The Great Debate of 2008: Opening Remarks

The Southern Victory of 1865:
Was the Confederacy a Viable State?

By William F.B. Vodrey – debate moderator
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Debate at the January 2008 Roundtable meeting was: “The Southern Victory of 1865: Was the Confederacy a Viable State?” Five members made presentations on the topic; the article below was the opening remarks made by the moderator of the debate.

Many of you have probably heard the old children’s rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

“What if” is a question as old as history itself. The earliest known piece of alternative or “counterfactual” history was written by the Roman historian Livy, who speculated more than two thousand years ago, around 25 B.C., in his Ab Urbe Condita (translation: From the Founding of the City) about what might have happened had Alexander the Great attacked Rome and not expanded his empire to the east. It might not surprise you to learn that Livy decided the Romans would’ve kicked Alexander’s ass, if it came to that.

More recently, in 1931, Winston Churchill wrote the essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.” Other noted authors and historians who asked “what if” have included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hilaire Belloc, Mark Twain, Vladimir Nabokov, MacKinley Kantor, John Keegan, Stephen Ambrose, Stephen W. Sears, David McCullough, James McPherson and Philip Roth. Alternative history – the tantalizing question of “what if” – is even at the core of that beloved Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, which asks us, just what would have happened if George Bailey had never been born?

George Will wrote, “The salutary effect of… ‘what if’ exercises is a keener appreciation of the huge difference that choices and fortuities make in the destiny of nations.” To date, far and away the most popular and recurring topics of alternative history have been a Confederate victory in the Civil War and a Nazi victory in World War II. All others pale in comparison.

Part of the reason in both cases, I think, is because it’s so easy – and so horrifying – to imagine things going the other way. Consider the Civil War. Despite the North’s huge advantages in population, infrastructure and industrial capability, historian Peter G. Tsouras noted in his introduction to the short-story collection Dixie Victorious,

On a number of occasions the [Union’s] margin of error was almost nonexistent. Here luck played the dominant hand. The South either did not press its advantage or failed to seize the moment. Victory [too often] held her laurels tantalizingly just beyond the reach of the Confederacy. The balance was so fine that it was tipped by the absence of a tourniquet [at Shiloh] or the depth of a sandbar on the Red River. The misallocation of naval resources, a lost order [before Antietam], or a failure to keep the cavalry close in the invasion of Pennsylvania were inordinately decisive…. [and of course] Lincoln came within a hairsbreadth of war with Great Britain over the Trent Affair….

I’d suggest that the most plausible and compelling alternative history turns on one decision, one event, that might easily have gone the other way. Then we consider what happened next, and see where it leads us. For a dyed-in-the-wool Unionist like me, “What if?” is always a potent Civil War question. For many Southerners, though, it’s deeply personal. Half a century ago in his novel Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner wrote that,

For every Southern boy fourteen years old… 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 [is] looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet… 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…. (emphasis in original).

Tonight our debaters will consider what victory the Confederacy might have won, if the Southern slaveholding republic might have survived as a nation, and how our world would have been forever changed by it.

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