Why I Don’t Live In the World of What Ifs

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.

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94 comments… add one
  • Fraser May 8, 2010 @ 14:47

    So is it all counterfactuals or just Civil War ones that you dislike?
    I don’t think it’s necessarily a wish fulfilment thing–I’ve never seen a WWII counterfactual that seemed happy the Nazis did better–though I see your point.
    The most negative Civil War counterfactual that comes to mind was the Captain Confederacy comic book of the late eighties: Set in the present, it has the South without slavery but segregation solidly in place (more by unwritten law than written).

    • Kevin Levin May 8, 2010 @ 17:20

      I was focusing specifically on the way in which counterfactuals related to the Civil War reflect our tendency to romanticize the Confederacy.

  • toby May 5, 2010 @ 6:21

    Here’s a gathering of some alternate fiction about the American Civil War.


    The most interesting one is Winston Churchill’s. Churchill had a fascination for the Civil War, and I read somewhere that when he arrived in the USA after Pearl Harbor, one of the people he asked to meet was Douglas Southall Freeman. He had already (in 1929) had a tour of some of the eastern Civil War battlefields. As a passionate historical romantic, Churchill was a natural born sucker for the Lost Cause and the “great man” perspective. He probably viewed Lee as something of a superman, as he viewed his other heroes, Nelson and Marlborough.

    More realistic was his view that the Confederacy would practically have become a part of the British Empire. There were a lot of voices in the North called for the annexation of Canada, and a British-Confederate alliance would for made sense from economic and political motives. It is fascinating to imagine the North allying itself for practical reasons with another rising, industrial state – Prussia, and its ambitious Chancellor Bismarck. How alliances between democracies and autocracies would have worked out is a strange speculation. One thing is sure – democratic-republican government would not have fared well as a model for rising, new nations.

  • Paul Taylor May 4, 2010 @ 16:02

    Kevin –

    Speaking of counterfactuals, what did you think of the “mocumentary” film “CSA: The Confederate States of America?”


    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 16:18

      I’ve used it in my course on memory twice and it is incredibly thought provoking. The use of the counterfactual really forces students to think about post-Civil War history, in part, because much of the “history” contained is not far from what, in fact, happened. The toughest part of movie are the commercials, but once again students are surprised to find in the credits that most of them are based on actual commercials.

  • Margaret D. Blough May 4, 2010 @ 13:55

    Jere-We’ve run out of reply buttons on your question about the FSA, so here it is. The extent to which the slave states hated northern state resistance to returning fugitive slaves cannot be underestimated. It became symbolic of Southern hatred of Northern feelings againt slavery. It was the rationale behind the draconian measures of the Fugitive Slave Law passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 which alienated and antagonized many northerners who, even if they despised abolitionists, had no desire to be compelled to become slave catchers. There was a case about to go before the US Supreme Court, Lemmon v. the People (1860), that sought to invalidate free states’ personal freedom laws (in this case NY) that held that slaves brought into the state, even in transit, were free as a matter of law. (Dred Scott dealt with the territories) The outbreak of the war made the case moot. Lincoln did not like the fugitive slave laws, but he took the position, very unpopular with many antislavery advocates, that, since the Constitution authorized them, they had to be enforced & he stuck to that position until the Civil War altered the whole issue.

    The war primarily occurred in the South because that is where the rebellion occurred. The rebels did not need to control the non-rebel states to succeed; the US government needed to regain control. Without secession, there would have been no war. Many secessionists refused to believe that the US government would have the will to resist but as for the US government’s right to do so, I’d refer you to what James Madison said in his December 23, 1832 letter to Nicholas Trist: “It is remarkable how closely the nullifiers who make the name of Mr Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes and lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly and emphatically against them. You have noticed what he says in his letters to Monroe & Carrington Pages 43 & 203, vol 2, with respect to the powers of the old Congress to coerce delinquent States, and his reasons for preferring for the purpose a naval to a military force, and moreover that it was not necessary to find a right to coerce in the Federal Articles, that being inherent in the nature of a compact.” Both Madison and Jackson were ready & willing to use military force to suppress secession if it had occurerd, in Madison’s case, in New England during the War of 1812 and in Jackson’s case, during the Nullification Crisis.

    • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 14:08

      Thank you for the informative comment, Margaret, and for continuing the conversation beyond the capacity of the “reply” buttons 🙂

      I guess the moral dilemma I’ve alluded to before is well exemplified by your citations of Madison and Jackson -> would we be cheering on the Union for being preserved if it was done so against Northern states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act? It’s almost like Lincoln was on the right side of morality by an accident of fate rather than any personal convictions he held regarding slavery. As a US patriot, I’m very happy we’ve got a strong central government to end things like slavery, but boy, I might be singing a completely different tune if Jackson had marched his armies up north through New England, burning, pillaging and raping as he went, all in the name of maintaining the Union.

      Thank you again for your comments, it’s been very educational!

      • Marc Ferguson May 4, 2010 @ 14:58

        Jere – I think you need to reassess the whole “burning, pillaging and raping” thing. I assume this is a reference to Sherman, as you’ve invoked this before. Much of the legend of Sherman’s March is myth, to some extent created by Sherman himself, but magnified by Southerners after the war. This was partially to explain the slowness of the South’s economic recovery, but also fit nicely with the “Lost Cause” ideology to reframe the war and contrast the nobility of Southerners such as Lee with the rapaciousness of Northerners like Sherman. Remember, since the federal government had to literally conquer the South to win while the Confederacy only had to hold out for a tie, most of the fighting took place in the South so naturally more destruction would occur there. The amount of damage done by Sherman is greatly exaggerated. Private property was not to be touched (and this order was generally followed). Very little was actually burned, “pillaging” was primarily food for the army, and I don’t know where you get this notion that raping was widespread. Where orders to leave civilian property and lives alone were disobeyed and came to the attention of officers, violators were punished. In fact much, if not the largest part, of the destruction was done by retreating Confederates and locals. Now, I’m not saying that Southern civilians didn’t suffer, or that there weren’t offenses committed by some federal soldiers, but the claims of a blood-thirsty Union army led by Sherman rampaging through the South indiscriminately raping and pillaging are myth. If you want to look into this more, you can read good books on the subject by Mark Grimsley, and a recent one by Noah Andre Troudeau.

        • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 15:57

          I’m more apt to believe that the burning, pillaging and raping occurred on all sides than to believe that the Union army was particularly in control of its troops and didn’t intentionally target civilians. Although certainly we can be doubtful of historical testimony based on the particular bias of the teller, even if the truth is somewhere between the evil Sherman’s march “myth” or the sanitized “violators were punished” “myth”, there is plenty of reason to see the Union as having some culpability for taking less than honorable actions against the people of the South.

          I guess the biggest reason why I’m more apt to believe Sherman’s exaggerations are his interactions with Native Americans, which I’d be surprised if you’d jump to defend…or would you?

          • Marc Ferguson May 4, 2010 @ 18:35

            Well, you can continue speculating about where the truth lies, or you could do some reading and research.

      • Margaret D. Blough May 4, 2010 @ 15:01

        Lincoln had strong personal convictions against slavery that he expressed well before the war and even in private correspondence, especially his 1855 letter to his best friend Joshua Speed, who was pro-slavery. It’s a lengthy letter, written after his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act drew him back into politics. The entire text http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/speed.htm, but this passage is important:
        >>You inquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point — I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was in Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

        I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy<<

        However, Lincoln also had strong personal convictions regarding the Constitution and, although he rejected the argument that the Constitution positively embraced slavery, he recognized that the Constitution unquestionably tolerated its existence at least in states where it already existed unless that state chose, on its own, to end it. He simply saw no way, in a US at peace, that any federal authority had any power to affect slavery within the borders of a state where it already existed, regardless of his personal feelings. He felt Dred Scott was wrongly decided & that Congress did have the power to bar the expansion of slavery into the territories.

        I don't believe secession is constitutional and nations have a natural right to fight for their survival. I can certainly understand why the Western Pennsylvania farmers opposed the whiskey tax and the New Englanders opposed the embargo and other Jefferson/Madison reactions to the Napoleonic Wars that devastated New England's economy, but I think Washington was and Madison, as well as Jackson, would have been constitutionally correct in suppressing rebellion. While the Fugitive Slave law of the 1850s was wildly unpopular in the free states, I do not recall seeing anyone talk of secession, but of working through Congress to amend or otherwise remove the more offensive provisions.

      • Bob Pollock May 4, 2010 @ 15:14

        “It’s almost like Lincoln was on the right side of morality by an accident of fate rather than any personal convictions he held regarding slavery”

        Jere, Please continue your study of Lincoln. I think you will find that Lincoln had deeply held personal convictions against slavery. But, he loved the Union, the representative democracy, created by his forefathers. He once said that he never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and he believed that if the Union was lost, those noble American sentiments – that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – these sentiments would be lost. If a slave aristocracy could destroy the Union and subjugate the common people, what chance would the slaves have? Perhaps a good place to start would be Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech.


        • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 15:50

          I’ll definitely continue my research into Lincoln, the veil has been partially lifted and simply can’t be put back. I’m mortified that Lincoln’s idea of “all men are created equal” didn’t mean that whites and blacks could be equal together (they apparently had to return to Africa, or other places far away from white people), and that he was at one time willing to make slavery irrevocable by constitutional amendment, and that his convictions against having more slave states was in order to keep them black-free rather than free black. I understand that I need to give some leeway since he was simply typical of other white men of the time he was born in, but it’s not always easy to be forgiving.

          Thank you for the speech reference, it’s definitely interesting. I find Lincoln’s quote of Jefferson, “It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation, and deportation, peaceably” fairly typical of the “gentle” white superiority attitude.

          • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 15:54


            It’s unfortunate that we’ve been trained to see Lincoln as the “great emancipator.” I see this every year in my classroom when we study the Civil War and especially in a recent elective that focused entirely on Lincoln. They find it difficult to move beyond these myths, but by the end of the unit or trimester my students have a much better appreciation for how Lincoln evolved throughout his public life in reference to issues related to race and slavery. I admit to the same difficulties when I first started to seriously study the Civil War.

          • Bob Pollock May 4, 2010 @ 17:28

            I realize that it can be intellectually and emotionally jarring to find out that someone we have believed to be super human actually was merely human and had to function in the real world. Rather than try to answer these references to Lincoln myself, let me refer you to this article which I think pretty succinctly summarizes my understanding of the man.


          • Margaret D. Blough May 4, 2010 @ 17:56

            I have never seen any evidence that Lincoln ever supported deportation or supported excluding free blacks from free soil (many others did, however). He supported voluntary colonization until the point at which he authorized black enlistment in the Union Army in the final EP, after which he appears to have abandoned the idea. As president-elect, even as the secession winter began in full earnest, he urged Republicans in Congress to hold fast against attempts to either by statute or constitutional amendment to allow and protect the expansion of slavery into the territories. He wrote Congressman William Kellogg in December 1860 on this telling him to ‘Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later.” The same month, he wrote his old friend & future Confederate VP Alexander Stephens. After assuring Stephens that slavery, where it already existed, would be in no more danger from him than it was from Washington, he added, “I suppose, however, that this does not meet the case. You think slavery is RIGHT, and ought to be extended; while we think it is WRONG and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.” (capitalized words are italicized in the original.)

  • TF Smith May 4, 2010 @ 5:28

    NOTE: “like all those whose wealth is based on land” should be “because their wealth was based on land”

  • TF Smith May 4, 2010 @ 5:26

    If one really wants to go into this murk, how soon before a “successful” CSA lived up to the tenets of its faith and enslaved:

    A) all free people of color (ie, those with ANY African ancestry) within its borders;
    B) all other non-whites (those of full or partial native American ancestry, including all mestizo/metis, and anyone of Asian ancestry);
    C) Whites.

    Racialized chattel slavery was part and parcel of the “South’s” identity in this period, as any one of the excellent sources mentioned above (Apostles of Disunion, What This Cruel War was Over, etc) makes very clear – and Glover’s “Southern Sons” makes it crystal what the impact of “mastery” was on the economic elites of the South, and how their position – like all those whose wealth is based on land – depended entirely on slavery.

    As it was, sharecropping was enforced by state law and authority as late as the early 20th Century to a degree almost indistinguishable from chattel slavery; try reading “Worse than Slavery” for some illumination of that system. African-Americans were being bundled off to Parchman as late as the 1950s for legalistic challenges to Jim Crow, as witness at least one of the applicants to Ole Miss prior to Meredith.

    Another obvious event in the “history” of a sucessful confederacy would be further wars against its neighbors (Mexico and the Caribbean were both potential targets) and/or internal convulsions; how long before Texas or South Carolina seceded from the Confederacy?

    Brazil kept chattel slavery until the 1880s, and it took what amounted to an internal political revolution to accomplish abolition there; given the vast wealth tied up in southern landownership and unpaid labor, it is more likely that slavery or something essentially very much like it would have lasted and even been expanded in a “successful” CSA.

  • Bob Huddleston May 3, 2010 @ 18:11

    Almost all counter-factual Rebel-victory books have the Confederates freeing their slaves and all living happily ever after. However, there is a big exception to this and one I highly recommend.

    Ward Moore’s _Bring the Jubilee _, was originally published in 1953, and considered a SciFi classic. Pringle, _Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels_ ranks it as #11. However, the Lost Cause and other devotees of the Lee cult ignore it.

    In Hodge Backmaker’s alternative world, early 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.

  • John Stoudt May 3, 2010 @ 17:50


    Re: “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.”

    Which Jackson do you mean? I have never heard the plaintive cry of “Oh! If only Jackson of the Seven Days were here!”

    Regarding Richard Ewell on July 1st: well, stand where he stood on that afternoon, gazing up towards Cemetery and Culp’s Hills, and “put yourself in Ewell’s shoe.” (I stole that one.)

    From a strictly armchair military history buff – battlefield tromping, “who shot whom, when, where, and how” perspective, I think that counterfactuals can be useful — if used judiciously. That is part of the fun of learning and trading ideas with like-minded folks.

    I read several years ago in an academic journal a truly intriguing counterfactual on “what if Henry Clay has been elected President in 1844?” No Texas annexation, no Wilmot Proviso, etc.

    But that begs the question: if there was no Civil War, then who would have remembered, or even footnoted, Lee or Jackson, Lincoln or Grant? Now there is a counterfactual for you — American Exceptionalism without the war or those four persons to praise or blame.

  • TF Smith May 3, 2010 @ 17:03

    I think “what if” type discussions can actually be useful in one of two ways:

    1) When a given decision-maker actually “had” two or more equally realistic options, and chose one over the other; this can be found in all sorts of history (political, economic, legal, etc.) but military history tends to make these sort of decision points fairly stark – Grant’s decision to push the Overland Campaign (as opposed to going on the defensive) after the Wilderness and/or Spotsylvania, makes for an excellent contrast with McClellan after Antietam or Hooker after Chancellorsville. Another good one is Shazli after the crossing of the Suez in 1973, with regards to remaining on the defensive or trying for the Sinai passes, is another, and close enough to our own time to make its impact easier to grasp.

    2) When the counterfactual is – unfortunately – one that “heritage” of one stripe or another has seized on; the liklihood of success or failure of Zeelowe in the face of the RN/RAF/British Army is a classic.


  • Jonathan Dresner May 3, 2010 @ 16:46

    My first exposure to libertarian ideas was L. Neil Smith’s Probability Broach, in which the South won the war and created an individualist utopia (our timeline had become a dystopic police state). It may not be fair, but it pretty much put me off of Confederate Counterfactuals. Smith never explained what happened to slavery, either.

  • rhapsodyinbooks May 3, 2010 @ 16:41

    Ordinarily I don’t like counterfactuals myself; I agree with the sentiments expressed by Grant. I think Guns of the South is different, however. In my opinion this particular book (I don’t know about other Turtledove books) falls more into the realm of fantasy or scifi. It involves time travel and the acquisition by some Confederates of not only AK-47s but of nitroglycerin for Lee’s heart condition. I like scifi and I thought the premise of this was very amusing; I don’t see this book as being in the “history” or “counterfactual” history at all. It doesn’t pertain to things that actually could have occurred!

    • W. W. S. Hsieh May 3, 2010 @ 17:25


      I also agree with rhapsody’s comment here–I don’t think Turtledove really should be seen as “counterfactual history,” at least not of the sort that Mark Grimsley talks about so much, and other academics have used–I’m thinking of my former (and sadly departed) teacher Henry Turner, Jr., who once ran a scenario of Hitler dying in a car accident, and how that would have affected history (a plausible counterfactual, as opposed to the CSA getting AK-47s).

      I still remember nearly rolling around on the floor in laughter when a buddy of mine (a proud Southerner, I might add) showed me the frontspiece of the book, with a crossed AK-47 and musket. I thought it immensely amusing, although I still haven’t bothered to read it, partly the scenario just seemed a bit too fantastic for my taste.

      It reminds me of the time I took my midshipmen to Spotsylvania for a staff ride, and a future Marine mentioned at the Bloody Angle of how one could wreak a whole world of hurt with a SAW positioned at a certain sport (Squad Automatic Weapon basically a light machine gun, for those of you not interested in modern American infantry arms). An Air Force officer friend then joked about what one AC-130 gunship in the air over the mule show would have affected the battle. We joked that the aircraft might be named “Virginia” if it was Confederate.

      That being said, I think your comments are an interesting response to counterfactual history as a whole; I am curious as to how Mark Grimsely would respond.

      • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 2:44

        It’s a good point and one that I will concede. That said, it seems to me that it is hard to deny that Guns comes out of a tradition of imagining what ifs. Yes, this book involves time travel, but it also plays around with factors that have the potential to change the course of history, which is fundamental to the counterfactual. Anyway, the referencing of Guns was more a way of getting the post going. Not much hinges on it.

        I remember talking about this with Mark when he guest lectured for Professor Gallagher’s seminar. I don’t remember if you were there.

  • Bob Pollock May 3, 2010 @ 15:07

    “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. ”

    Not only American history, but world history.

    Abraham Lincoln believed that the destruction of the Union would be devastating to the cause of human freedom. Not just for the slaves, but for all who labored for a better life. From a speech by President Lincoln given to a Special Session of Congress on July 4, 1861:

    “This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders – to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all – to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial, and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.”

    I, too, find it difficult to understand those who profess a firm belief in American exceptionalism, American values and principles, and then argue in defense of the Confederacy.

    • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 15:17


      That is essentially the rub as I see it. What could be more exceptional about American history than its continued goal to “elevate the condition of men”? The Confederacy explicitly denied this to 4 million black Americans and would have continued to deny them this fundamental right if it had succeeded in its bid for independence. Now watch as someone responds by calling me a Lincoln apologist or notes that the United States discriminated against blacks. Yes, and it still managed to end the institution of slavery by winning the war and that’s what it comes down to as far as I am concerned.

      • Jere Krischel May 3, 2010 @ 15:23

        Well, you asked for it 🙂

        The Union also explicitly denied this to black Americans (note the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free slaves held in Union states, which had slaves during the Civil War), and it’s conjecture that the CSA would not have pursued compensated emancipation or some other form of ending slavery as had been done in other countries due to the inherent inefficiencies of slave labor versus free labor. Perhaps justified conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless.

        That being said, maybe I’d agree with your assertion if it explicitly included the assassination of Lincoln as requisite to the end of slavery, since the radical republicans (read: actual abolitionists) wouldn’t have come to power without his death. So if we’re to cheer on the mass murdering armies of Sherman and the fact that it brought victory to the US, let’s also cheer John Wilkes Booth in the same breath!

        • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 15:31


          I’ve already noted in the post that the road to the 13th Amendment was complicated and rocky, but the nation did get there. The EP did not free slaves in those states that remained in the Union, but that is irrelevant since steps were being taken to bring it to an end. The proclamation’s goals were military and that had to do with the states in rebellion. Northern states did indeed restrict the civil rights of blacks in some places, but I am talking specifically about slavery. Again, I am not making a moral claim about who was good and evil, just that one side did bring slavery to an end. I believe that the institution of slavery was a national problem by the eve of the Civil War.

          I don’t see what Lincoln’s assassination has to do with the end of slavery. By the time of Lincoln’s death the process had begun to ratify the 13th Amendment. I don’t remember the actual timeline offhand so I may be off here, but again I don’t see what his death has to do with this issue. Between this and another comment you seem to be equating abolitionists with Republicans. It is a mistake to equate the two.

          I’ll save the cheering for Booth for another time. Thanks for the comment.

          • Jere Krischel May 3, 2010 @ 15:51

            I guess the surprise for me, when looking closer at what I had been taught in school, was that abolitionists were actually a very tiny minority (talking specifically here about those people that asserted racial equality, not those who wanted to abolish slavery in new states so that black people would not go there and they would be preserved for the white race)…maybe 2% of the population, north and south. Lysander Spooner’s critiques of Lincoln were particularly eye opening to me, and I’ll admit it was a surprise when I discovered that abolitionist != republican.

            That being said, I believe the people who actually pushed hard for the 13th amendment (specifically the version that passed and ended of slavery, since Lincoln actually gave support to a proposed 13th amendment that would have made slavery irrevocable) were termed “Radical Republicans” – please correct me if I have the terminology wrong.

            My supposition here is that without the death of Lincoln, the “Radical Republicans” would have been tempered by his leadership, and possibly kept in check when it came to the complete abolition of slavery. Now perhaps the alternative would’ve been compensated emancipation, but it is just as likely that it could have required colonization of blacks to foreign lands (as Lincoln was a strong proponent of the idea of shipping all blacks far far away from whites). It therefore seems like cheering on the brutal US victory in the Civil War against the south must demand that we also cheer another atrocity that helped further the cause of the end of slavery, namely the assassination of Lincoln himself. As a martyr, the “Radical Republicans” were able to push further and faster than they otherwise would have been able.

            Pure supposition on my part, of course, but food for thought. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of the detailed breakdown of component factions in the Republican party of the 1800s could comment with more insight.

            • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 15:57


              That actually helps to clarify things for me quite a bit. You are right that the abolitionist community was quite small and I think it is also useful to distinguish between them and the Radical Republicans. You may be right that Lincoln would have moved more slowly on issues related to slavery, but it it important to remember that the service of blacks in the United States Army impacted Lincoln when it came not only to the problem of slavery, but even civil rights. One of Lincoln’s last public speeches referenced the possibility of extending the suffrage to certain African Americans. Once blacks joined the army Lincoln never permanently shelved the possibility of colonization and I believe that compensated emancipation was also off the table by 1863. His last offer may have been in the spring/summer of 1862, but the Border States rejected the offer given the state of military affairs.

        • Bob Pollock May 3, 2010 @ 16:16

          Regarding the EP, I would advise reading some of the other posts and comments on this blog. You are taking it completely out of context. How can you surmise that the CSA might have pursued compensated emancipation when their own Constitution explicitly protected the institution? Lincoln offered compensated emancipation to the border states and was rebuffed. Why would the deep south states consider it? They actually thought they could expand the institution to the western territories, to South America, to Cuba. It was the stated goal of the Republican Party to restrict slavery to where it already existed that drove the southern states to secession.

          Also, I’m not sure you can argue that it was Lincoln’s death that brought the Radical Republicans to power, unless you want to argue that Johnson wouldn’t have become President without Lincoln’s death, since it was Johnson’s lenient policies that brought them to power. Unfortunately, we can’t know what might have happened had Lincoln lived. Besides which, the 13th Amendment was passed before Lincoln’s assasination.

          In a broader context though, you are missing the point. The war was not just about freeing slaves, though that was the ultimate outcome. It was about protecting the freedoms, the civil liberties of all through the representative democracy that the nation’s forefathers had fought so hard to establish. John Quincy Adams had to fight the “gag rule” to protect the right of petition from those who didn’t think slavery should even be discussed in Congress. Freedom of speech was endangered because slave states passed laws restricting anti-slavery literature to be mailed. Grant in his Memoirs wrote:

          “Southern slaveholders believed that, in some way, the ownership of slaves conferred a sort of patent of nobility – a right to govern independent of the interest or wishes of those who did not own such property. They convinced themselves, first, of the divine origin of the institution [of slavery] and, next, that that particular institution was not safe in the hands of any body of legislators but themselves.”

          To Northerners, the Slave Power was or “Slavocracy” was very real. We cannot forget that most of the world was still ruled by monarchies. Privileged classes ruled over the common man, and there was little opportunity for personal advancement. This is why immigrants flocked to America. This is what the Union meant to Lincoln and to Northerners; the opportunity to make a better life for oneself.

          Truly, America has not always lived up to her vaunted principle of freedom and equality for all, but the promise has been there since the inception, and despite the claims of some, freedom has expanded because America survived. I believe, as Lincoln did, that a Union defeat would have been a perilous step backwards.

          • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 16:23

            Thanks Bob. That was a much more helpful and accurate response than what I offered.

          • Jere Krischel May 3, 2010 @ 16:43

            I surmise that the CSA might have pursued compensated emancipation because slave labor cannot compete with free labor when technology requires skilled labor for competition. Regardless of whether or not it was in their constitution (as it was in the Union constitution at the time as well), slavery simply could not survive. And my understanding of secession is that it was driven more by tariff disputes – as evidenced by slave states that did not join the CSA until after the North called up an army to invade the south (had it been simply about slaves, Lincoln would have demanded Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina give theirs up as a condition of staying in the Union).

            Also, although the 13th Amendment passed the House and Senate before Lincoln’s death, it was not ratified until well after his assassination. My supposition is that without his martyrdom, it is possible that the amendment would not have been ratified by enough states.

            In reply to your thoughts on “protecting the freedoms, the civil liberties”, I find it yet another example of a hypocritical dilemma. That is to say, if one believes in government by the consent of the governed, one must acknowledge the legality, if not morality of secession (as northern states may have done over the Fugitive Slave Act). The crux of the paradox being, how do you have a limited central government that won’t tell you to return slaves to their owners, but a powerful enough central government that will tell everyone to end slavery. I understand that the morality of the two is crystal clear (slavery is clearly immoral, and forcing people to return others into slavery is clearly immoral), but how do you create a *system* that can distinguish between the two?

            I accept that it is possible that I cannot have my cake and eat it too -> it is possible that without the bloody march of Sherman and the deaths of countless civilians, and the assassination of Lincoln by Booth, that the world would be a worse place today. But my challenge, I suppose, is to accept the horrors perpetrated by evil men, and espouse the virtues that they temporarily abrogated, rather than assume that their means are simply justified by the ends which we have reached.

            I’ll leave it with this thought -> what if Germany won WWII, and through some miracle, the master race proclivities of Hitler faded with his eventual death, and a Fourth Reich that raised from his ashes promoted freedom, equality, peace, and unified the entire world under a single government where there were no wars, no poverty, no racism, no religion, and technology beyond our wildest dreams? Would we look back from 200 years after Hitler’s rise to power, attribute the state of the current world to his centralization of government, and forgive him his trespasses? I guess the pertinent question is, did America succeed to what it is today because of Lincoln and his great war, or in spite of it?

            • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 17:07


              Even the Confederacy’s plan to arm some of their slaves was not the beginning of anything approaching a plan for general emancipation. Lincoln’s steps against slavery were couched in military terms and not as an attempt to counter the Constitution’s protection of private property. Of course, the place of slavery in southern society was another thing altogether. It is important to keep in mind that southerners did not think of slavery as running counter to a more industrialized and progressive economy [See William Link’s book, The Roots of Secession (UNC Press)]; in fact, they continued to adjust the practice of slavery up through the the 1850s.

              I would say the 13th Amendment passes with or without Lincoln. It is almost impossible to imagine not ending it given the service of black Americans in the war effort.

              Let me be clear that I am not making an argument that attempts to justify the means by which the end of the Civil War and slavery were achieved. I was making the much simpler claim that I am pleased with the fact that the war ended the institution of slavery.

              • Jere Krischel May 3, 2010 @ 17:31

                I think I understand your claim, and I’m fairly supportive of it. My suspicion is that it also implies that I should be pleased with the fact that Lincoln’s death ended the institution of slavery (or any other atrocious evil we might plausibly link to the end of slavery). This isn’t to say my assertion of relation is definitive, since as you point out, it’s reasonable to assume a set of circumstances where Lincoln survived and slavery ended as well. But I suspect that any assertion of relation is not definitive, and it’s also reasonable to assume some set of circumstances where the CSA won and slavery ended too.

                To put it in a more personal context, all of my romantic relationships in my 20’s were fraught with pain, suffering, horror, sadness and the dramatic gnashing of teeth. Yet today, I’m deliriously happy. My wife is my best friend, my children are a joy, my boss is great, and I switched to Mac. I can hardly imagine jeopardizing the present I have today by changing any of the past, even the most painful parts (a frequent subject of various sci-fi movies, tv shows and books). But am I *glad* I suffered before reaching my utopia? Am I *thankful* for evil girlfriend #4?

                I guess I can always fantasize that if I had skipped evil girlfriend #1 I could’ve gone straight to best friend wife #1 (maybe skipping the Civil War, and just going with compensated emancipation and maintaining a voluntary Union of states), but in reality, as much as I adore best friend wife #1, and as much as I can forgive evil girlfriends #1-4, I cannot help but be a little bit bitter (as perhaps many people with Confederate ancestors murdered by Sherman and Lincoln may be).

                Anyway, thank you for provoking some interesting thoughts, and indulging my “what ifs” 🙂

                • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 2:41


                  I never claimed that Lincoln’s death ended slavery. In fact, I don’t think it has anything to do with it.

                  • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 7:23

                    Yes, I understand your position -> I’m merely saying the argument can be plausibly made that it did have something to do with it, and it was required for slavery to end (Mr. Pollock’s comments about the martyrdom of Lincoln being relevant here).

                    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 8:03


                      Of course it is plausible, but why should we believe it? What evidence will you muster to make your case?

              • Leonard lanier May 3, 2010 @ 19:42

                Anybody that believes in the “gradual death of slavery” counter-factual argument needs to read Charles Dew’s books on the Tredegar Iron Works and the iron industry in the Shenandoah Valley. The rapid development of diversified and developed economies in both Maryland and Virginia during the 1840s and 1850s testifies that industrialized slavery worked extremely well for slaveowners/capitalists.

                • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 0:38

                  Dew’s book is essential reading on this as is William Link’s “The Roots of Secession” (UNC Press).

                • EarthTone May 5, 2010 @ 8:07

                  Also of use on this subject is the book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas Blackmon. The book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, talks about how the southern judicial and prison systems were used to improperly/exploitatively capture blacks into what was essentially a prisoner-based slave labor system.

                  The book talks about “industrial slavery,” and how black prison labor – what Blackmon calls “neo-slavery” – was used in coal mines or foundries. That is what slave labor might have looked like had the CSA won the war.

                  But we need to also remember: millions of southern blacks in the postbellum era were sharecroppers. They had more freedoms than slaves, but they were exploited labor, and were apparently a reasonable alternative to slavery in the minds of landowners. But those landowners would probably have maintained slavery at least as long as they maintained sharecropping – and sharecropping lasted through the 1940s to early 1950s, as I understand it.

                  • Kevin Levin May 5, 2010 @ 8:16


                    The Blackmon book is well worth reading. I couldn’t put it down.

            • Bob Pollock May 3, 2010 @ 17:30

              Well this exchange certainly points out the challenge of counterfactuals, doesn’t it?

              You are certainly entitled to your suppositions, but we can’t really know what effect Lincoln’s death had on the ratification of the 13th Amendment, can we? I actually think Northerners (and many Southerners) backed the 13th Amendment (and the 14th, 15th, and other Reconstruction Acts) because not only had Lincoln been killed, but thousands of others had given “the last full measure of devotion.” There was a reaction to Johnson, because he was giving up the fruits of Union victory, and because it was clearly understood that slavery had been the root cause of the war.

              And, here we go with the the tarriff thing again. Again, I would suggest looking up some previous posts and comments on this blog, but just for starters, the churches did not split over tarriffs, the Democratic Party did not split over tarriffs, the Whig party did not end because of tarriffs, the Missouri Compromise was not about tarriffs, the Compromise of 1850 was not about tarriffs, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was not about tarriffs, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were not about tarriffs, hell, even the South Carolina nullification crisis that Jackson put down was ultimately about slavery, not tarriffs (read Freehling “Prelude to Civil War”). And, most importantly, read the Southern states’ ordinances of secession and their declarations of justification for secession.

              • Bob Pollock May 3, 2010 @ 17:41

                oops. too many r’s in tariff. : )

                • Bob Pollock May 3, 2010 @ 17:51

                  Just another thought, how many crops are harvested by machines vs. unskilled human labor still today?

                  • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 7:15

                    Nearly all of them, actually. I’ve worked in pineapple fields, and although human hands do the picking, there are a plethora of machines used today as part of the harvesting process, including a very complex conveyor belt/boom/tank sort of thing that helps load trucks with the pineapple. I imagine that the term “harvest” needs to be more than simply an act of picking – the trucks, processing machines, irrigation, etc, etc, etc, all call for skilled and semi-skilled labor.

                    Now, playing devil’s advocate for myself, I suppose your average pineapple picking crew of 10 pickers, 1 truck driver, four packers and one luna (supervisor) only theoretically requires two skilled laborers…but if you were trying to get the 10 pickers and 4 packers to perform, I’m not sure if whips and beatings could really motivate them, and how many whippers/beaters you’d need. We used to get bonuses for filling up more trucks, and I’ve seen crews work dramatically faster than others based on that motivation (the regular laborers would often try and group together on crews so they could be assured of getting bonus trucks, and they’d leave the seasonal teenagers to go with the rest). I suppose if someone had been threatening me, it could have served as some form of motivation, but my general response to that (from the various corporal punishments meted out by my parents) was negative, and although things did get done when I was enslaved by my parents, they were accomplished significantly slower than if I had had some positive motivation.

                    Interesting point, though!

                    • CBrinton May 4, 2010 @ 20:06

                      You should look into labor conditions that prevailed earlier in Hawaii’s history. The rulers of the CSA would have been delighted to spread their slave system to Hawaii (although it is unlikely the stronger naval powers would have allowed them to do so).

