Entertaining History: The Delicious If: MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War and Alternative History

by Stephen Davis 

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863; the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid out and ready in the woods . . . and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet. . . . This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory.[1]

William Faulkner’s rumination on Gettysburg in Intruder in the Dust is one of the most famous literary forays into imaginative history. Not the kind of history imagined by, say, Stephen Crane pondering how Henry Fleming faced battle at Chancellorsville.[2] Rather, it’s the history about to be not just rewritten, but recast altogether in one’s imagination. Faulkner, in short, spoke for every white Southern boy of his generation who thought about the Civil War and dreamed about how the South might have won it.

. . . not just of his generation, but even of mine. When I was a Southern boy fourteen years old, I was already reading about the Civil War. But when I wanted to imagine how the war might have ended differently—with a Confederate victory, as improbable as it seemed—I had a ready touchstone. In its issue of November 22, 1960, LOOK Magazine published as its feature article something it called “History in Reverse”: MacKinlay Kantor’s imaginative essay, “If the South Had Won the Civil War.”

It was one of the coolest things I had ever seen in my (young) life. “Two little switches in the events of the summer of 1863 could have turned the tide for the Confederacy,” the editors tweaked in their opening, as they introduced “an amazing version of history as it did not happen,” written by Kantor, the “distinguished author of Andersonville.”

I didn’t even have to start reading it; just flipping the pages was exciting, drinking in Robert Fawcett’s vivid, full-page pictures of Confederates overrunning Gettysburg’s Cemetery Hill, Major John Mosby capturing Abraham Lincoln, and Confederate leaders celebrating with a festive ball in the White House.

The article wasn’t very long, though it was spread over thirty pages. In between were LOOK’s usual lot of ads, as for Campbell Soup (“M’m! M’m! Good!”).[3]

Kantor’s “history in reverse” was a hit. The next spring, in April 1961—centennial year for the start of the war—a paperback edition appeared with a few new flourishes to the LOOK text. When magazine mention is made of the meeting in which a captive Lincoln pleads with Confederate President Davis for an end to bloodshed, Kantor mentions “Lamon, in his memoirs” as source. In the paperback, we get a footnote: Recollections of a Cavalier by Lamon (Philadelphia, 1887)–which, of course, is made-up. Added to the paperback as well are ink sketches by Isa Barnett, illustrating scenes not pictured by Fawcett in the magazine. Notable is that showing Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s equestrian accident, mid-May 1863. The tumble from his horse took Grant’s life and threw his army, trapped in the middle of Mississippi, into such crisis that it was forced to surrender on June 30, 1863.[4]

Kantor’s “two little switches in the events of the summer of 1863” prove to be momentous indeed. After Grant’s fatal accident, Gen. John McClernand takes over, and falters. McClernand dashes his troops against Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army fortified at Jackson. Rebel cavalry cut up Federal foraging columns and the Yankees start to starve in the middle of Mississippi. Gen. William T. Sherman takes over from McClernand and leads the army toward Vicksburg. There he has no better luck. Futile assaults against the river fortress held by Gen. John C. Pemberton waste away Sherman’s remaining strength; the red-haired Northern commander is drilled in the head by a Rebel bullet. “The Army of the Tennessee,” Kantor writes of the luckless Union force, “was trapped against the Mississippi shore” by the combined armies of Pemberton and Johnston, who had been hammering it from the rear. On June 30, 1863 it surrenders, just days after Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ Union forces had been routed downriver at Port Hudson, Louisiana.[5]

Events turn just as favorably for the Rebels a thousand miles away at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After his infantry had routed the enemy I and XI Corps on July 1, Lee is uncharacteristically resolute in calling for assaults on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills south of the town. Gen. Richard Ewell promptly sends forth his divisions, and the Confederates soon have the Yankees flying for the rear “in a panic not unlike that endured at Chancellorsville.”

The rest of the battle of Gettysburg is legendary in the annals of Confederate history. Lee orders commanding heights, called the Round Tops, occupied before the enemy get there. “Jeb” Stuart attacks the Federal cavalry early on July 2 and disperses them. The Union commander, Gen. George Meade, is unable to organize his troops approaching Gettysburg into a cohesive defense, and Lee masterfully defeats them in detail. “By sunset on July 3rd,” Kantor explains, “the Army of the Potomac had dissolved into hopeless tatters—bleeding human garbage, a pitiful mockery of an army.”

With Lee bearing down on Washington and no defense forces on hand, Lincoln sadly witnesses government authority in the capital dissolve. For the sake of the president’s safety against marauding mobs, loyal aides arrange his surrender to Confederates, who safeguard Lincoln’s escape to Richmond.

