Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War Now Available
The latest ECW book is available, The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War, co-edited by Chris Mackowski and Brian Matthew Jordan and published by Savas Beatie (click here for more info). Chris had his first box of books show up on his porch at the end of last week, and he offers a quick preview:
We’ll have more about the book in the coming days, and we’ll have more about our specific approach to What Ifs, too. Counterfactual and alternative history can be controversial, so we’ll spend some time talking you through why we’ve decided to tackle the conflict’s most intriguing possibilities.
And, of course, our Eighth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge will focus this year on Great What Ifs. Join us in Spotsylvania Court House,Virginia, August 5-7, 2022, for all the fun. Click here for details or to order your tickets.
5 Responses to Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War Now Available
I think the greatest “what if” of the war was what if the British had agreed to ally with the French on behalf of the Confederacy when the CSA began offering an end to slavery in January of 1862. France was willing and so were the British, but the Brits wanted to wait until “the Roman Problem” was resolved. The Roman Problem was when Italian Nationalists wanted to Italy to control Papal lands. The French sent in troops to prevent that, and the British did not want to ally with the French as long as the possibility of France being involved in a war with Italy existed.
Evidence is strong that the CSA diplomats involved in “the Trent Affair” were taking to Europe an highly secret offer from Jefferson Davis to initiate a gradual end to slavery in hopes of persuading the French and British into an alliance with the CSA against the Union. The first hint of such an offer is found in A British paper called “Once A Week,“ dated Nov. 30, 1861, states the following:
“Slavery is doomed, on any supposition; and the Confederate authorities are already saying publicly that the power of emancipation is one which rests in their hands; and that they will use it in the last resort. This is a disclosure full of interest, and hope.” Note that this was written only seven months after the war began. (See “Slavery, Secession, and Civil War”, Charles F. Adams, pg. 304.)
Detailed evidence, the kind of detail that involves more than rumor, appears in an anti-CSA British newspaper the very week the Trent diplomats arrive in England. “The Spectator” printed on January 25, 1862 the following details of a treaty which, by the detail, confirms it to be “great facts” and more than mere rumor:
“It is understood, in that indirect but accurate way in which great facts first get abroad, that the Confederacy have offered England and France a price for active support. It is nothing less than a treaty securing free trade in its broadest sense for fifty years, the complete suppression of the import of slaves, and the emancipation of every negro born after the date of the signature of the treaty.”
The “accurate way in which great facts first get abroad” is through diplomats. The Spectator article never questions the authenticity of the offer.
Multiple British papers mention the Confederate offer of emancipation, and only a few weeks after this info broke in the British press, Lincoln suddenly does something he had long resisted up to this time. He makes an offer of a general compensated emancipation without a plan in place to deport the freed slaves! His resistance to such an emancipation had long been the concern that freed slaves might migrate into Northern States. To Northerners and Lincoln, having to live with freed blacks was unthinkable!
When no slave States respond to Lincoln’s offer, he calls a meeting on July 12, 1862 with the border slaves States that remained in the Union. He tells them that if they accept his offer of compensated emancipation, the war will end because the seceded States will see that the border States will never join their cause, and realize it to be futile. Lincoln argues that their cause around which they leveraged secession was slavery, and if the border States ended slavery, the seceded States would see the futility of continuing the fight. The 27 border State representatives that met with Lincoln voted 20 – 7 to turn down his offer of compensated emancipation. The 20 write Lincoln a letter explaining why, saying that slavery was NOT the cause of the seceded States but rather secession was based on a fear that Lincoln and the North now had control of the central gov’t and would use that power to further exploit the Southern States.. The 7 who voted FOR Lincoln’s compensated emancipation give the following explanation for their vote:
“We are the more emboldened to assume this position from the fact, now become history, that the leaders of the Southern rebellion have offered to abolish slavery amongst them as a condition to foreign intervention in favor of their independence as a nation. If they can give up slavery to destroy the Union; We can surely ask our people to consider the question of Emancipation to save the Union.”
Note that these seven Union loyal congressmen are writing to their President about a very crucial and strategic matter during a time of war, calling it a “fact, now become history.” These border slave State congressmen were in a good position to confirm the Confederate offer of emancipation. After all, they were in constant contact with the seceded State representatives who were attempting to lure the border States to join their cause. One of those representatives must have confirmed that emancipation was indeed being offered by the Confederate gov’t in hopes that it would convince the border States to join the Confederacy. The very next day after meeting with these 7 congressmen, Lincoln sits down and drafts his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Is there any doubt that his action is based on the confirmation he received from those 7 that the CSA was offering to end slavery! Is there any doubt that something Lincoln had long resisted doing, now was suddenly done because he feared an alliance of the CSA, France, and Britain based on CS offer of ending slavery. Lincoln is simply forced to emancipate to preempt and head off Confederate emancipation! Now we understand fully why Lincoln called his EP a “war measure” intended to prevent France and Britain from allying with the CSA.
Meanwhile in London, the Confederate offer to free the slaves remained on the table awaiting resolution of “the Roman Problem.” Unfortunately for the CSA, that problem would not be resolved until 1872, and not fully resolved until 1929 with the Lateran Treaty. In 1864, the largest slave holder in Louisiana, CS Congressman Duncan Kenner went to Davis stating that he should go to the British and up the ante to immediate emancipation of all the slaves to see if that would convince the Brits to ally with France on behalf of the Confederacy. But while Kenner was negotiating in England, Lee surrendered at Appomattox, making Kenner’s efforts futile.
The great “what if” of the war is what if France and England had allied with the CSA on the basis of its offer of gradual emancipation in January of 1862. There is little doubt that the CSA would have achieved independence, that the slaves would have been freed in a far more accommodating and benevolent manner than what occurred as an unintended consequence of a war for “union.” There would not have been massive deaths among the former slaves as a consequence of the displacement of a war that had no plan for their welfare other than that expressed by Lincoln, “Root hog or die.” And there would have been no racial animosity deliberately created in the South by the political ambitions of Republican politicians. There would have been no resulting hideous Jim Crow era that is directly linked to a politically motivated Reconstruction. And there would have been no century of Southern exploitation that left the South depressed, impoverished, and lagging behind in every category of human endeavor. What if…
I enjoyed this book a great deal. I am not a fan of alternative histories in novels (several Civil War novels and novels such as Roth’s “The Plot Against America”. I am not really sure this book should be described as alternative or counterfactual history. The essays are the best evidence for what the do, as opposed to the Foreword or Introduction. That said, these essays are excellent examples of careful thinking and accessible Civil War scholarship. It isn’t necessary to think of the contents of this book in terms of alternative histories. I have posted a review of this book on Goodreads and Amazon.