                      And sugar harvesting is also a hard job, involving many skilled aspects–and in the US it was done almost entirely by slaves until 1865.

                      The idea that slave labor can’t be employed in complex fields is no more than a comforting illusion. There were thousands of skilled slave factory laborers in the slave states.

            • Marc Ferguson May 3, 2010 @ 17:39

              “…my understanding of secession is that it was driven more by tariff disputes…”

              Then you are misinformed. Read the secession documents, and read Charles Dew’s _Apostles of Disunion_ on the secession commissioners.

              “(had it been simply about slaves, Lincoln would have demanded Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina give theirs up as a condition of staying in the Union)”

              This makes no sense.

              • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 7:20

                Why doesn’t it make sense? Seriously, this is what I would’ve expected if it was a slavery issue first and foremost:

                1) Instead of the Morill Tariff, the first act of Lincoln would’ve been the 13th amendment (and NOT the one he supported that made slavery irrevocable);
                2) Upon the start of the war, all slavery in the Union would have been declared illegal (no waiting 2 years for the EP);
                3) No Jim Crow laws in the North;
                4) No colonization advocates trying to ship people off to Haiti.

                That’s just to name a few, of course. I understand that abolitionists existed, North and South, and no doubt some of them supported Lincoln (although others notoriously criticized him – Spooner). But they were sadly, a very, very tiny minority. It is a real surprise that they were able to pull off the end of slavery at all, and probably not such a surprise that it took nearly another 100 years before the Civil Rights movement that swept the US in the 1960s.

                • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 8:59

                  With all due respect, Jere, I really think you need to do some background reading before making these claims. You may want to read one of the many scholarly biographies available on Lincoln. I recommend starting with David Donald’s biography, “Lincoln”.

                  It’s easy looking back from a point where we can point to things that should have been done, but it is altogether a different project to try to understand why decisions were, in fact, made. For some reason we tend to assume that Lincoln could have done anything he wanted, as if he operated in some kind of vacuum.

                  • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 9:03

                    My apologies if it seemed like I was making any claims -> my ignorance on this subject compared to the rest of the audience is probably legion, and I’m grateful for your indulgence of my curiosity. I was simply trying to state what would have unambiguously convinced me that the war was first and foremost slavery. I could have probably said it better by saying, “*I would suppose* had it been simply about slaves,”, rather than leaving it unqualified.

                    Donald’s book is definitely on my reading list, I look forward to learning more. Thanks again!

                    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 9:07

                      Please do not apologize for anything. This is a place where thoughtful people can feel comfortable exchanging ideas with one another. You have certainly done that. We all appreciate it. I am pleased to hear that the discussion threads have been helpful. Like I said the Donald book is a great place to start. Lord knows there is plenty of really top-notch scholarship on Lincoln to consider.

                • Marc Ferguson May 4, 2010 @ 13:13

                  You wrote: “…my understanding of secession is that it was driven more by tariff disputes – as evidenced by slave states that did not join the CSA until after the North called up an army to invade the south (had it been simply about slaves, Lincoln would have demanded Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina give theirs up as a condition of staying in the Union).”

                  The reason it makes no sense is that you are conflating the causes of southern slave-state secession with the reasons Lincoln and the federal government resisted secession. It is noteworthy that the secessionists, in speeches, letters, editorials, and other public documents such as the declarations of the causes of secession invoked the interests and rights of the “slave-states,” never the “anti-tariff-states.” The Republicans were tarred as “Black Republicans,” not as “Tariff Republicans.” All efforts at comprise focused exclusively on slavery issues, never on tariff issues.

                  No one is arguing that Lincoln, the federal government, and northerners opposed secession in order to stamp out slavery. The reasons for this are of course complicated, and included economic and political dimensions, and a different understanding of, and attachment to the Union than most southern whites. Lincoln wasn’t setting any conditions for “staying in the Union,” he believed secession to the unconstitutional (as he believed federal interference with slavery within the states to be as well).

                  I hope this clarifies why I think your comment didn’t make sense.


                  • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 13:44

                    Thanks Marc, you almost had me clarified, but I think I got lost on the last statement, “as he believed federal interference with slavery within the states to be as well”. Let me see if I can break this down:

                    1) Slaves states make a clear stand against any imposition upon their “right” to own slaves;
                    2) Lincoln insists, “no, no, no, it’s okay to have slaves, just don’t leave the union”;
                    3) Slave states just plain don’t believe Lincoln is being honest, and secede;
                    4) Lincoln goes, “I told you not to leave”, and with Sumter as a rallying cry, begins the invasion of the south.

                    I guess #2 is the part that spins my head around. It’s almost as if for the North, it wasn’t about slavery, but for the South, it was…like a husband and wife fighting with each other over two separate things entirely, with the woman screaming about how he’s always watching the TV too loud and the man screaming that she can’t cook a decent meatloaf to save her life.

                    I know my straw man is simplified, of course, but have I at least identified some of the major points of view there?

                    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 13:57

                      That sounds about right, Jere, though Lincoln would probably not have agreed that he was invading the United States. Number 2 really is a tough one for many to grasp. Lincoln never denied that the constitution protected slavery in the states where it always existed. He continued to believe this through the war until the constitution was amended. Remember, the courts were still in session and Lincoln had every reason to believe that they would side with the states (MO, KY, MD, DE) that had remained in the Union if he tried to outlaw slavery there. Lincoln’s goal from the beginning was to save the Union. By 1862 that involved freeing slaves in areas that were engaged in rebellion and where it would benefit militarily. In short, freeing some slaves, along with their enlistment helped to save the Union and led to the end of slavery everywhere by 1865.

                    • Bob Pollock May 4, 2010 @ 14:50

                      I think it is important to understand that Lincoln did draw a line in the sand when it came to slavery expansion. The Republican Party explictly argued that the federal government had the authority to stop the spread of slavery into new states and territories. As Margaret stated in another comment, most people believed if slavery could be contained, it would die out. Slaveholders believed this as well. Consequently, they saw Lincoln’s election as a threat to their institution, no matter how many times he told them they were entitled to keep it where it already existed. Lincoln wrote this letter to Alexander Stephens on Dec. 22, 1860:

                      My dear Sir

                      Your obliging answer to my short note is just received, and for which please accept my thanks. I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me.

                      Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.

                      The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.

                      Yours very truly

                      A. LINCOLN

            • Margaret D. Blough May 3, 2010 @ 19:15

              Why do you believe that tariffs had anything to do with the secession of the Upper South states? Those states were controlled by very conditional Unionists & the realization that Lincoln was not going to passively accept secession was the tipping point BTW, Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress an insurrection when state governments were unwilling or unable to do so was done pursuant to the precise terms of the federal Militia Act of 1795 (following the use of troops, including militia from other states, to move into Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion). The tariff closest to the Civil War, the Tariff of 1857 lowered rates & coverages to the lowest point since 1816. The first tariff act that raised tariffs after that was the Morill Tarill of March 1861, passed only after most rebel state congressmen and senators had resigned & was signed into law, as one of his last acts as President, by President Buchanan. It was passed with the realization that war as on the horizon & federal coffers had very little in them.

              As resolving your perceived conflict between limited & powerful government in relation to slavery, it’s called Article V of the Constitution-Amendments.

              If you want to understand how someone who believed that there is no hypocrisy between believed in government by the consent of the governed & believing that secession was unconstitutional, I suggest you read the December 23, 1832 letter from the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, to his protege (and Andrew Jackson’s private secretary) Nicholas Trist during the Nullification Crisis (http://www.constitution.org/jm/18321223_trist.htm). The Confederacy certainly did not believe in lack of consent or even strong objection being any grounds for not joining in the rebellion, as it made clear in its brutal military suppression of Unionists in East Tennessee and its military efforts to regain control of the northwest counties of Virginia, now known as the state of West Virginia.

              • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 6:58

                The tariff question is testified to in the historical record. You’ve got a large weight of evidence from newspapers (even Northern ones before Lincoln shut them down during the war), Lincoln’s own speeches and actions promoting the Whig agenda before becoming a Republican, and of course, the issue of slavery coming up sufficiently late in the game with the Emancipation Proclamation (the direct cause of a desertion crisis in the US army at the time).

                My point on hypocrisy about government by consent of the governed and the actions of the US army don’t let the CSA off the hook -> I’m well aware they were hypocritical in their position as well (Fugitive Slave Act is a good thing to force on the North, but Emancipation is not a good thing to force on the South). My apologies if I wasn’t clear -> I’m not trying to tar any one side with the brush of hypocrisy, I’m simply indicating that there is a dilemma here of competing pressures.

