ECW welcomes guest author Jim Morgan
“A Southern Republic will be worse than a rope of sand with South Carolina at its head – arrogant, self-willed and dictatorial as she is.” –Former North Carolina Attorney General, Bartholomew F. Moore, December, 1860
I’ve always enjoyed exploring alternative history. I see it as a kind of time travel, something which involves both knowing history and stretching our imaginations a bit.
This past Fourth of July, I spent some time thinking about MacKinlay Kantor’s delightful little 1961 book, If the South Had Won the Civil War. The book, though obviously fiction, is written as if it were a history text. It even includes footnotes from made-up sources. It’s very short and a tad superficial though that’s fine. Kantor clearly was having fun as he wrote it.
The story begins with Grant being accidentally killed in a riding accident in 1863, Lee winning at Gettysburg, and the Confederacy gaining its independence. Washington, DC is ceded to the victorious Confederacy and becomes Washington, DD (District of Dixie). The Union capital is moved to Columbus, Ohio. Texas then secedes from the Confederacy.
Life proceeds apace with the three republics getting along nicely throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The Confederacy abandons slavery. Cuba becomes a Confederate state. Alaska is never purchased from Russia which causes problems later. The three nations become close allies and fight together in both world wars. Finally, and a bit predictably, they all kiss and makeup, reuniting into a single nation on April 12, 1961.
I like this book but have wondered how likely it is that north and south would have gotten along so well, either with each other or each internally, had the principle of secession been legitimated in blood with a Confederate victory. I believe that Kantor was being optimistic.
How could a country built specifically on the right of secession by each state have lasted very long? It couldn’t have. As it was, our earlier Confederation government nearly broke up shortly after America’s War of Independence, something which was prevented only by the remarkable fortune of our having had a group of utterly brilliant Founding Fathers. And, with secession having been established as legitimate, the rump Union of the 1860s would soon have broken up as well.
Even during the war, the strains of states’ rights were felt as North Carolina refused to issue thousands of surplus uniforms to the ragged Army of Northern Virginia, retaining them instead for use only by its own troops (interestingly, many of them were used 80 years later to clothe German POWs at Salisbury, North Carolina during World War II, Confederate gray replacing “feldgrau”). Georgia’s irascible Governor Joseph Brown constantly blustered about taking his state’s troops out of the Confederate army altogether because he did not like the way that Jefferson Davis was running the war. The fault lines were already there.
An independent Confederacy probably would not have lasted ten years if only because South Carolina, being South Carolina, would quickly have found a reason, real or imagined, to grouse about the government in Richmond and then would have walked out.
Secession was part of South Carolina’s DNA. It had, after all, issued its own declaration of independence from Great Britain four months prior to the larger Declaration of Independence. The colony seceded from the British Empire on its own. Then there was that little dust-up about nullification when it almost seceded from the Union in 1832. And it ultimately pulled the trigger, so to speak, following the election of Abraham Lincoln. The state simply couldn’t help itself. Richmond would have fared no better than London or Washington did once South Carolina’s ire was raised about something.
That, I believe, would have started the ball rolling and, with secession having been accepted, who could have stopped it? Who would even have tried?
The Mississippi River states of the north would have had to make common cause with those of the south in order to guarantee access to the port of New Orleans. It is easy to imagine those states banding together into some form of “River Republic,” though slavery would have been a sticking point. They otherwise had more in common with each other than any of them did with the states to the east.
Then there was Texas. Kantor got that right. Texas was the only state to that point that actually had been an independent republic (though several states had made that claim). It would have been a simple matter for it to revert to that status, likely expanding to encompass much of today’s southwest and, possibly, parts of northern Mexico.
What of the west coast? The intercontinental railroad would not have been built when we know it was, which means that everything west of the Rockies would have been cut off from effective political communication with the east. Why wouldn’t those states and territories have organized a Pacific republic of their own?
Even the New England states (with Massachusetts being a kind of northern version of South Carolina) might have associated themselves with Canada or, at least, with the Canadian Maritimes into a northeastern republic or federation of some kind.
In other words, a successful war of independence by the Southern Confederacy almost surely would have meant the Balkanization of North America. Would they all have gotten along as Kantor assumed? Doesn’t seem likely, especially as they each would have sought European allies with everything that would have meant for the history of the 20th century.
It’s all just speculation, of course, and the specifics are arguable. But, to your humble correspondent, it does seem reasonable that, had it won its independence, the Confederate States of America would, indeed, have proven to be a “rope of sand.”
Jim Morgan is the author of A Little Short of Boats and currently is a volunteer interpreter at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina.