Counterfactuals and Alternate Histories

by Fred Ray on August 18, 2006 · 0 comments

I came across an interesting web site, Uchronia, devoted books on alternative histories and counterfactuals. “Perhaps the most common themes in alternate history are ‘What if the Nazis won World War II?’ and ‘What if the Confederacy won the Civil War?’”

For those old enough to remember, McKinley Cantor (best remembered today for his book Andersonville) wrote a counterfactual history, If the South Had Won the Civil War, that appeared in Look magazine in 1960 and was published the next year as a book. To allow the South to win, Cantor changed only two things: he got rid of US Grant in a riding accident prior to Vicksburg, and let Lee win a smashing victory at Gettysburg. Lincoln flees, Washington is captured, and secession is an accomplished fact. Later, Texas secedes from the Confederacy (and annexes most of the Indian territories), and the Confederacy annexes Cuba. Russia retains Alaska. Thus there are five nations in North America, not two (including Canada and Russia). For some reason, Uchronia does not list Cantor’s book.

An even stranger counterfactual was Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, where apartheid-era scientists in South Africa invent a time machine that allows them to arm the Southern armies with AK-47s.

Almost all the alternative Civil War Histories have a smashing battlefield victory by one side of the other that ends the war at a stroke. However, I can imagine several other scenarios.

The War does not happen at all. If you believe that slavery was the cause of the war, why were we the only ones to fight a war over it? Aren’t there alternative scenarios that would allow for peaceful emancipation, like in Brazil? Granted it would not make that great a novel.

The War Ends Early. After scattered fighting at Pensacola and Charleston in 1861, the seceded states agree to return in exchange for the original Thirteenth Amendment (that would have prohibited the Federal government from interfering with slavery) and guarantees that the Federal army will not be deployed in the South.

The War Ends Early. Joe Johnston keeps command of the Army of Northern Virginia and abandons Richmond in 1862 after a siege. After losing Richmond, New Orleans, and battles in the West, the Confederacy surrenders, with terms. Lincoln never issues the Emancipation Proclamation, and the returned states successfully prevent passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Confederate Defeat in 1862. Lee takes command and wins at 2nd Manassas, but is crushed by McClellan in Maryland. Richmond falls soon after. Based on his performance, McClellan becomes president in 1864.

Military Dictatorship. McClellan refuses to accept his relief from command by Lincoln after Antietam. He marches on Washington (something a number of his officers actually wanted him to do) deposes Lincoln, and proclaims himself Dictator. He becomes the first in a long line of American military strong men.

Decapitation of the Confederacy. Jeff Davis and his cabinet are captured or killed in Dahlgren’s raid. Can’t wait to see Eric Wittenberg’s book.

Death of Lincoln. Four months before the 1864 elections, Lincoln is killed by a sharpshooter at Fort Stevens (which really did almost happen). Then (take your pick), McClellan wins the election and signs an armistice, or Hannibal Hamlin and the Radical Republicans triumph and initiate a really harsh war strategy against the South.

War Weariness. The Union will to fight peters out in 1864. Grant and Sherman are locked in seemingly endless sieges at Petersburg and Atlanta with horrendous casualties. Jubal Early either takes Washington in July or scores an upset victory in the Valley that fall. Lincoln loses the election and the Peace Democrats triumph in Congress. Peace and partition ensue.

Or, Grant is relieved from command after Cold Harbor. Meade resumes command, and there is no crossing of the James to invest Petersburg. The war in Virginia becomes a trench-bound stalemate, not at Petersburg but at Cold Harbor.

You can go on and on with this. Any others?

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