by Bevin Alexander
Crown Books (2007); HB, 337 pages, $25.95
The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been
by Roger L. Ransom
W.W. Norton & Company (2005); HB, 352 pages; $29.95
Dixie Victorious: An Alternative History of the Civil War
edited by Peter G. Tsouras
Greenhill Books (2004); HB, 272 pages, $34.95
If The South Had Won The Civil War
by MacKinlay Kantor
Forge Books (2001); SB, 281 pages, $12.99
Historical fiction has always made for fascinating reading, but in recent years a new genre of books, “what if” accounts, have become popular. These are mostly serious musings, usually by credentialed historians, on what plausibly could have happened if a slightly different route had been taken at some crucial crossroad in the past.
For example, there is an 800+ page tome appropriately titled “What If: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been” (Robert Crowley editor; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001). Among its various historical anecdotes, the popular writer James McPherson offers a scenario in which the infamous “lost order” (a battlefield communication inadvertently dropped by a Southern courier and miraculously found by Federal troops), does not happen—and history sets off on a new path.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author MacKinlay Kantor, assumes two simultaneous and plausible events as his turning points: first, the death of Ulysses Grant’s death in a horse accident prior to his capture of Vicksburg (in fact as President, Grant was given a speeding ticket while he was President. He was fined $20 for driving his horse too fast in Washington.) The second scenario is a victory by Lee’s forces at Gettysburg (military historians of all stripes say that was within his grasp.) Events travel quickly from there: Washington DC becomes a Confederate city, (Lincoln flees to Ohio to set-up a federal capital), Texas breaks away from the Confederacy and declares itself an independent Republic in the 1870s, and slavery was eventually abolished in the 1880s as global opinion solidifies against the two southern nations.
A short but fast paced book, “If The South Had Won The Civil War” speculates that an explosion of a southern battleship in Havanna Harbor leads to a war between Spain and the Confederacy, and that the three American nations fight together in the two global wars of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Finally, in the face of the Cold War, reunification in one nation comes about in the 1960s.
“Dixie Victorious” editor and contributing author Peter G. Tsouras (Lt. Col., U.S.A.R., ret.) straightforwardly says: “The South did come close, incredibly close, on a number of occasions to victory … luck played the dominant hand. The South either did not press its advantage or failed to seize the moment. Victory held its laurels tantalizingly just beyond the reach of the Confederacy. The balance was so fine that it was tipped by the absence of a tourniquet or the depth of a sandbar on the Red River. The misallocation of naval resources, a lost order, or a failure to keep the calvary close in the invasion of Pennsylvania were inordinately decisive.”
The premises of “Dixie Victorious, How the South Could Have Won the Civil War,” and “The Confederate States of America”—all revolving around the South’s military and/or political success—are not simply idle speculation. In 1884, General G. T. Beauregard’s assessment was that in terms of psychological, geographical, and agricultural resources, “No people ever warred for independence with more relative advantages than the Confederates.” Even author Gary W. Gallagher (no friend of the Lost Cause) flatly concedes: “I contend that the Confederacy could have won the war, and that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee pursued strategies that, although unsuccessful in the end, held great promise …” (“The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat;” Harvard University Press, 1997).
In “Dixie Victorious,” 10 historians outline 10 scenarios on how the South could have won its independence. Propositions range from European intervention on the side of Jefferson’s government to J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry arriving at Gettysburg in time to give Lee the flexibility and forces he needed to turn the tide. Other chapters range from the political ramifications of a Lincoln Administration infected with indecisiveness and irreconcilable differences to the Union president either politically defeated or even mortally wounded before 1865.
Wade G. Dudley, Ph.D., contributes a chapter to Dixie Victorious entitled “Ships of Iron and Wills of Steel” in which at the beginning of the war CSA Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory wisely and firmly steers the strategic plans of the South into investing in a flotilla of ironclad of ships. When the federal ship “Monitor” arrives in Hampton Roads, three Confederate ironclads are there to greet it. Unfortunately, Politically Correctness compels Dudley to add: “Stephen Mallory … did not perform the miracles needed to win independence for his homeland. Be thankful for that. Victory would have meant the continuation of the institution of slavery …” Most of this book is free of such commentary as the professional historians involved in the project stick to their charge of re-creating military might-have-beens without polemics.
Edward Longacre, a U.S. Air Force historian, pens an account of J.E.B. Stuart successfully completing his mission in “Dixie Victorious” which results in a victory at Reading, Pennsylvania. In his “Absolutely Essential to Victory,” the Pipe Creek Defense Line replaces the Battle of Gettysburg as a pivotal turning point: Stuart does not attempt to ride around the Army of the Potomac and is by Lee’s side when the tide turns for the South.