                That being said, what part of Article V of the Constitution can distinguish between “good” ideas we should force upon non-consenting people, and “bad” ideas we should not force upon non-consenting people?

            • James F. Epperson May 4, 2010 @ 3:10

              The notion that tariff disputes drove secession simply is not supported by the historical record.

              • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 3:41

                I always ask these people to point out where the tariff is referenced in the many speeches, pamphlets, and other documents published throughout the secession winter.

                • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 7:05

                  Why the limitation on the winter? The Morill Tariff was a major plank of the Republican party, and had been passed by the house May 10, 1860 -> which turned it into a major issue in the upcoming election. To think that it was simply a second thought turned to when war seemed inevitable is a bit disingenuous, isn’t it? It had been brewing for quite a while between North and South, right?

                  • Andy Hall May 4, 2010 @ 9:26


                    The “secession winter” of 1860-61 is the critical moment in time when the Southern states acted — i.e., seceded — and so it’s the speeches, editorials, pamphlets and so on in circulation at that moment that give the best, most immediate insight into the thinking, motivations, justifications and rationalizations of the people who took the South down that path. Yes, disputes between the Northern and Southern states had been building for a long time, but they didn’t act until Lincoln’s election in November 1860. What did he represent, in practical terms, that they so feared?

                    I’d strongly encourage you to go back and immerse yourself in Southern newspapers and other publications of that specific period. It’s important to understand that Southern revisionism (i.e., the notion of the “Lost Cause”) began immediately after the war ended, and continues to this day. Central to that notion is the argument that the secession, and the war that followed was about tariffs, or vaguely-defined “states rights,” — anything really, other than slavery. That’s a popular notion, but it just doesn’t stand much scrutiny.

                    P.S. : I’m going to drop the “Glenn Beck’s Chalkboard” moniker here — it’s better suited to snarky political sarcasm than to the sort of serious discussion Kevin nurtures here. I blog over at MaritimeTexas.

                    • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 10:24

                      Pleasure to meet the man behind the Chalkboard, Andy 🙂

                      You’re absolutely right that the notion that the Civil War was 100% not about slavery doesn’t stand up to scrutiny -> I guess I would assert that similarly, the notion that the Civil War was 100% about slavery doesn’t either, and although some people’s POV may be caricatured that way, I would suspect that it doesn’t really reflect what they truly believe. The real story behind the scenes is always so much more interesting, I think.

                      The recent revelation that I’ve been working to come to terms with is the negative motivations and actions of the Union during the Civil War -> I always thought it was 100% about freeing slaves, that the Union was 100% pro-equality, and that Lincoln was a god amongst men. Naive, yes, but I had never thought to question it at all, or learn more about the details of that era (even though my father and brother are grognards when it comes to Civil War miniature gaming – for the record, they play the Confederates because they like playing the underdog, not because of any “Lost Cause” sympathies 🙂 ). Now finding out that your childhood hero was in fact a racist villain doesn’t mean that everything they did was evil, or turned out for the worse, but it certainly does inspire one to be more skeptical of the entire story once held with crystal clarity in the mind’s eye.

                      Anyway, thank you again for your informative comments, Andy!

                    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 10:54

                      I think it’s safe to say that the revision in scholarly studies that focus on the causes of secession/war have come to reflect the importance that white southerners placed on slavery themselves. A number of readers have suggested reading Charles Dew’s “Apostles of Disunion” (UVA Press). I couldn’t agree more. It’s the perfect place to begin and it will take you one day to read.

                  • Margaret D. Blough May 4, 2010 @ 13:09

                    Jere-The secession winter documents and speeches are critical because these are the explanations that secessionists gave for their actions at the time they were taking them & when they were trying to persuade other slave states to join them. (There is no evidence that they tried to get any free state to join them) The Lost Cause revisionism came as they tried to evade responsibility for the carnage and devastation of the war and to rationalize how the Union prevailed.

                    The Morrill Tariff didn’t pass CONGRESS until March 1861, when war really was seen by many as inevitable. There is considerable doubt that it would have cleared the Senate even then but for the fact that most Senators from states that had joined the rebellion had already resigned from Congress. It was signed into law by President Buchanan, no friend to the North, the Republican Party, Free Soil, abolitionism, or to “coercion”. Would you have felt that the Northern states that blamed the drastic lowering of rates in 1857 for the Panic of 1857 and ensuing depression to have cause for secession and plunging the nation into war?

                    Please read what Lawrence Keitt (a major fireeater; he also was the Congressman who held would-be rescuers at bay with a pistol as Preston Brooks nearly beat Charles Sumner to death on the floor of the US Senate; after the Civil War began, he joined the Confederate Army and was KIA at Cold Harbor) said during the South Carolina Secession debates (the entire debate can be found on the Furman University website):

                    >>Mr. KEITT. I agree with the gentleman from Richland, that the power of taxation is the central power of all governments. Put that power into my hands, and I care very little what the form of government it is; I will control your people through it. That is the question in this address. We have instructed the Committee to present a summary of the reasons which influenced us in the action we have now taken. My friend from Richland said that the violation of the Fugitive Slave Laws are not sufficient, and he calls up the Tariff. Is that one of the causes at this time? What is that cause? Your late Senators, and every one of your members of the House of Representatives, voted for the present tariff. [Mr. Miles. I did not.] Well, those who were there at the time voted for it, and I have no doubt you would, if you were in it. The question of the tariff did agitate us in 1832, and it did array this State against the Federal Government.

                    I maintain, and do always maintain, that this State triumphed then. Mr. Clay said, before nullification, that the protective tariff system had been established for all time. After the Nullification Ordinance, Mr. Clay did say that the State had accomplished the destruction of that system, and that the State had triumphed. The history of that time has never been written. It is true, we were cheated in the compromise; and really, sir, in what single compromise have we not been cheated? My opinion is, that the State of South Carolina and every other Southern State have been dealing with faithless confederates.

                    But the Tariff is not the question which brought the people up to their present attitude. We are to give a summary of our causes to the world, but mainly to the other Southern States, whose co-action we wish, and we must not make a fight on the Tariff question.

                    The Whig party, thoughout all the States, have been protective Tariff men, and they cling to that old issue with all the passion incident to the pride of human opinions. Are we to go off now, when other Southern States are bringing their people up to the true mark? Are we to go off on debateable and doctrinal points? Are we to go back to the consideration of this question, of this great controversy; go back to that party’s politics, around which so many passions cluster? Names are much — associations and passions cluster around names.

                    I can give no better illustration than to relate an anecdote given me by a member from Louisiana. He said, after the election of Lincoln, he went to an old Whig party friend and said to him: We have been beaten — our honor requires a dissolution of the Union. Let us see if we cannot agree together, and offered him a resolution to this effect –Resolved, That the honor of Louisiana requires her to disrupt every tie that binds her to the Federal Government. [Laughter.]

                    It is name, and when we come to more practicability we must consult names. Our people have come to this on the question of slavery. I am willing, in that address to rest it upon that question. I think it is the great central point from which we are now proceeding, and I am not willing to divert the public attention from it. I believe the address, in this respect, cannot. The gentlemen from Chesterfield (Mr. Inglis) says that certain constructions of the Act of Pennsylvania are denied. He might have gone further and have said that certain constructions of the Personal Liberty Bills are denied. I have never seen any Abolitionist yet who did not say that these Acts had no reference to fugitive slaves.

                    I, myself, have very great doubts about the propriety of the Fugitive Slave Law. The Constitution was, in the first place, a compact between the several States, and in the second, a treaty between sections, and, I believe, the Fugitive Slave Law was a treaty between sections. It was the act of sovereign States as a section; and I believe therefore, and have very great doubts whether it ought not have been left to the execution of the several States, and failing of enforcement , I believe it should have been regarded as a causi belli.

                    I go for the address, because, I believe it does present succinctly and conspicuously what are the main primary causes<<

                    • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 13:24

                      Interesting citation. If I’m not mistaken, he is asserting that the “causi belli” was the North’s unwillingness to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act? In other words, the North was forced to wage a bloody war against the South because the North decided not to enforce the FSA, and the South responded by secession? Please let me know if I’ve read that wrong.

                      I must protest your statement though:

                      “The Lost Cause revisionism came as they tried to evade responsibility for the carnage and devastation of the war and to rationalize how the Union prevailed.”

                      The carnage and devastation of the war was predominantly executed by Union troops making war on civilian populations of the south (though, as in all wars, plenty of bad things happened on both sides). The responsibility there is mostly to the Union, not to the CSA. Lost Cause revisionism may have been an attempt to assuage their pain of defeat, or even to rationalize their stand as an altogether heroic one, but blaming the CSA for Sherman’s march is like blaming the Native Americans for their systematic slaughter by the Union army (the straw man being that the Native Americans brought it upon themselves by whatever acts of barbaric resistance any few of them took out on white settlers).

