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  • The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been
  • Richard F. Bensel
The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been. By Roger L. Ransom . ( New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Pp. 352. Cloth, $25.95.)

The Confederate States of America is a counterfactual history of the Civil War in which the South first wins independence from the North, writes that victory into a peace treaty with the Union, returns to the production of cotton for the world economy, abolishes slavery through a program of compensated emancipation, ends up fighting World War I on the North American continent as the ally of the British and French (the Union sides with the Germans), loses that war, and, as a consequence, reunites with the North in (re)forming the United States of America. The book can be divided into four parts: an [End Page 430] essay on the nature of counterfactual history, a brief but excellent summary of the actual course of the Civil War, a detailed analysis of just how much must be altered in order for the South to win independence, and a broad overview of the impact an independent Confederate nation would have had on world (largely European and North American) history.

As Ransom notes, counterfactual speculation underwrites much of the scholarship in every branch of history. Every time a historian describes an event or decision as a "critical turning point" or "decisive victory," we are unavoidably presented with the possibility that things could have, up to that time, gone the other way. As Ransom also notes, wars are particularly fertile fields for counterfactual speculation in that battles are often fought in situations in which information is limited and individual personalities have outsized importance. And no conflict has attracted more counterfactual speculation than the American Civil War, where, just to cite two prime examples, Union discovery of Lee's marching orders led to Antietam and Stonewall Jackson's wound at Chancellorsville lost the South one of the most talented tacticians in American history.

Counterfactual speculation cannot be avoided because any narrative must rest upon a "logic of history" that goes beyond explaining events solely in terms of "and this happened next." And all such logics will leave some things unexplained. Whatever is left unexplained is a potential pivot upon which a counterfactual analysis can begin. For example, no historian has ever attempted to explain the discovery of Lee's marching orders or Jackson's wound as anything more than a random possibility, while many, if not most, historians would maintain that these events were more or less important factors shaping the course of the war. For that reason, many counterfactual histories have pivoted on hypothetically altering these random events and then extrapolating a scenario of "what might have happened."

We thus cannot describe an event as "critical" or "decisive" without imagining what might have happened if that event had not turned out the way it did. And the analytical rigor disciplining that imagination is the "logic of history" to which we personally subscribe. In Roger Ransom's analysis, the first deviation from the way things actually transpired is that Nathan Bedford Forrest is able to break out of Union encirclement at Fort Henry with 13,000 men. The second is that William Tecumseh Sherman is seriously wounded at Shiloh. After that battle, Ulysses S. Grant is relieved of his Union command. This is the third deviation. In the fourth, Grant regains his command but is several months late in capturing Vicksburg. The fifth places [End Page 431] James Longstreet in command of Confederate forces at Chattanooga. The sixth has Stonewall Jackson recovering from his wound at Chancellorsville. As Ransom realizes, wars have an underlying momentum or logic of their own and it takes many alterations, most of them relatively small, to change the outcome of the Civil War. Elaborating the implications of a Southern victory takes even more imagination. For these chapters, Ransom relies on a political economic framework of rational calculation that has fewer unexplainable accidents than does his military account.

The value of counterfactual history, at least from this reviewer's perspective, lies in its heuristic utility. In that sense, this book will provoke many...


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pp. 429-432
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