What If…An Introduction

We’re running a series on the blog to coincide with the 2022 Emerging Civil War Symposium that will focus on What Ifs. While preparing the writers for the series, Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski wrote:

“Think about your favorite What If question. What is it? Why does it fascinate you? How does it help you better understand what actually happened? What assumptions to people make when they ask your What If? How can you pop holes in those assumptions?”

And, dear readers, is going to be the focus of the series.

This will NOT be fiction writing or wishful thinking. For example, McClellan doesn’t miss the Lost Order and suddenly find himself pinned against the Susquehanna outside Harrisburg by a victorious Lee. We can’t logically make those leaps without getting into fiction. We’ll also be avoiding “magic bullets” (Grant falls off a horse and dies!) or people acting “out of character” (no suddenly aggressive McClellans).

We hope that engaging with the concept of “What If” within historical scenarios and contexts can help us gain deeper understandings about what really did happen…and possibly some insights to why.

Here are a couple of other posts from earlier this year that help to set the stage for this new blog series!

And be sure to check out the new ECW book: The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War

11 Responses to What If…An Introduction

  1. What if Confederate privateers were successful in the Pacific? Okay, I’m a California native so I often imagine California having a greater role in the American Civil War. Could these “pirates” have compelled Lincoln to shift more USN ships to the Pacific (thereby weakening the naval blockade)? Could their plunder have been enough to damage the Union’s financial base and prop up the CSA’s economy (Roger Lowenstein’s “Ways and Means” describes both the USA and CSA in financial crises)? One assumption in this alternate outcome is that the Union’s intelligence was poor, which one could argue; however, the reporting that I’ve seen regarding the Pacific privateers was good. That is why the couple attempts were mopped up rather quickly.

  2. When asked What if?: I have two.1) What if Booth’s gun misfires? What does Reconstruction look like with Lincoln at the helm? 2) What if Johnston isn’t killed at Shiloh? How much did his death change the South’s chances for Independence? Would the Confederates have won at Shiloh had Johnston lived?

  3. What if the Confederates would not of fired on Fort Sumpter (or is that to far towards fiction)?

    1. Thanks for raising this “What if…” because it is a possibility that interests me as well. And we know, as result of the Southern attack on Fort Sumter the Northern populace was outraged; even New York City abandoned plans to establish the Free City of Tri-Insula; and yet many in the Border States found themselves galvanized as firmly pro-secession. If Jefferson Davis had managed to negotiate a pacifist course, exercise patience, maintain strict control of militias in vicinity of Charleston Harbor… could he have forced Abraham Lincoln to commit the first act of aggression? Could an aggrieved South have capitalized on its underdog status to embolden Northern Peace Conventions? Or inspire International Recognition?

  4. I always felt that had Beauregard fired on the fleet, and merely kept it from entering the harbor, Lincoln would have been hard pressed to have harnessed the outrage he achieved from the firing on Sumter itself.

    1. Excellent point, John. And if the resupply attempt was made during the hours of daylight, the observers on rooftops in Charleston may have missed seeing the action; but Rebel gunners near the entrance to Charleston Harbor would have found their targets hard to miss.
      However, from 7- 14 April 1861 the Phase of the moon was roughly “New Moon.” So a ship or two entering Charleston Harbor during the hours of darkness would be very difficult to see, let alone hit with cannon fire. And once Anderson was resupplied, the “problem” of Fort Sumter could persist for three, four, or more months. [Was this fear of resupply, extending the unwanted Federal occupation of Fort Sumter into a distant future, what precipitated Beauregard’s attack? If so, President Lincoln and his advisors orchestrated it wonderfully well… and gained the High Ground of public opinion.]

  5. What of Dan Sickles hadn’t moved his troops forward at Gettysburg. Would Lee have committed the forces he did into the vbattle with the union position so strong? Would Lee have focused his attacks better in a more focused assault to smash the union line? Sickles troops must have made the line look weaker and success more achievable

  6. What if Cheatam had not stopped Brown and Cleburn from cutting the Columbia Pike at Spring Hill, TN in 1864? Would the Army of Tennessee been able to threaten Nashville enough to cause Sherman to send troops to deal with Hood and thereby end or, at least, postpone the March to the Sea?

  7. What if….
    …the concept of acoustic shadows was better understood?
    …weather forecasting had been better? Would certain marches and attacks have gone forward when they did or been timed differently to take advantage of or avoid weather?
    …communications (while still using the technology of the time) and/or staff work been better and more thorough? How many stories are there of a message not arriving in time or not at all or not even dispatched? How many botched or misunderstood orders were given and if only they had been written down been better understood and executed?

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