What if Napoleon had succeeded at Waterloo? What if Hitler had not invaded Russia in World War II? A change in these and countless historical events would have transformed the geographic, political and social environment of our modern world into something we might not recognize.
The capricious nature of history has often involved timing, chance, false information and hasty decisions … those thin balances that result in success or failure. Historical alterations, or “what ifs,” help us examine our past from a unique perspective.
Arguably, the most significant “what if” in American history is, “what if the South had been able to preserve its Confederacy?”
How would that have been possible? If Lincoln had lost the presidential election of 1864, the outcome of the war might have changed and our country would be a different place today.
Historians agree that as long as Union Armies were willing to persist, the South did not have the munitions or men to win the Civil War. However, the South was almost successful at continuing a war of attrition to break down Northern morale.
Before the 1864 election, casualties in the Civil War had surpassed even the most realistic estimations. Civilians on both sides were growing weary of reading casualty reports. There were street riots in several Northern cities with people demanding peace at any price and organized factions that were more than willing to let the South have its Confederacy.
It is with this division in Northern ranks that the presidential election of 1864 came along; undoubtedly the most important in our history.
The dissension over the war caused a division in the Democratic Party. Those opposing the war formed the Radical Peace Democrats (known as Copperheads). Copperhead leader Thomas H. Seymour declared the war a failure and favored the immediate end to hostilities without securing Union victory. Seeking a strong candidate to unify the party, the Copperheads nominated the popular General George B. McClellan, the former Commander of the Army of the Potomac (whom Lincoln had fired earlier in the war).
Although McClellan personally believed the war should continue, his position was rejected by the Copperheads. Therefore, a McClellan victory would have meant an end to the war.
At the Republican convention, the War Democrats’ faction joined forces with the Republicans to form the National Union Party and nominated Abraham Lincoln for a second term. A triumph for Lincoln meant the continuation of the war. Nevertheless, Confederate victories at the Battle of the Crater and the Battle of Cold Harbor had diminished support for him. Abe Lincoln himself believed he had little chance to win.
It took several political and military events to swing the pendulum back to Lincoln.
The political compromise made at the Democratic Convention caused party splintering, making McClellan’s campaign inconsistent. Sherman’s inexorable march toward Atlanta and Grant’s push on Lee to the outer defenses of Richmond made Union victory obvious and inevitable.
Abraham Lincoln won the 1864 election with 55% of the popular vote and 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. Interestingly, for the first time some Northern states allowed Union soldiers in the field to vote. They voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln.
But what if McClellan had won the election of 1864 and fulfilled his party’s promise to end the war? We can only guess, but one thing is obvious: There would have been a new nation called the Confederate States and a greatly diminished United States of America.
Who is to say how long a proud and ambitious Texas would have remained in the Confederacy? Would the new territories in the West have been willing to answer to a distant Washington or the aristocrats in the Richmond capital?
It’s possible that today’s contiguous states might have become balkanized into separate entities, even hostile to each other. Rich in natural resources, California might have chosen to become a commonwealth, answering to no one but itself.
Some might say this would not have happened. We had a common language and cultures not all that dissimilar. Those holding that belief might keep in mind that 600,000 men went under the ground in the Civil War: people who spoke the same language and in some cases shared the same roof prior to the war.
How long would slavery have lasted if the South had won? Historians today recognize that the Civil War was fought over the issues surrounding slavery. The South realized that if slavery was to exist it had to grow. There were some southerners before the war who wanted to annex Mexico militarily and make it a slave state. Does this type of thinking coincide with the belief that slavery would have quickly ended … war or not?
There is no sound reason to believe that southern planters would have given in to world pressure and freed their slaves. However, there is logic to believe the South’s black people might have risen to rebellion. There had already been sporadic demonstrations before the war.
None of this happened because the right side won the Civil War. But much can be learned by looking at the “what ifs” of this and other pivotal historical events. Just as successful business people study the vicissitudes of the market and economics, serious students of strategy are just as interested in why it didn’t happen as they are in why it did.
The world as we know it today is based upon great incidents that did or did not happen. The students of the next millennium will have a whole new set of “what ifs” to ponder from the political and governmental actions we are taking today.