                      I guess my distress here is that one cannot lightly absolve the Union of the evil that it did, both to the CSA and to blacks in general (both pre- and post- Civil War). Asserting that there is good cause to pin the responsibility of the horrors of war upon the CSA is unnecessarily and unfairly drawing lines of morality that are much more blurry in practice.

                      Anyway, thank you for your reference and otherwise informative comment.

              • Glenn Beck's Chalkboard May 4, 2010 @ 5:49

                In South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” the word “tariff” does not appear once. The word “slave” or a variation of it appears eighteen times.

                In the Texas declaration, the word “tariff” does not appear once. The word “slave” or a variation of it appears twenty-one times.

                In Georgia’s declation, the word “tariff” does not appear once. The word “slave” or a variation of it appears thirty-five times.

                In Mississippi’s short “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union,” he word “tariff” does not appear once. The word “slave” or a variation of it appears seven times.

                • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 7:37

                  Thank you for the references. Question, regarding Texas:

                  “They have impoverished the slave-holding States by unequal and partial legislation, thereby enriching themselves by draining our substance.”

                  Isn’t this a direct discussion of tariffs? I understand the word “tariff” is not explicitly used, but it seems to be talking about it.

                  And do you have the other state declarations of the CSA? Thanks!

                • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 7:48

                  Funny part in Mississippi:

                  “It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.”

                  I take it we can assume that was a veiled offer to accept compensated emancipation?

                  BTW, what was the intention for counting slaves after slavery had ended? Would they move from 3/5 to 1? Or were they to be considered non-citizens, like Native Americans?

                  Thank you all again for your detailed and valuable information! I’m learning a lot!

                  • Glenn Beck's Chalkboard May 4, 2010 @ 8:22

                    Jere, you asked (in separate posts):

                    I take it we can assume that was a veiled offer to accept compensated emancipation?


                    Isn’t this a direct discussion of tariffs? I understand the word “tariff” is not explicitly used, but it seems to be talking about it.

                    I think that, as an historian, one gets onto really shaky ground when you try to read what’s implied or “veiled.” That’s particularly true with documents like these — legal documents, drafted (for the most part) by lawyers, setting out explicit justifications, on-the-record, for the actions they’re taking. Whatever their private or unspoken thoughts, these documents reflect the justification that they intended to be part of the historic record, just as the Declaration of Independence did in 1776. They knew what they were doing.

                    I think all the other declarations are available online through a simple web search. I looked at four or five others, which were very short — they included vague and high-sounding rhetoric about states’ rights, standing in brotherhood with their fellow Southerners, and so on, but did not get down into the specific issues that led them down the path of secession.

                    Please understand that I’m not saying — nor is anyone else here, I think — that tariffs weren’t a point of concern between the Southern states and the Northern; it was a complex thing, and there were many issues, large and small, that went into things. But the notion that the Southern states seceded over “tariff issues” is just silly — the fire-eaters themselves said it was about existing (and anticipated) federal restrictions on the institution of slavery, and they said so, over and over again.

                    You also asked:

                    BTW, what was the intention for counting slaves after slavery had ended? Would they move from 3/5 to 1?

                    The Confederates States constitution continues the use of the 3/5 rule for determining representation in the CS House of Representatives. I’m not sure what you mean by “after slavery had ended,” because the CS constitution includes numerous provisions for the protection of slavery in all existing CS states, as well as mandating its unfettered legality in all future states and territories that may be acquired. Most important, Art. I, Section 9, Par. 2 explicitly bars any law that would even impair — much less prohibit — ” the right of property in negro slaves.” Under the CS constitution, ownership and trade in human chattel is not just protected, but untouchable. The notion that the Confederacy anticipated making any move toward universal emancipation, whether gradual or immediate, is just not a plausible point of discussion.

                    • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 8:37

                      Thank you for your clear explanation. I agree, asserting any single reason, be it tariffs or slavery, is a gross oversimplification, and even within those reasons, sometimes our understanding is not really how it happened (for example, if we always equate abolition with equality, when there were motivations for abolishing slavery without granting that blacks should be considered equals). If I’ve left the impression that I blame the entire war on tariffs, my apologies.

                      For my question on the 3/5 rule, I was wondering about after the US victory and the CSA surrender -> obviously, blacks were still discriminated against, even in the north, but what was the legal status of freed slaves? It’s fairly obvious they didn’t get full citizenship in the way we would understand that today (they were still second class citizens), but were they all considered citizens? That is to say, did the South get a number of additional seats in the House of Representatives because of the additional freed slave population being counted as “1” instead of “3/5”?

                      My notion of the CSA eventually giving up slavery if they won the Civil War isn’t based on any asserted anticipation on their part, I just think it was inevitable. Since slavery ended across the globe without civil wars, I perhaps naively assume that the same factors which caused its downfall elsewhere would apply to the CSA in victory as well. I certainly could be wrong, but since we can’t run parallel universes to experiment on, looking at chronologically close events elsewhere in the world seems as good a place as any to begin our flights of fancy 🙂

                      Thanks again, Mr. Chalkboard!

                  • EarthTone May 4, 2010 @ 9:01

                    From the Mississippi secession declaration at http://www.civil-war.net/pages/mississippi_declaration.asp

                    “In the momentous step, which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

                    “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.

                    “Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation.”

                  • Margaret D. Blough May 4, 2010 @ 13:27

                    Jere, that was resolved in the 13th (which ended slavery) and 14th (which gave US citizen to anyone born in the US) Amendments to the Constitution.

                    Compensated emancipation and/or gradual emancipation was never on the table. Proslavery forces refused to discuss anything that might even indirectly lead to the end of slavery. That is what the Gag Rule crisis was all about. As others have pointed out, Lincoln offered & got Congress to agree to financial assistance to loyal slave states that passed gradual emancipation laws. They turned him down cold (I wonder if they regretted that three years later when the 13th Amendment was ratified). Congress did pass & Lincoln signed a compensated emancipation law for DC on April 16, 1862 (the District still celebrates April 16 as a holiday, Emancipation Day)

                    • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 13:37

                      So based on the abolition of slavery and the grant of citizenship ex post facto to slaves born in the US (what about slaves sold from Africa after their birth?), did the reunified CSA gain additional seats in congress due to increased population? My understanding is that part of the whole slave/no-slave controversy was the counting of slaves to give unfair representation advantage to the whites in slave states -> what was the political reaction when these slaves became free and counted for even more population and therefore more representation? Was it simply negligible in the first place? Were there simply not enough slaves to increase the number of representatives from Georgia, for example, and making them an additional 2/5 more wasn’t enough to tip any scales?

                    • Andy Hall May 4, 2010 @ 16:08


                      I’m not as intimately familiar with the Reconstruction era as I am with some specific aspects of the war itself. I didn’t find this question directly address in Foner’s Short Reconstruction, but some numbers may partially answer your question about changes in House representation as a result of emancipation.

                      I don’t thinkany redistricting would have been done until after the 1870 U.S. Census, and the first Congress to reflect those numbers would have been the 43rd U.S. Congress, which served from March 1873 to March 1875.

                      Below are the numbers for the 43rd Congress, and the immediate antebellum Congress, the 36th (1859-61, but based on the 1850 Census). You will see that the former Confederate States’ absolute number of seats increased (67 to 73), those same states’ proportion of House seats decreased slightly, from 28% to 25%. Part of this is due to (1) Virginia’s loss of seats by the formation of West Virginia, and (2) the admission of Kansas, Nevada and Nebraska, which increased the total number of representatives and so diluted the strength of the Southern states.

                      36th U.S. Congress, 1859-61
                      238 Representatives

                      Alabama, 7
                      Arkansas, 2
                      Florida, 1
                      Georgia, 8
                      Louisiana, 4
                      Mississippi, 6
                      North Carolina, 8
                      South Carolina, 6
                      Tennessee, 10
                      Texas, 2
                      Virginia, 13

                      Total, 67, or 28% of voting members


                      43rd U.S. Congress, 1873-75
                      292 Representatives

                      Alabama, 8
                      Arkansas, 4
                      Florida, 2
                      Georgia, 9
                      Louisiana, 6
                      Mississippi, 6
                      North Carolina, 8
                      South Carolina, 5
                      Tennessee, 10
                      Texas, 6
                      Virginia, 9

                      Total, 73, or 25% of voting members

                      Fun Fact: In the 43rd U.S. Congress, Georgia’s 8th District was represented by Alexander Stephens, former Vice President of the Confederate States of America. Good times.