There remains enough of a U. S. government to allow its representatives to meet with Southern counterparts for a peace conference in September.  The final agreement recognizes the secession of the Confederate States. The Southern envoys write into the treaty language familiar to them from an earlier American Revolution, “that these [States] are and or right ought to be, free and independent.”[6]

This sort of stuff is too exciting for historians to make up, so it’s left for novelists to do it. Turning their imaginations to Gettysburg are other fictionists less renowned than MacKinlay Kantor. Several years before the Centennial, in Bring the Jubilee (1952), Ward Moore had Lee winning the battle by posting artillery on Little Round Top late on July 1. Determined Confederate attacks against a pummeled Union line sweep it away; “the disorganized Federals were given the final killing blow in their vitals” by Gen. George Pickett’s charge on the 3rd.[7]

Mark Nesbitt gets straight to the point in If the South Won Gettysburg (1980). After sweeping the Union I and XI Corps through town on July 1, Lee the next day is prepared to attack the enemy line formed along Cemetery Ridge down to Little Round Top. But General James Longstreet, his trusted old war horse, argues that instead of attacking, the army should swing around and take a defensive position along Rock Creek, interposing between Meade’s army and Washington. Lee agrees and so orders. Sure enough, Meade has no choice but to assault the entrenched Rebel lines July 3-4, and is bloodily repulsed.

Meanwhile Stuart’s cavalry swoops down on Washington and shells the city. Congress flees, the White House is on fire, and Lincoln slips away to safety. Meade, unable to break or outflank Lee’s strong position and with his army wrecked from attacking, calls his senior officers together. “His Corps Commanders (those that were not killed or wounded),” Nesbitt narrates, “voted unanimously to send a request for terms of surrender under a flag of truce.” Meade reluctantly agrees to see General Lee, although he tells an aide “he would rather die a thousand deaths than do that.” Within two weeks of Meade’s surrender, the two sides sign a peace agreement. Confederate independence is recognized, Federal troops will withdraw from Southern territory, and Confederates will end their occupation of Washington, allowing the United States government to re-establish itself in its historic capital.[8]

Civil War buffs will recognize that the key to Lee’s victory in this scenario is his decision to take Pete Longstreet’s advice not to attack Meade’s army, but to maneuver south of Gettysburg and force the Yankees to attack. That much we know from history.[9]  Nesbitt’s Document of Peace, signed at Fredericksburg, naturally involves the novelist’s flight of imagination —a venture as lofty as the very front cover photograph of his paperback. Beneath the title, If the South Won Gettysburg, a moon-suited astronaut stands on the lunar surface beside the Confederate battle flag planted in the dust.

After Longstreet, after Nesbitt, there’s not much novelty for William R. Forstchen to explore in his Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War (2003). Here, too, Lee takes Longstreet’s advice, marches to a defensive position south of Gettysburg and forces Meade to attack. The Confederates win the battle and destroy the Army of the Potomac. So what’s new in this novel? Actually, quite a bit, at least in its clever details. “My fault, all my fault,” laments the defeated army commander after the battle. But here it is not Robert E. Lee grieving (his famous words in history), but George G. Meade, just before he was shot and killed trying to escape. And when the Union infantry form for their final, fateful attack, vowing, “Maybe, just maybe, we’ll do it this time,” they sound a lot like Faulkner’s fourteen-year-old Southern boy in Intruder in the Dust.[10]

I saw Newt Gingrich, Gettysburg’s presumed co-author, at a book signing in 2003. I managed to ask the Speaker if he and Bill Forstchen had caught any flak for their earlier novel, 1945, in which they had Germany win the Second World War.[11]

“Why would we?” Gingrich answered. “It’s a novel.”

. . . Which brings us back to MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War. Sure, it’s just a novel. But for me, as a youngster growing up dreaming about Rebels and Yankees, it was the power of just such a novel which helped birth my war-passion and which has sustained it all of these ensuing years.

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[1] William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (New York: Random House, 1948), 194-95.

[2] Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (New York: D. Appleton, 1895).

[3] MacKinlay Kantor, “If the South Had Won the Civil War,” LOOK, vol. 24, no. 24 (Nov. 22, 1960), 29-42, 45, 49-50, 52, 54, 58, 60, 62.

[4] Paperback edition (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), 11.

[5] LOOK, 31-32.

[6] LOOK, 37, 49.

[7] Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1952), 187.

[8] Mark Nesbitt, If the South Won Gettysburg (Gettysburg: Reliance Publishing Co., 1980), 146.

[9] See, for example, Glenn Tucker, Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1968), 50-51.

[10] William R. Forstchen with Newt Gingrich, Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003), 390, 450.

[11] Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, 1945 (Riverdale NY: Baen Books, 1995).

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Stephen Davis of Atlanta is the author of several books on the Atlanta Campaign, as well as articles over the years in various magazines and journals. He’s made two contributions to Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War paperback series, relating the Atlanta Campaign to mid-July 1864 (A Long and Bloody Task) and to the city’s surrender to Sherman (All the Fighting They Want).