There was a time in the not so distant past when Americans could safely assume that the Civil War, which claimed 620,000 Northern and Southern lives, resulted in two immutable outcomes: It forever settled the issue that secession was illegal, and it forever abolished the institution of slavery.
Lately, though, those truisms seem not to have been written in stone. Ironically, it’s the Republican Party -- the party of Lincoln and the Northern victors -- that has voiced challenges to the old received wisdom about the legacies of the Civil War. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has openly spoken about secession (and opting out of -- in other words, nullifying -- federal programs such as Medicaid); Rand Paul, the Tea Party/Republican senator-elect from Kentucky, has questioned whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should have been passed; and a variety of Republicans have argued that the 14th Amendment, or at least a portion of it, should be rescinded.
While some of these political stands might be momentary posturing for the sake of the 2010 midterm elections, these Republican/Red State/Tea Party positions raise again the specter of the Civil War at the very moment when the nation stands ready to commemorate the sesquicentennial of that event. It’s as if the South, the purest of the Red States, didn’t lose the Civil War at all. Or put another way: The Confederacy, often depicted on maps as Red States (as opposed to Union Blue), may have lost the fighting -- forcing Robert E. Lee to surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865 -- but the social and political values of those Red States live on, nurtured and sustained in a Republican Party that often sounds more Confederate in its ideology than Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.
Indeed, we can try to imagine how different the history of the United States might have been if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Historians and Civil War buffs often play this counterfactual game, weighing what might have happened if Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg, if Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson -- the great Confederate general -- had not been killed mid-war in the spring of 1863, or if Lee had not surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Sometimes these games spin out of control, sailing into a sea of total fantasy. Harry Turtledove, a novelist with a striking name and a fertile imagination, wrote a phantasmagorical book called "The Guns of the South" (1992) that imagined how Lee could have beat Grant if racist time-travelers from apartheid South Africa could have equipped the Confederate army with AK-47s (spoiler alert: the South wins after cutting down rows and rows of Union troops).
But maybe we don’t have to stretch that far to conjure up a scenario in which Lee’s army, and the entire Confederacy, holds out just as it did into the spring of 1865. Lee surrenders to Grant, just as he really did, but after the surrender Lee’s behavior does not conform to what the history books tell us he did. We know, for example, that several months after the surrender Lee became the president of Washington College (what later would become Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Va., and that for the remaining five years of his life he consistently urged his fellow Southerners to accept defeat, to recognize the supremacy of the federal government, and to become good citizens of the United States once more. Lee himself requested a pardon from President Andrew Johnson. In explaining why he had asked for this pardon (which was never granted, although Lee’s citizenship was restored by Congress in 1975), he told a former comrade in arms: "True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them -- the desire to do right -- is precisely the same. The circumstances which govern their actions change; and their conduct must conform to the new order of things." Despite his private resentment of the North, he advised the people of the South to accept their defeat and the supremacy of the U.S. government.
But what if he hadn’t done so? What if Lee, embittered by defeat, had not become a symbol of reconciliation between North and South? Just before the Appomattox surrender, some of Lee’s junior officers pressed him to refuse Grant’s surrender terms and keep the war going by waging a guerrilla struggle against the Union. Lee would not hear of fighting an irregular partisan war, an insurgent war, against his foes, so he accepted Grant’s offer and surrendered his Confederate troops. But what if he hadn’t persuaded countless Confederates to follow his lead and to admit defeat? It’s possible to imagine that without his example many of his fellow Confederates might have kept on fighting, perhaps resisting Union forces by taking refuge in the broad band of Appalachian mountains that extend from Virginia to Georgia, drawing all the while on the guerrilla tactics made famous in the war by Confederate irregulars like John Hunt Morgan, John Singleton Mosby, William Quantrill, and Frank and Jesse James. In other words, what if the Confederacy had refused to give up, had found shelter for Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government in, say, the Great Smoky Mountains, and had eluded Union forces in their mountain sanctuaries? The moment might have been remembered later in poetry and song: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Up" -- up to the mountains, where the Yankees could not find the rebel strongholds.
By waging insurgent warfare (a kind of warfare that has become all too familiar to Americans in the late 20th and early 21st centuries), the Confederacy conceivably might have survived. If this insurgency kept up the fight by admitting only that some of its armies -- such as Lee’s -- had surrendered, but that the new nation itself remained in existence despite the occupation of the Union army in the Southern states during the so-called period of Reconstruction, the war between North and South could have been prolonged perhaps for years, perhaps for decades. In such an insurgent war, the advantage -- as we have seen in the Vietnam War or in our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- would have been held by the Confederates. To win such a war, all the insurgent Southerners had to do was take as many Yankee lives as they could in lightning raids and hang on long enough to cause war-weariness among the Union citizenry (something that actually occurred often enough during the real Civil War, nearly forcing Lincoln to issue calls for peace from time to time). If the struggle went on between North and South for a protracted period, the North might easily have become discouraged with the war effort and the people of the Union might have possibly acknowledged defeat by declaring a "victory" over the Confederacy and pulling its troops out of the South.
