Tag Archives: Contingency

The Never-Ending Question

map_union_states_in_1861_2Greetings all,

It’s a question one hears all the time: “could the South have won the war?” Indeed, the New York Times Opinionator blog ran a piece on this very question just days ago…the well-worn question was fielded by Civil War historian Terry L. Jones. (note: the South and the Confederacy are not necessarily the same thing – the NYT should know better. And so should Jones).

Jones travels the usual paths, citing issues of contingency and offering the conventional “if xxx then xxx but since xxx then xxx” explanations, ultimately concluding that “a credible argument can be made that its defeat was inevitable from the beginning.”

Well, perhaps – especially if one is drawing such conclusions with the advantage of hindsight safely tucked in one’s breast pocket.

But I propose that we are asking the wrong question.

Of course the Confederacy could have won the war. They had any number of advantages over their Federal opponents in 1861.* But they didn’t win for any number of reasons.

The Rebels thought they could win. In fact, they were certain of it. And I might add that they could not predict the future.

So let’s ask, reading history forward: why did the Confederacy lose (or rather, why did the Union win) the war? It’s a much more engaging question, which allows us to dispense with the what ifs.

With compliments,


* CSA advantages in 1861: vast territory that the United States had to conquer with a small army, thousands of miles of coastline and rivers that that the Union Navy had to blockade/control with few serviceable ships, the Confederates would be fighting with a home-field advantage  – they knew the territory and maneuvered among a friendly populace, they had 3 million or so slaves to do much of the work allowing nearly all military-age men to potentially serve in a military capacity, the Confederates didn’t need to do anything – no action by the US meant victory by default, the Confederate government was not hindered by annoying party politicking, and their executive – Jefferson Davis – had plenty of practical experience both as a soldier and a statesman. But of course, things have a way of changing….quite quickly. Let’s talk about those things.





More on Contingency – Ed Ayers’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies

Screen shot 2014-04-09 at 1.42.15 PMContinuing on with a recent post discussing (in part) contingency and the Civil War, I thought I might offer a few words on Edward L. Ayers’s book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863.

Ayers crafts a narrative claiming to be free from such analytical impediments as simple explanations, stark opposites, and sweeping generalizations. Seeking to clarify how otherwise intricately linked communities – one northern and one southern – wound up on opposing sides of the conflict, Ayers builds a case for “deep contingency.” For Ayers, deep contingency emphasizes “dense and intricate connections in which lives and events are embedded.” Further, it rejects formulations of inevitability, particularly those that pit “progress” against “backwardness” implying an obvious victor. He does so by weaving together national events with sectional, political with cultural. Ayers considers previous analyses of chance, what he refers to as “surface” contingency, flawed. This scholarship, Ayers argues, has only emphasized and dramatized national affirmation and redemption thus obscuring the realities of the period. Arguments boiling down to simple “unfolding inevitabilities,” he claims, “miss the essence of the story.”

Fine. But does observing contingency at a supposedly deeper level represent a significant departure from previous efforts to understand the Civil War era? I am not so sure.

Ayers’s principal objection to James McPherson’s brand of contingency refers to both his Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom and his later publication illuminating the “turning point” at Antietam, Crossroads of Freedom. He acknowledges McPherson’s conclusions regarding battlefield contingency and admits that momentous events on the battlefield had dramatic repercussions for both the Union and Confederate causes. Further, Ayers agrees that events in the war were unpredictable and could have deviated in multiple directions with innumerable potential outcomes. Thus, he similarly emphasizes the so-called turning points of 1862 – the Valley campaign during the summer arresting the Union onslaught in Virginia, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation following the narrow Union victory at Antietam that autumn. However, while Ayers maintains that prior works concerning these events appropriately underscore the lack of predictability in a war, he concludes that they do not support the notion of deep contingency that frames his book. “We acknowledge contingency,” Ayers suggests, but because contingency eventually led to the end of slavery, we “still feel the pull of the inevitable.”

For Ayers, an understanding of deep contingency helps one read beyond the simplistic formulation of the Civil War as a slave society versus a non-slave society. To avoid “false impressions that we have explained something when we have not,” Ayers insists on gathering as much data as possible concerning the whole society. Only then will the profound web of connections between politics, ideology, culture, and economics be revealed. One can identify sudden historical shifts easily enough, but illustrating the root cause (or causes) is infinitely complex.

Ayers’s reading of Battle Cry and Crossroads suggests that McPherson has made the critical error of illustrating the forces of history working in a predictable and ultimately positive direction, and that McPherson illustrates contingent factors – the chance occurrences on the “surface” – as events further aligning the war toward the known outcome: the prevailing cause of freedom.

Well…maybe so, but I am still puzzled at the need to differentiate between deep and surface contingency. You be the judge – as always, your two cents are more than welcome.

With compliments,


Turning Points

The High Water Mark memorial at Gettysburg
The High Water Mark memorial at Gettysburg

One of the most useful tools for bloggers is something called Statcounter. Just in case you are not familiar with this free service, Statcounter is an invisible tracking service that you can configure to track just about anything that happens on your blog (or website). Where the hits came from, where they went, how long they were there, and what they searched for on Google (or whatever) to find you. It might seem a little obsessive to meticulously go over these stats every day. But really, the information gleaned from this site has really helped me tune Keith Harris History to my liking.

Anyway….the reason I mention all of this is because the other day I noticed a few hits from someone who had done a Google search with this intriguing question: “Why was Gettysburg the turning point of the Civil War?” The phrasing is what caught my eye –  because the person asking presumed that Gettysburg was the turning point…as opposed to a turning point.  Suffice it to say, Gettysburg was a significant battle in the overall scheme of things. It was the last time a major Confederate army advanced into United States territory, and the Union victory greatly improved the morale of the loyal population in the North. But to suggest that Gettysburg was the turning point obscures the ebb and flow of prospects for victory for either side. The war was hardly a downhill ride for the Rebels from July 1863 on.

The notion of turning points is always a tricky matter. While is it tempting to view them, especially in the case of Gettysburg, as clear cut lines of demarcation, in so doing we run the risk of falling into an ahistorical trap…that is, reading history backwards.

(Sidebar: I once heard of a history class taught precisely this way. It began in the present…and worked backward to discover the origin of events. Honestly, I shuddered at the thought.)

Suggesting that Gettysburg (or Vicksburg or any other battle) was the turning point in the Civil War is is a sure-fired way to get it wrong. In fact, from our twenty-first century perspective, there were many turning points in the war: the ascendancy of Robert E. Lee in the early summer of 1862, the Battle of Antietam in the autumn of the same year. The fall of Atlanta in 1864. The reelection of Abraham Lincoln. The list goes on and on. We can point to any of these events and say with confidence: AHA! There it is! From this point the outcome of the war was set in stone. But we can only say that because we know how things turned out.

The point is, those in the ranks and on the homefront did not. Soldiers and citizens on both side sides had their doubts, their certainties, their hopes…and all of these could (and did) change with changing events.

James McPherson, in his Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom warns against viewing the war as destined to end the way is did from any given point. His ideas regarding contingency illustrate that any number of things could have happened potentially changing the outcome of events. Meaning: the United States proving victorious at Gettysburg did not mean the war was over – not by a longshot. While McPherson in this regard provides a valuable lesson for Civil War students, I would caution nonetheless. Even esteemed historians can accent the battles and other events – providing a trajectory (contingency intact) of a steady movement toward Union victory and all that came with it. Contingency or not, a certain teleology bleeds through in Battle Cry. Nation, freedom…it almost seems foreordained from the onset.  There is an overall triumphal tone to his book, implying a progression toward the ultimate goal of victory and freedom. McPherson narrates the conflict always seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. He generally stresses the significance of contingency when it works in favor of the Union cause and Union victory, but does not give the same treatment to the Confederacy’s smashing victory at Chancellorsville or Jubal Early’s shelling of Washington City in 1864. McPherson’s work is strikingly similar in terms of the relationship between civilian morale and battlefield events…he concentrates on the tendency of northerners to steadily grow in support of things such as the Emancipation Proclamation.

And so we need to think carefully about turning points – or any events for that matter. What they mean to us…what they meant to those who lived through them – did they suspect that such turning of the tides were actually taking place? I have indeed looked at a number of soldiers’ and civilians’ letters and diaries written shortly after Gettysburg – from both sides. With a few exceptions (such as sensationalist newspaper headlines), I have seen scant trace of certain victory or certain defeat. Unionists were thrilled – Confederates were not…but the war dragged on.

With compliments,