The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been

by Roger L. Ransom, W.W. Norton & Co., 352 pages, $25.95.

One of the appeals of military studies is the counterfactual—the “what if” of history—and none is more enduring than the possibility of Confederate triumph. Few round-table speakers can leave the podium without fielding at least one query regarding what the men in gray might have done differently. Harry Turtledove is but the most successful of a host of novelists to make a cottage industry out of fictional Southern victories, and the blizzard of Confederate flags garnishing the streets of Gettysburg almost makes one wonder if the history books got something wrong.

Clearly there is an abiding fascination with the road not taken; far less thought is given to where it might have led. So to demonstrate his contention that the Union’s ultimate victory was a momentous event for the entire Western world, Roger L. Ransom invites his readers to envision the alternative. “Only by carefully considering the long-term consequences of having two rival nations competing for political and economic dominance,” he argues, “can we fully appreciate the significance of a war that threatened to dismember the largest nation in the Americas.”

Hewing largely to actual events, Ransom sketches out a plausible scenario for the Confederacy’s survival. Had its armies managed to slow the Union advance down the Mississippi, delay the capture of eastern Tennessee and avoid the irreplaceable manpower losses of Antietam and Gettysburg, Southern fortunes might have stabilized enough by the fall of 1864 to lead to Lincoln’s electoral defeat, foreign recognition and peace with the North. Postwar economic realities likely would have forced the Confederate government to enact a program of compensated emancipation, while its need for continued financial and military aid would have given England and France increased prominence in a Western Hemisphere in which the Monroe Doctrine could no longer be enforced.

Instead of a Gilded Age boom, a weakened United States would have experienced slower economic growth and entered the 20th century in an “uneasy standoff” within the multipolar world of the Americas, leading it to ally with Imperial Germany. “By the end of the first decade,” Ransom concludes, “every major power in Europe and America” would have “assembled a massive arsenal with which to wage war.” Instead of a world in which a reunified United States could have been spared much of the carnage of the Great War, a geo-political situation might have existed whereby “it was almost certain that the two American states would be drawn into the fray rather soon after it began—on opposing sides.”

Counterfactuals are by definition impossible to prove, and Ransom admits that his imagined history is but one of many equally plausible alternatives. To the extent possible, he supports his speculative musings with quantifiable data, providing more objective evidence than is ordinarily found in such works. Some of his specific pronouncements are less convincing than others, and a good deal of his text is incidental to his argument, but the broader concerns he raises provide heightened insight into that most important question: why the Civil War matters.


Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here