                • Ken Noe May 4, 2010 @ 7:52

                  The Georgia secession debates of December 1860 are often called the southern Lincoln-Douglas debates. William Freehling and Craig Simpson published an excellent collection of those speeches in 1992. Since it lacks an index, I did a quick word search using the incomplete Google version and found:

                  tariff 9 (including 4 times in the editors’ notes)
                  tariffs 1
                  slave 43
                  slaves 38
                  slavery 45

                  Those guys were a lot more worried about slavery than tariffs.

            • CBrinton May 4, 2010 @ 20:02

              “And my understanding of secession is that it was driven more by tariff disputes . . .”

              Flatly incorrect. As of December 1860 (when South Carolina seceded) tariffs were lower than they had been since 1794. The tariff of 1857, in effect when secession began, had been approved overwhelmingly by slave-state Congressmen–and had also been approved b y a 3-1 margin among New Englanders in the House of Representatives.

              The historical evidence is clear: secession was about fears for the future of slavery. It wasn’t about the tariff.

  • Mark Cheathem May 3, 2010 @ 13:00

    If you don’t like Guns of the South, don’t try Turtledove’s Timeline-191 series, a multi-volume look at what might have happened if the South had won. While I liked some of the characters and plot development, it was a bloated series that could have been condensed into three books.

    • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 13:01

      Thanks for the suggestion, Mark, but given my difficulty with Guns it doesn’t make much sense to move on to another book. 😀

  • ErrolC May 3, 2010 @ 12:32

    The vast majority of published what-if fiction is of no use for academic study. However, it is implicit in studying the importance of historical events that the impact of a different outcome (battle result, executive decision etc) is examined.

  • Bruce Miller May 3, 2010 @ 12:19

    Just a clarification: without searching out the quote in the text, as I recall this speech came from Gavin Stevens, the county attorney, to his nephew. Gavin often plays the voice of civilization and reason in Faulkner’s stories (though he has his flights of passion, too!). Commentators often assume that Gavin is the voice of Faulkner but that can be very misleading. Gavin is a character, not an omniscent narrator, and he has a particular romantic/intellectual take on life and history. Gavin wanted to end segregation and Jim Crow laws, but also had a sense of Southerners would have to end it themselves, rather than it being ended by outside pressure from the country. But the fact that Gavin Stevens espoused this view in that novel doesn’t mean it was Faulkner’s view. “The Unvanquished” portrays the Civil War and the overthrow of Reconstruction in terms that Lost Causers would not find acceptable.

  • Tom Thompson May 3, 2010 @ 12:14

    Great post! This is exactly the sort of discussion that brings me back everyday. I am going to refer today’s message on to every Civil War enthusiast in my address book so they can see the smart discussions that you open on a daily basis. Thanks for what you do.


    • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 12:15

      Thanks Tom.

  • Boyd Harris May 3, 2010 @ 12:03

    First off, I read Guns of the South when I was fourteen years old. I re-read it about once a year. I just wish Turtledove could write something that good again.

    Second, counterfactuals are just like monuments, in that they tell us a lot more about the age in which they are created. Turtledove’s book, without giving too much away, is in part a commentary on worldwide race relations in the late 1980s. It envisions the type of Confederacy that you or I may actually want to live in, as you pointed out yourself. The popularity of “what if” question surrounding Gettysburg tell us more about the formation of the Lost Cause ideology during the 1890s than it actually does about the war. These questions about very specific choices, in my opinion, reflect the central paradox of the Lost Cause: If we were right about everything, then how come we still lost? If Lee was the greatest general and the Army of Northern Virginia “unbeatable,” then how come we lost? These “what if” questions only serve to illustrate how close the South came to victory, at least in the eyes of the devotees of the Lost Cause.

    But alternative history does provide an excellent opportunity for students of history, namely to learn about the bogus notion of inevitability. Asking questions like, “What if the South did not secede?” offers a framework in which to discuss the actual decision making processes that occurred in southern states in 1860-61. Picking those key moments in history and asking “what if” illustrates the impact that choices have had on history. They also provide a lesson to students that nothing is inevitable and that our history was, and is, driven by the choices we make.

    • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 12:07


      Wonderful comment and I agree with much of what you have to say about the continued hold of the Lost Cause. I also agree that counterfactuals can help us make certain epistemological points about historical studies. Thanks.

  • Nat Turners Son May 3, 2010 @ 11:45

    I remember Dandy Don on MNF saying this Kevin ” IF if’s and but’s were candy and nuts, Oh what a Merry Christmas we would have.” You and Don are right IF’s have no place in Academic History.

    In Military Science: you study the Battle, Men , lay of the land and equipment and supplies each Army had plus their logistics system. When you do that; you can make a Educated If’s statement but it doesn’t change the battle, it is just an arguable point for a classroom debate.

  • Jere Krischel May 3, 2010 @ 11:25

    Interesting post. I guess I find myself also as a “lover of empire” built by Lincoln, both because of the indoctrinated nationalism of my youth as well as since I’m from a small state that gained a lot from Union with the states (Hawaii). So while I certainly sympathize with the CSA and the brutal war waged against it by a president who was unquestionably a flawed man with flawed motivations, I find it difficult not to appreciate where we’ve gotten to today.

    That all being said, my take on slavery if the CSA had prevailed is that it would’ve died a natural death, similar to how it died off in Europe. It could be argued that regardless of any outcome, the racial conflicts exposed during Reconstruction and beyond would have taken just as much time to sort out, but I suppose it could also be argued that a CSA victory may have shortened the delay, and a US victory lengthened the delay.

    That being said, such fantasies are best left to the realm of fiction 🙂

    • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 11:32

      Thanks for the comment. The CSA was just as much wrapped up in notions of “empire” and centralization of federal power as the United States. That is often overlooked.

      Given the ways in which slavery had adapted to a more industrial and progressive economy in the South by 1860 it is safe to say that slavery could have continued for some time. The historian William Freehling once speculated that slavery could have existed until the early twentieth century. Of course, we will never know. What we do know is that United States victory in 1865 brought an end to slavery.

      • Jere Krischel May 3, 2010 @ 11:45

        I’d be interested to hear more about CSA dreams of empire…any references you would recommend? I understand that the Fugitive Slave Act almost convinced northern states to secede from the Union, but I hadn’t imagined that the southern states would’ve threatened invasion if the northern states seceded in order to avoid that centralization of federal power.

        I also wonder if it was not just the US victory, but also Lincoln’s assassination and the rise of the “radical” Republicans that truly brought an end to slavery. It seems like abolitionists were always a minority, but were able to sufficiently leverage their power in the vacuum left after Lincoln’s death.

        • Kevin Levin May 3, 2010 @ 12:05

          On Confederate/Southern nationalism and the swing toward a more centralized government, start with Vol. II of William Freehling’s Road to Disunion and John Majewski’s Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation.

    • Margaret D. Blough May 3, 2010 @ 18:21

      The Framers bought the leave it alone and it will die a natural death argument & that played a role in accepting the compromises that South Carolina and Georgia demanded as the price for their ratification of the Constitution. Shortly thereafter (1793), Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which enabled the short-staple cotton that was the type predominantly found in the US (sea island cotton with its fine long fibers could only be grown in limited areas) to be processed efficiently and become a international cash crop. Slave imports soared Southern states in the years preceding the date on which Congress could ban the international trade. The Louisiana Purchase brought a massive territory where slavery was long established into the Union followed by Texas annexation.

      It took many decades to get the UK to abolish first the slave trade and then slavery in its colonies & they had one major factor assisting them in this that the US. Even before Lord Mansfield decided Somerset’s Case which held that no slave brought to the UK could be forcibly removed from it to be sold/resold into slavery, the percentage of slaves in the UK was very small. Black Slaves formed a substantial portion of the US population and, in many areas of the Deep South, equaled or even exceeded the number of whites. Slavery in the European colonies did not end naturally or peaceably. The slave revolts that gave birth to Haiti still remembered but brutal slave revolts Barbados, 1816, in Demerara in 1823, and in Jamaica in 1831–32 played major roles in the British public and government growing disenchanted with the price being paid to produce sugar.

      You also haven’t said what you find flawed about Lincoln’s motivations. As for the brutal war waged against it, it was the rebel states that chose to respond to the lawful election of a President of the United States belonging to a party opposing the expansion of slavery by trying to split the country apart, including forming an army. The first acts of violence were committed by forces of rebel states, many of which didn’t wait until after they officially joined the rebellion, and/or the Confederate armed forces against federal facilities. Lincoln’s call for troops occurred only after the attack on Ft. Sumter and its fall.

      Racial issues plagued this country from its earliest days. The only thing that the Civil War removed was the use of the auction block and the private power of slave owners as a means of maintaining white supremacist governments and social systems.

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