw its manhood sacrifice themselves with alacrity. These men fought incredibly hard for a reason only known top their perspective of time and place and a sense of obligation to their children and children’s children.

    The South had a real cause, as their efforts exemplified. They lost that war because of men and materials and mistakes, not because their cause was unjust to their men. Why did they fight so undeniably hard?

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  10. Bryan Cheeseboro

    “Why are so many of us caught up in imagining a Confederate victory?”

    If the South HAD won; and then the teeritorial map of the US had be redrawn to include a number of nations (US, CS, Republic of Texas, Pacific Northwest Confederation, etc) then the counterfactual question would likely be “What if the North had won the Civil War?”

    I get it that too many people, especially those who don’t see the perpetuation of slavery and think the South was right, live on some sort of Confederate Fantasy Island. but I think people are often about wanting what they don’t have and can easily contemplate such scenarios from a comfortable chair. No matter what the outcome, there would be people- for good and bad reasons- to ask what the world would be like had the other side won.

    Someone asked how Frederick Douglass would have dealt with Confederate victory. Depending on when the South won the war, I would like to think that USCT-trained Black troops would have taken matters into their own hands. But many of them would likely have been killed before they could mount a “slave insurrection.” So, as always, thank God the North won the war.

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  11. Brad

    I couldn’t have said this better myself.

    The end result of the counterfactual question is the South winning the War, the Union broken and slavery continued, an unimaginable consequence. The one question to ponder is how different would have the fate of the slaves have been: legal slavery continued versus the slavery in fact that continued to exist for over a hundred years.

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  12. Forester

    I don’t think a Confederate victory would be as good or as bad as everyone seems to speculate. Things would’ve worked out in the long run (they always do) and most people would consider it to have been the “right” thing in retrospect.

    Lets take the discussion out of the Civil War context: The American Revolution is a pretty obvious example of what happens when a slave-holding power breaks away from a larger power that is working to get rid of slavery. Slavery was extended 30 years beyond what the British allowed, but was ended eventually, and THINGS TURNED OUT OKAY for us in 2012. Confederate slavery probably would’ve dissolved in the 20th Century (about the same time as segrogation ended), and our “present” wouldn’t be a heck of a lot different. The Confederacy would’ve developed its own sense of identity and nationalism separate from the USA, but culturally would be almost indistinguishable (just like the US and UK).

    I’m sure “What if the British won?” is an amusing question for old men to ponder around a fireplace, but it really would make no difference. Heck, we might’ve gotten freedom anyway (a la Canada) and done it bloodlessly. On the same note, the CSA could’ve reunified with the USA later on. Or both sides could have extablished Classical Latin as the national language and manated that everyone wear togas. It’s all speculation and nonsense.

    Some of might not have ever been born under the different circumstances, but someone would be sitting here on the Internet speculating how good/bad a Yankee victory would’ve been. And they would probably exaggerate.

    The North won. I don’t thank or condemn anyone for it, it’s just what happened. It’s history.

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    1. Michael Douglas

      ” Confederate slavery probably would’ve dissolved in the 20th Century (about the same time as segrogation ended), and our “present” wouldn’t be a heck of a lot different.”

      I guess I cannot bring myself to be as nonchalant about it. You believe that “our present” wouldn’t be much different. It would be very different for the descendants of a few million people, some of whom I count among my ancestors, whose bondage would have continued for another 100 years or so (in your scenario).

      Of course, there’s also the possibility that the ever-abiding fear of the slaveholders’ culture would have come to fruition, with the enslaved rising up and slaughtering their masters.

      Unlike you, I thank God, fate, destiny, karma, the Universe or whatever that it turned out the way it did. And since we’re indulging in speculation, in my darker moments I like to imagine what it would have been like if the North had sown the erstwhile Confederacy with salt. ;-)

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      1. Forester

        “You believe that “our present” wouldn’t be much different. It would be very different for the descendants of a few million people, some of whom I count among my ancestors.”

        I’m not being non-chalant, just saying that our 2012 would be about the same. Not for our ancestors but for us (or whoever existed instead of us in the alternate timeline). If the Persians had beaten the Spartans, it would’ve been bloody, had various effects on later generations and made “300″ a suckier movie than it was — but 2012 would probably be no different. It’s unlikely that modern Greece would be ruled by Persians, much like American slavery in 2012 would be absurdly unlikely.

        I wasn’t saying it would’ve been better (or even as good). Just different, and still probably leading to a bunch of guys arguing “what if?” about it online. Oppression and suffering would have (and did) exist in various forms, regardless of which government held charge. Jim Crow wasn’t a whole lot better than slavery … it was only “better” in the same sense that prison is “better” than execution.

        In an ironic twist of history, blacks may owe their freedom to the erstwhile Confederacy — if the South hadn’t fought so hard to preserve slavery, the North wouldn’t have ended it so abruptly when it did.

        Which leads to another problem with alternate histories — what point in time do you pick for history to diverge? “What if the South Won?” depends a lot on WHEN the South won (and HOW). For example, an early victory (or bloodless secession) would’ve prevented the 700,000 deaths and massive property destruction that ensued, creating a ‘better’ world than if the South won later. Perhaps chattel slaves might’ve gotten more sympathy in the 1900s and been free and equal long before the 1964 act. It’s plausible in speculation. And means absolutely nothing.

        Then there are the actual Black Confederates who never went to war. What might they have changed? Could offering freedom as a war measure have sped emancipation? Why or why not? There is no answer. It’s all speculation based on the biases of the person arguing and what they do or don’t want to believe/imagine.

        And you could also include alternate Northern victory scenarios. What if the North won at Bull Run or some other early point? What if the South accepted offers to preserve slavery where it already existed? Those would be “Northern” victories, but Southern in actual practice.

        Basically, I’m being nonchalant about the absurdity of “what if” debates. There is always a counterpoint and no empircal standard for discerning which counterpoint to believe in. There are too many possibilities.

        And they all end with guys on the Internet debating “what if.”

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      2. Lyle Smith

        “in my darker moments I like to imagine what it would have been like if the North had sown the erstwhile Confederacy with salt”

        There would have been a lot more unemployed, poor and starving black folk than there already were. ;)

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      3. Forester

        ” in my darker moments I like to imagine what it would have been like if the North had sown the erstwhile Confederacy with salt.”

        I think someone did. Have you not tasted the food?

        Reply
  13. London John

    I don’t think the original question of European recognition is a good counter-factual, because there was no element of chance. Every European government considered the option and decided against it.
    However, for most of the Civil War there was a French army in Mexico. It seems to me that, incredible as it seems, there is an aspect of the ACW that hasn’t been fully explored, namely the articulation of the American and Mexican civil wars. So how about putting the European intervention c-f as “what if the Imperialistas had won the battle of Puebla? ” Would they have linked up with the Confederates?

    Reply

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