Sunday, April 30, 2006

Commentary: A Southern Victory at Gettysburg

A gentleman from England who had a short time ago toured the Battlefields at Gettysburg sent me a question. It read in part, “Our guide on the tour gave us a talk on the build up to the civil war and talked about what might have happened. Simply put he pointed out that if the confederates had won at Gettysburg they might have forced Lincoln to sue for peace and there would have been two Americas, USA AND CSA. Supposing that had happened. How do the think these two countries would have developed. I have heard the point of view that they would have inevitably drifted back together again. Others say that in a way the war is still going on and therefore they would have stayed apart.”

Honestly, I find the answering of "what if" questions difficult primarily because I do not believe anyone can provide an adequate answer. To attempt such, one must decide which of the infinite number of factors which had contributed to the original outcome would remain constant and which would change in an expected or defined manner. Millennia of efforts have failed to develop a reliable strategy for predicting the actions of one person over short periods of time in somewhat controlled situations. How much more complicated then would we find the task of predicting the outcome of events with an entire country at war?

The danger with choosing the factors on which to focus stems in part from the temptation to selectively emphasize those that, even subtly, support preconceived views and biases. Even when assuming some measure of objectivity, too many questions vie for priority on the list of considerations to permit accurate forecasting. First, if you accept the necessity of a Southern victory at the Battle of Gettysburg to winning Southern independence, a point debatable on its own, the question remains whether or not it would have proven sufficient. Yet even with this somewhat basic question, the pitfalls emerge. I find unrealistic the assumption that casualty figures would have remained the same if the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg differed. After General Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he had several major strategic victories where he took the offensive. However, the Southern casualty figures tended to be higher in either number or percentage than the Federals with each costly success. The Sevens Days and Chancellorsville, where he repeatedly assumed the aggressive, serve as prime examples.

More questions emerge. Would a victory at Gettysburg then have allowed for a sufficient number of Southern commanders remaining to permit the Confederate government to successfully prosecute the war? Such hypotheticals proposed prior to the Battle of Chancellorsville would doubtfully have included the possibility of General Thomas J. Jackson's death. Likewise, when considering similar questions for Gettysburg, how many would include in the discussion the possible death of James Longstreet, JEB Stuart, or even General Lee as they followed up their success?

If Lee had won at Gettysburg, would Longstreet's detachment have gone on to support General Braxton Bragg and contribute to the Confederate victory at Chickamauga or would Lee have decided that he needed Old Pete to follow up his recent success? If Longstreet remained with the Army of Northern Virginia and Union General William S. Rosecranz at least did not suffer defeat at Chickamauga, would the following siege at Chattanooga have occurred? If not, would the lack of an opportunity for Ulysses S. Grant to raze the siege have meant that President Lincoln would not have opted to elevated him to General in Chief? Would Lincoln have moved Grant north to confront Lee without this promotion? Would William T. Sherman still have waged his lethal March to the Sea if instead General Rosecranz moved into Georgia after a Union victory or even a stalemate at Chickamauga?

If the Confederates had won at Gettysburg, would European powers have intervened or had the Union’s narrow victory at Antietam significantly diminished that likelihood? Would the Union victory at Vicksburg, and perhaps Chickamauga if Longstreet was not with Braxton Bragg, have held England and France at bay?

With a Union loss at Gettysburg, would the possible cries for General George B. McClellan have returned him again to the Eastern Theater and if so, would he have then still run for president in 1864? If not, would the Democratic party have chosen another candidate who could have more clearly defined a unified Democratic platform? If so, could that person have defeated Lincoln especially given the potential decline in Northern morale with a loss at Gettysburg?

If the south appeared on the verge of winning, would other northern states have seceded and formed their own Union as some had threatened? With a Southern victory, would foreign powers have invested in a devastated Confederacy allowing the necessary degree of reconstruction for an expeditious re-birth? Would the Northern businesses have again eagerly imported Southern cotton, reviving the devastated economy while rekindling the need for slave labor? Would the south have moved on to conquer or purchase Cuba and other land south of the existing borders in order to perpetuate slavery? Would they have then clashed again with the North for the remaining territories to continue to acquire land with a cotton friendly climate?

If Lincoln won re-election despite the hypothesized Southern successes, would John Wilkes Booth have played the role of assassin? If not, what would the impact of a still determined Lincoln have had on the war effort?

Then we consider the question of black Americans, both freed and still in bondage. They certainly would not have become passive actors in this postulated play. Even if the Confederates emerged from the conflict victorious, would enough white men have survived the war to sustain the institution of slavery? University of Virginia Professor Dr. Gary Gallagher has argued that the relationship between slave and master changed significantly as the war progressed due to the absence of white men to manage the plantations. Would those slaves who remained in bondage but assumed greater degrees of authority have acquiesced to the loss of their new found power, limited as it was? What actions would the veteran United States Colored Troops, over 100,000 strong, have taken after their mustering out of the Army should the South have won?

Obviously, this could continue indefinitely but would serve no useful purpose except to perhaps continue to evade drawing hypothetical conclusions. Those offered would draw critical responses based on those factors on which the critic chose to focus. Debate still rages about the impact of specific tactical decisions made or not made during the battle itself. Given the lack of agreement on events of a much smaller scale, the potential results of a Confederate victory during the Battle of Gettysburg will likely continue to elude us all.



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