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What if…?

You’ll never in a million years guess who the author of this brilliantly-conceived and -written piece is. I mean, never.

The quaint conceit of imagining what would have happened if some important or unimportant event had settled itself differently has become so fashionable that I am encouraged to enter upon an absurd speculation. What would have happened if Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg?

Once a great victory is won it dominates not only the future but the past. All the chains of consequence clink out as if they never could stop. The hopes that were shattered, the passions that were quelled, the sacrifices that were ineffectual are all swept out of the land of reality. Still it may amuse an idle hour, and perhaps serve as a corrective to undue complacency, if at this moment in the twentieth century—so rich in assurance and prosperity, so calm and buoyant—we meditate for a spell upon the debt we owe to those Confederate soldiers who by a deathless feat of arms broke the Union front at Gettysburg and laid open a fair future to the world.

It always amuses historians and philosophers to pick out the tiny things, the sharp agate points, on which the ponderous balance of destiny turns; and certainly the details of the famous Confederate victory of Gettysburg furnish a fertile theme. There can be at this date no conceivable doubt that Pickett’s charge would have been defeated if Stuart with his encircling cavalry had not arrived in the rear of the Union position at the supreme moment. Stuart might have been arrested in his decisive swoop if any one of twenty commonplace incidents had occurred.

If, for instance, General Meade had organized his lines of communication with posts for defence against raids, or if he had used his cavalry to scout upon his flanks, he would have received a timely warning. If General Warren had only thought of sending a battalion to hold Little Round Top the rapid advance of the masses of Confederate cavalry must have been detected. If only President Davis’s letter to General Lee, captured by Captain Dahlgren, revealing the Confederacy plans had reached Meade a few hours earlier, he might have escaped Lee’s clutches.

Anything, we repeat, might have prevented Lee’s magnificent combinations from synchronizing and, if so, Pickett’s repulse was sure. Gettysburg would have been a great Northern victory. It might have well been a final victory. Lee might, indeed, have made a successful retreat from the field. The Confederacy, with its skilful generals and fierce armies, might have another year, or even two, but once defeated decisively at Gettysburg, its doom was inevitable. The fall of Vicksburg, which happened only two days after Lee’s immortal triumph, would in itself by opening the Mississippi to the river fleets of the Union, have cut the Secessionist States almost in half. Without wishing to dogmatize, we feel we are on solid ground in saying that the Southern States could not have survived the loss of a great battle in Pennsylvania and the almost simultaneous bursting open of the Mississippi

However, all went well. Once again by the narrowest of margins the compulsive pinch of military genius and soldierly valor produced a perfect result. The panic which engulfed the whole left of Meade’s massive army has never been made a reproach against the Yankee troops. Everyone knows they were stout fellows. But defeat is defeat, and rout is ruin. Three days only were required after the cannon at Gettysburg had ceased to thunder before General Lee fixed his headquarters in Washington. We need not here dwell upon the ludicrous features of the hurried flight to New York of all the politicians, place hunters, contractors, sentimentalists and their retinues, which was so successfully accomplished. It is more agreeable to remember how Lincoln, “greatly falling with a falling State,” preserved the poise and dignity of a nation. Never did his rugged yet sublime common sense render a finer service to his countrymen. He was never greater than in the hour of fatal defeat.

But, of course, there is no doubt whatever that the mere military victory which Lee gained at Gettysburg would not by itself have altered the history of the world. The loss of Washington would not have affected the immense numerical preponderance of the Union States. The advanced situation of their capital and its fall would have exposed them to a grave injury, would no doubt have considerably prolonged the war; but standing by itself this military episode, dazzling though it may be, could not have prevented the ultimate victory of the North. It is in the political sphere that we have to look to find the explanation of the triumphs begun upon the battlefield.

Curiously enough, Lee furnishes an almost unique example of a regular and professional soldier who achieved the highest excellence both as a general and as a statesman. His ascendancy throughout the Confederate States on the morrow of his Gettysburg victory threw Jefferson Davis and his civil government irresistibly, indeed almost unconsciously, into the shade. The beloved and victorious commander, arriving in the capital of his mighty antagonists, found there the title deeds which enabled him to pronounce the grand decrees of peace. Thus it happened that the guns of Gettysburg fired virtually the last shots in the American Civil War.

…If Lee after his triumphal entry into Washington had merely been the soldier, his achievements would have ended on the battlefield. It was his august declaration that the victorious Confederacy would pursue no policy towards the African negroes, which was not in harmony with the moral conceptions of Western Europe, that opened the high roads along which we are now marching so prosperously.

But even this famous gesture might have failed if it had not been caught up and implemented by the practical genius and trained parliamentary aptitudes of Gladstone. There is practically no doubt at this stage that the basic principle upon which the colour question in the Southern States of America has been so happily settled owed its origin mainly to Gladstonian ingenuity and to the long statecraft of Britain in dealing with alien and more primitive populations. There was not only the need to declare the new fundamental relationship between master and servant, but the creation for the liberated slaves of institutions suited to their own cultural development and capable of affording them a different yet honourable status in a common wealth, destined eventually to become almost world-wide.

Let us only think what would have happened supposing the liberation of the slaves had at that time been followed immediately by some idiotic assertion of racial equality, and even by attempts to graft white democratic institutions upon the simple, gifted African race belonging to a much earlier chapter in human history. We might have seen the whole of the Southern States invaded by gangs of carpet-bagging politicians exploiting the ignorant and untutored coloured vote against the white inhabitants and bringing the time-honoured forms of parliamentary government into unmerited disrepute. We might have seen the sorry farce of black legislatures attempting to govern their former masters. Upon the rebound from this there must inevitably have been a strong reassertion of local white supremacy. By one device or another the franchises accorded to the negroes would have been taken from them. The constitutional principles of the Republic would have been proclaimed, only to be evaded or subverted; and many a warm-hearted philanthropist would have found his sojourn in the South no better than “A Fool’s Errand.”

Read on to find out who the author of this sagaciously prescient essay is, then go grab a look at the fascinating backstory of how it came to be written in the first place, including a piercing prefatory quote from no lesser a light than Shelby Foote his own self. From the previously mentioned backstory article, a shimmering vision of a nascent Utopia is proposed, in stark juxtaposition with something a good deal…less felicitous, shall we say.

The reader is invited to see, from that surprisingly utopian perspective, our own world as both dystopian and implausible. The narrator mentions Jan Bloch’s once-famous book, The Future of War, which predicted with what proved remarkably accurate military detail the devastation that would attend war between major European states. But Bloch drew from this prediction the conclusion that such a war would never happen. (The author) asks: Suppose it had? A prostrate Europe might have descended into depression, unemployment, Bolshevism and fascism. Why, today in Britain the income tax might even be 25%! (In actuality, of course, all those things happened.)

Parenthetical aside in the penultimate sentence courtesy of moi, so as to preserve the secret of our mystery-author’s identity and thereby avert spoiling the surprise for you folks.

Taken for all in all, the whole thing is dispiriting enough to call to mind the wise words of John Greenleaf Whittier from his “Maud Muller” pome:

Of all sad words of tongue and pen
The saddest are these, “It might have been.”

Le sigh. Ah well, as I said yesterday, it all went the way it went—and so, here we all are. Whether that’s for better or for worse, I leave to the reader to determine.

Be sure to read both these fine works in their entirety, and in the order I linked ‘em. I won’t go quite so far as to say you’ll enjoy them, necessarily; in fact, parts of the first piece are almost painful to read, for reasons which I’ll refrain from going into now because spoilers again, but which will quickly become apparent. That said, both are thought-provoking and conversation-inspiring enough that I think you’ll find them very rewarding nonetheless.

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2 thoughts on “What if…?

  1. “What would have happened if Lee had not won the battle of Gettysburg?”

    Did I gloss over the part where we suddenly entered Bizarro Alternate History world, or WTF?!?

    Lee didn’t win the Battle of Gettysburg, so either you meant to type “lost” instead of “won”, or else “Grant” instead of “Lee”, if we’re actually talking alternative history than reality.

    Or, you had a stroke. Or Biden is ghostwriting this piece, and thinks Lee was fighting in Iraq.

    Please advise.

    1. Just click the link for your answer.

      This is really quite good. I read it many, many years ago, but then I’m a “fan” of the half-American.

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