The “Dixie Victorious” writers mostly focus on the military impact of minor tweaks in the historical record. Historian James Arnold speculates in “We Will Water our Horses in the Mississippi,” that had the personal physician of Confederate General Albert Johnston been at hand to save him from bleeding to death at the Battle of Shiloh, things may have been quite different that day. General Johnston tragically bled to death because no one was there to put a tourniquet on his leg wound.
As Peter Tsouras writes in his introduction to Dixie Victorious :
“The South came achingly near to victory as the scales trembled in balance again and again. Tip the balance, dear reader, and follow these alternative roads of history to Southern independence.”
As in “Dixie Victorious,” the “what if,” of “How the South Could Have Won the Civil War” is mostly military hypotheses. Despite the title, the book is chiefly about why the CSA lost, but Bevin Alexander‘s background as the author of 10 books on military history, including “How Wars Are Won” and “How Hitler Could Have Won World War II,” give him some extra credibility.
Alexander asserts the Confederate defeat was essentially the fault of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. The author argues that Stonewall Jackson—and other CSA military men such as Joseph Johnston, G.T. Beauregard, and James Longstreet—recommended more effective tactics via a war of attrition. By disrupting the North‘s production, shipping, and infrastructure, “to win indirectly by assaulting the Northern people’s will to pursue the war” as the author puts it, Northern voters may have forced Lincoln to come to terms with the South. Alexander states:
“… the Confederacy’s most glittering opportunity lay not in defeating the Northern field army in Virginia but in isolating or capturing Washington, evicting Lincoln and his government, and damaging Northern industry and railroads in order to turn public opinion against the war.”
Much of Alexander’s book revolves around tactical issues he has with General Lee. For example, he writes: “Lee’s decision to concentrate the army at Gettysburg was senseless. Even without the scouting of Stuart’s horsemen, he had attained a superb strategic position by his march into Pennsylvania. … Instead, Lee ordered a forced march on Gettysburg. It was like stepping off a cliff in the dark.”
There were enough strategic mistakes on both sides in the War Between the States to have any number of scenarios play out. Almost any political or military tremor could have made the Confederacy a lasting republic or even dashed its hopes for independence at the onset. That’s why Bevin Alexander has readers note that in writing his book: “My purpose is to show that, despite the odds, wars are won by human beings. When superior military leaders come along and political leaders pay attention to them, they can overcome great power and great strength. That is the lesson we need to remember today.”
Many historians accept the premise that a few military missteps or subtle political machinations could have changed the outcome of Lincoln’s war on the South. It’s why the fictional account of “The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been” by Roger Ransom can thought-provoking.
Ransom, a professor of history and economics at the University of California, suggests the Confederacy may have forced a military stalemate by 1864, frustrating the North’s political will to continue the fight. In his story, the momentum of the South’s changing luck and the North’s morale problems could have built a solid foundation on which to structure a permanent Confederate States of America. The author writes:
“Despite the odds, the American Republic not only survived [the devastation of the Revolutionary War] but flourished. The Confederates had the experience of the American Revolution and the intervening seventy-five years to draw upon in establishing their own country. They used that knowledge to draw up the Constitution of the Confederacy, which was patterned very closely after the U.S. Constitution.”
The better part of Ransom’s book, in substance and in length, examines how the USA and the CSA came to fight and make peace. But his conjecture regarding how the countries co-exist up until 1918 is sketchy. One interesting scenario has Woodrow Wilson, as president of the Confederate States of America, opposing USA President Theodore Roosevelt’s interventionist policies in World War I. Wilson was such an internationalist that the “what if” of keeping the CSA out of World War I is a bit of a stretch.
As with a few of the “Dixie Victorious” authors and Bevin Alexander as well, Ransom’s Politically Correct opinions cast a CSA victory as setbacks in domestic and international human rights and economic progress:
“It is worth noting that the segregated society in the Confederacy would be far more repressive than that which emerged in the postbellum American South … Under the best of scenarios, blacks in the Confederacy would be denied citizenship; they would trapped in a caste system based on race with no hope of escape.”
For a writer who can conceive of a Confederate nation extending from New Mexico to Cuba, who predicts the South’s economic progress in great detail, and who determines it has a role as a player on the world stage for 50 years, Ransom lacks imagination when envisioning the CSA’s internal policies. But Political Correctness reduces almost all writing about the War Between the States—fiction and non-fiction—to factually wrong assertions, stereotypical characters, and predicable conclusions.
In his book, “Defending Dixie” (Foundation for American Education, 2006), Professor Clyde N. Wilson observed that when writing about the South’s War for Independence most contemporary historians (and fiction writers in this case), “… insist [on] the interpretation we must accept … they wish to obliterate even the recognition of the possibility that there was any other legitimate interpretation.”
“What if” books about a CSA victory can lead to Southern daydreams. Perhaps if more novels and alternative history books penetrate the mass market, real—non-partisan—historical studies will be published. Those should generate serious reflections on why the triumph of the Confederate States of America would define political, philosophical, and cultural progress.