What would have happened next? Here’s my own counterfactual contrivance (without the AK47s):
In 1881, after 20 years of an unproductive, costly (in both treasure and lives), and fruitless war against the Confederate insurgency, the Union formally recognizes the Confederate States of America. The Southern leadership moves from its mountain bastions and reestablishes the Confederate government and the nation’s capital in Richmond, Va. Lee’s eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, is elected president, despite his colossal inability to manage anything, let alone a nation. In this way, he resembles the Northern bearded wonders -- Civil War veterans all -- who during the same era become the incredibly mediocre presidents of the United States who no one now remembers. The Confederate national government then reasserts its governance over the 11 states that seceded from the Union, beginning with South Carolina in December 1860 and ending with Tennessee in June 1861. Before the year 1881 ends, Kentucky joyfully joins the Confederate States of America by proudly noting its own refusal to ratify the 13th Amendment 16 years earlier. When Brazil abolishes slavery in 1888, the CSA becomes the only nation in the Western Hemisphere to hold human beings in involuntary servitude. Over the next decade, the domain of the Confederate States is extended to include New Mexico and Arizona. In 1900, Utah and Nevada join the Confederacy. Twelve years later, Oklahoma becomes a Confederate state. In 1925, West Virginia is admitted to the Confederacy after it expresses second thoughts about its precipitous secession from Virginia in 1863 and its "shameful" involvement in the Union cause.
Meanwhile, throughout the South, slave rebellions rock the nation. Violent slave uprisings occur in every Confederate state, usually resulting in an effusion of blood among whites and blacks, although the Confederate government refuses to disclose the actual casualty figures. Nor does the government release documents recording the official tally of slaves who have successfully fled to freedom by means of a modern -- and aggressively efficient -- Underground Railroad operated by prominent African Americans (including Frederick Douglass and later W.E.B. Du Bois) and white supporters in the North. While blacks continue to escape to the United States and Canada by various means, the Southern states pass draconian measures to punish fugitives. A lynching epidemic, conducted by local mobs and vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, sweeps through the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite this reign of terror, whites grow increasingly fearful of slave rebellions and unchecked fugitives wandering around the countryside. As whites become more and more aware that total mastery is an elusive goal, and as the instances of slave revolts become legion, the amount of white violence against African American slaves multiplies; in some areas, widespread lawlessness accompanies this deepening plague of racial violence. When the United States enters the First World War, the CSA declares its neutrality, since it cannot afford to send troops to fight overseas -- by necessity, its military forces must occupy and patrol the streets of the South to quell slave rebellions and to control white vigilante and mob violence.
By 1929, the Southern economy -- still based on the idea of "King Cotton" since the antebellum days -- falters as competition from Egypt and India makes greater inroads in the worldwide textile industry. Widespread poverty, a result of the reliance on staple crop agriculture and the lack of public education in the South, cripples the CSA and leads to political unrest and riots throughout the region. Then the Wall Street Crash only worsens the Confederate economy, which is fully dependent on Northern investment in cotton futures. The onslaught of a worldwide depression causes extreme economic and political crisis in the South. More and more citizens, plunged into inexorable poverty, issue calls for the eradication of slavery as whites clamber for precious jobs held by African American slaves. Huey Long of Louisiana leads the movement for emancipation, which the Confederate Congress grudgingly passes in the form of a constitutional amendment in 1937. By 1938, three-fourths of the Confederate states ratify the amendment and slavery becomes outlawed in the South. While some Confederate leaders secretly deal with Adolf Hitler in Germany, hoping, like Stalin, to negotiate a nonaggression pact with the Third Reich, those secret meetings are disclosed in the Southern press, causing mass protests and political unrest. Responding to public opinion, which overwhelmingly favors Confederate isolationism, Southern leaders are forced to disavow any intention to ally with Germany or any of the Axis countries. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese planes attack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, where, by terms of an earlier treaty between the CSA and USA, several Confederate ships share moorings with U.S. Navy vessels. During the assault, five Confederate battleships -- CSS Arizona, CSS West Virginia, CSS Oklahoma, CSS Tennessee, and CSS Nevada -- are destroyed or sunk. The Japanese surprise attack produces a rage militaire throughout the United States and the Confederate States, which results in a military alliance between the USA and the CSA and a joint declaration of war against Japan and Germany.
With the Allied victory in Second World War, the United States and Confederate States begin exploring the possibility of reuniting the two countries. In 1946, negotiations finally lead to a reunification treaty in which the CSA agrees to give up its independent status by enabling its individual sovereign states to be readmitted into the Union. Two years later, President Harry S. Truman orders the desegregation of the U.S. military by means of an executive order, knowing that the reentry of the Southern states in the Union will prevent Congress from ever taking such action in the future. In 1952, Northerners and Southerners -- still feeling the euphoria of triumph over the Axis evil empires (and worried about the growing threat of Communism in the Soviet Union and Red China), enthusiastically elect Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, the hero of D-Day, as the first president of the reconstituted United States. And, yes, Dick Nixon is his vice president. The U.S. Supreme Court declares segregation unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954).
But wait, you cry, that’s not fair! You’ve got the nation following the same track after 1952 that it actually took in its real history!
I suppose you have every right to be upset, to feel like I’ve rigged the game, which, of course, I have. The fact is: You can’t change history, no matter how many times history buffs play counterfactual parlor games or politicians try to alter it by dictating what should be in textbooks or by wishing they could take back something they’ve said that’s now plastered all over the Internet.
In my counterfactual history of the Civil War and its aftermath, I’ve manipulated facts and events so that everything would lead us precisely and purposely to where we already are. Maybe that’s because for all my flights of fancy, I can’t stop being a historian. In my less-than-fertile imagination, the United States ends up precisely where it’s supposed to be, with the American people standing exactly where we are now, for better or for worse. And having reached this place, we are as confused as we’ve ever been about what we’re supposed to do next.
American history has followed roads that are not necessarily inevitable or predictable. But our path as a country has been, I believe, both dogged and implacable. History is not fungible. The facts of history cannot be changed. Nor should we want to change them. We have much to learn from the past if we are to understand properly how the nation has wound up where it is now. In the end, the American people in 2010 have reached a crossroads of their own making, forged in the fires of their past. We have arrived at the place we are supposed to be. Now it behooves us to mind very carefully where we go from here.