For a community of people who pride themselves on loving to learn new things, I’m often surprised by the number of folks who have inherent prejudices against “What if” questions.
I understand that a lot of people who ask “What If” do so because they really want to engage in historical wish fulfillment. Even that can be okay as a form of entertainment (especially over beer and cigars). But “What If” can also be a useful tool for focusing discussion, examining assumptions, and promoting critical thinking. The number of people who dismiss the question, and thus close themselves off to potential insights it offers, can be disappointing.
I’ve been mulling this point for a couple weeks now, ever since I simultaneously heard something quite positive and something negative—based on a knee-jerk assumption—about our recent Great What Ifs of the American Civil War book, both on the same day.
The first came from Robin Friedman in The Midwest Book Review. “Far from presenting alternative or counterfactual history, the volume examines some of the key pivotal moments of the Civil War and analyzes their importance,” Friedman. “Although cast in terms of ‘what if’s’ most of the book is squarely within the responsible practice of history. . . . Each of these essays encourages the reader to look closely at the complexity of determining what happened before speculating on what might have happened.” You can read the full review here.
Later in the day, someone online mentioned that he was reading the book to review it for a journal, and someone replied by saying he would throw the book away as soon as he saw the title. The commenter, who once worked at a battlefield, got annoyed with people who asked “What if?” The question he wanted to counter with, he suggested, was “What if I gave a shit?”
That reminded me of a similar comment someone made not too long ago. Complaining about people who liked to ask, “What if Stonewall Jackson was at Gettysburg,” this person would respond with a counter-question, “What if Bernard Bee said, ‘There stands Jackson like a brick shithouse’?” The idea of “Brick Shithouse Jackson” does seem kinda of funny, and if the person is just asking the Gettysburg question in order to engage in a little Civil War wish fulfillment—“Lost Cause porn,” I call it—then I tend to have the same short patience as my acquaintance.
But depending on the context, a flippant response might also be construed as belittling. Sure, the Jackson-at-Gettysburg question can be annoying if you’ve heard it a million times, but for a visitor asking it, it might be the first time he/she has had an opportunity to ask an informed person. If it’s a sincere question, it offers an opportunity for a teaching moment: “Well, here are all the reasons why Jackson couldn’t be there….” And that becomes an opportunity for talking about real history. (For my own answer, check out these two posts, here and here.)
That’s what we’ve tried to do in the What If book: explore the assumptions people make when they ask “What If.” The question lets us put ourselves in the moment and examine the facts and options as they existed in that moment. By looking at what didn’t happen, we can better understand what did.
The question “What If” also invites us to look at other examples from elsewhere/elsewhen in the war that might help illuminate the question. If we ask, “What If Stonewall Jackson survived his wounding,” we might look at other general officers wounded in the war and what became of them as a way to help us better understand assumptions we might make about Jackson. How did Longstreet react? Ewell? Hood? Sickles? (we could pick others) Looking at their recoveries might help us better evaluate our assumptions about a prospective Jackson recovery.
Asking “What if” can be one more useful tool for understanding an event in the same way maps, primary sources, photographs, landscapes, and books all help us. (Fiction does, too, but that’s another discussion!) Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but when taken in the fuller context of research and learning, each has its own unique light to shed. Asking “What if” can bring to light lesser-known context or show facts in a different light.
What-ifs might not be for everyone, but I would argue that they can be. They require a little imagination and open-mindedness, and they have to stay grounded in reality to be of any real use beyond entertainment, but they can shed light for those who are willing to be illuminated.
Come explore What Ifs with us at the Eighth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge. Keynote speaker Garry Adelman will talk about the What Ifs of Gettysburg. We’ll also hear from Gordon Rhea, Brian Matthew Jordan, Kris White, Sarah Kay Bierle, Neil Chatelain, Sean Chick, Phill Greenwalt, and Jon Tracey. We’ll also have panel discussions on the What Ifs of the Antietam Campaign (Lost Order, anyone?) and the Great What Ifs of the Civil War. Plus we’ll have a Sunday morning tour of the Slaughter Pen Farm at Fredericksburg.
All this and more for only $225. Please join us: August 5-7, 2022, in Spotsylvania Court House. (Register here)