Tag Archives: what if

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.





What if…What if…What if?

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 8.13.40 AMImagine the possibilities…

Of course you know by now that the “what if” questions drive me nuts, particularly the well-worn: what if Stonewall had lived to fight at Gettysburg.

But I have to confess that I am really taking to these entirely anachronistic images popping up here and there featuring soldiers from one era pictured with soldiers/equipment from another. There is even a series going around with Star Wars gear paired with real images from WWII. It’s just plain fun.

Well I suppose the boys in gray would have made good use out of some mechanized armor. Ahhhh….what if…

With compliments,


What If What If What If (the Stonewall Post)

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 10.26.42 AMNow as you all know, I get questions daily via Facebook, Youtube, and especially Twitter. This one comes up frequently enough to merit an entire post. And guess what – I am as thrilled as hell about it because it gives me a chance to pitch in on counterfactual history.

So here you go – I am sure you have heard it too: “What if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg?”

Oh boy. Well, I guess I should start with just a little background. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was known to Lee and all across the Confederacy as a fighter. He was ballsy, tough, and quite often outmaneuvered and out fought his better supplied and manned opponents. Second Manassas? Kicked ass. The Valley Campaign of 1862? Kicked ass. Fredericksburg? Kicked ass. Chancellorsville? Kicked major ass. See what I mean…except there was one little problem.

After Stonewall’s II Corps, ANV effectively routed the Union XI Corps at Chancellorsville, some dumb asses from North Carolina accidentally shot him and he subsequently died a few days later. Bummer for the Rebs. They lost one of their best guys.

So good ole Robert E. Lee decided to reorganize the II Corps in to two new corps, the II – under the command of Richard S. Ewell and the III – under the command of A. P. Hill.

Fast forward to July 1, 1863. Elements of Ewell’s II Corps beat the shit out of the Union I and XI Corps at Gettysburg – pushing them through the town and up the heights (Cemetery Hill) just south of town. Lee’s orders to Ewell: Take the heights if practicable.

Well, apparently Ewell didn’t think it was practicable because he did not take the heights (or even attempt to) and the Union wound up holding the high ground – a fact that would prove very advantageous for the Union later on.

Many armchair generals across the land have since insisted that if Stonewall had been in command on that day – those heights would have been taken – thus insuring Confederate victory at Gettysburg and quite possibly the war itself. Poor old Richard S. Ewell. That is one hell of a historical burden to have hanging over you.

But here’s the thing (counterfactual rant begins now). We have NO WAY of knowing what would have happened. NO WAY. FULL STOP. Jackson could have done a number of things, maybe he would have taken the hill. Could he have held it? Who knows? Hell – maybe he would have been killed, or had dysentery, or fallen off his horse, or anything at all. The point here is that counterfactual history gets us absolutely nowhere. There were an infinite number of possibilities that day with the people who actually fought in the battle. One of them happened. Let’s focus on that and give the “what ifs” a break.

Now there are a few historians around (Mark Grimsley and others) who have postulated some sort of counterfactual “theory” that they suggest will actually shed light on what could have really happened given another set of circumstances.

Nonsense. Attaching a bunch of academic claptrap to the musings and suppositions of what boils down to fantasy has even less utility than the simple “what if” questions over beer, peanuts, and Youtube.

At any rate – if you want to talk about Gettysburg, I am all yours. But let’s stick to what actually happened – not what could have.

With compliments,


The Great Lee/Grant Debate

Screen shot 2014-03-26 at 9.26.28 AMOh if only Grant and Lee could once again meet face to face to debate the great issues of the Civil War…a “what if” that even I will ponder. And wouldn’t it be great if they could meet on a bizarrely conceived 1970s game show called “Risk Your Reputation” where they could both engage in surreal recreations complete with a cheese ball host and leotard-clad narrators? That sure would be fantastic…


With compliments,

The Americanist Independent: A Monthly Journal of United States History