On Confederate Counterfactuals

For some years, I’ve taught a course on counterfactual history. Unlike many scholarly historians, I find counterfactual history useful for a variety of reasons.

For one, I accept the argument that a number of its proponents have made that all arguments about historical causality are at least implicitly counterfactual, and that those claims can often be made more effectively if the counterfactuals are explored more explicitly. For the same reason, I think all claims about the contingent nature of historical events and about human agency in history require at least some acknowledgement of counterfactual possibilities.

I also think there are some humanists who’ve done an important job of asking about the emotional and philosophical meanings of certainty in history, about why we’re sure that certain key events or long-term narratives are inevitable or necessary. Often our need to see certain things as highly deterministic is less derived from evidence or analysis and more by a sense of our contemporary politics or values, that to acknowledge certain contingencies or uncertainties in the past is to make something in the present more fragile than we wish it to be.

I also just think counterfactuals are interesting and enjoyable and that is sufficient justification for pursuing them. I’m glad to turn E.H. Carr’s famous denunciation of the counterfactual as a “parlour game” on its head and see that as an endorsement. Counterfactuals and historical fiction both challenge the limits of historical scholarship and force historians to recognize that there are other ways of knowing, imagining and making use of the past that may require other practices of imagination and interpretation than the traditional approach favored by historians since the late 19th Century.

That said, the striking thing about actual counterfactual writing is not its imaginative character but instead how cramped and fetishized much of it is. A vast percentage of it, both by fiction writers and by scholars who’ve taken a stab at it, concerns a small handful of famous battles, a small handful of famous white male leaders, and a smattering of familiar and very Eurocentric events. Niall Ferguson, in his introduction to the anthology Virtual History, seems to think that this narrowness of focus is one of the things that recommends counterfactuals as a scholarly exercise. (He makes a fairly tortured argument that counterfactual writing is a salutary poke in the eye to Marxist-inflected social history and must concentrate on a small subset of historical actors where we have explicit evidence that they consciously contemplated several courses of action before undertaking one of them.)

One reason I think it’s worth pushing counterfactuals more generally is to ask what counterfactuals written outside of that cramped space might look like, and why we might be reluctant in some cases to undertake them. If I try to write a counterfactual analysis of the “scramble for Africa” of the late 19th Century, I immediately confront some pretty serious conceptual, political and intellectual challenges. If I confine my counterfactual to Bismarck or Cecil Rhodes or Joseph Chamberlain or David Livingstone, I’m just reproducing the old Eurocentric narratives that claim that the conquest of sub-Saharan Africa was just a kind of epiphenomenal side-effect of European history decided upon by famous male leaders. If I try to write a counterfactual where African agency produces a different substantive overall outcome, I’m in danger of “blaming the victims”, of imagining that Africans could have stopped colonialism if they’d only done something other than what they did. (And if I try to do that, I’m also up against serious limits to plausibility and accuracy, since there really doesn’t seem to have been an overall possibility of a different outcome from collective or sustained action by Africans, just variations in local outcomes.) If I argue that colonialism was completely deterministic and inevitable and no counterfactuals are possible, I put in jeopardy a whole series of nested assumptions about the moral responsibility of imperial leaders and European nations. But these all seem like valuable conversations to have, and if asking about counterfactuals as a possibility helps push them forward, good.

The other way to think about the cramped space that most counterfactuals live in is to ask why they’re so uncreatively confined to a narrow range of conjectures about what-might-have-been. So let’s take one of the two stock counterfactuals, namely, “What if the South had won the Civil War?”, which the producers of Game of Thrones have announced will be the basis of the next series they will produce. This has not surprisingly and to my mind completely justifiably produced a lot of dismayed chatter on social media.

Partly it’s because Benioff and Weiss don’t by their own admission have much knowledge about this extremely crowded field of counterfactual writing. “I read a book by Shelby Foote” does not inspire confidence. If nothing else, I’d tell them to hire some researchers stat so that they don’t end up being sued by one of about thirty authors for pretty much rehashing an existing might-have-been story. Maybe they should even option one or more of those stories: Bring the Jubilee might work pretty well. (But please god, not that awful goddamn Harry Turtledove book.)

The deeper problem is that for a subject that receives this much attention, the range of counterfactuals is narrowly confined to essentially nostalgic takes on the antebellum South, to the point of being a kind of odd side branch of Lost Cause thinking. There are exceptions, but not many. They’re also generally obsessed with battlefield analysis, Gettsyburg in particular, and Pickett’s Charge even more particularly.

If you really thought about it, here’s some other counterfactuals about the Civil War that are at least as plausible as the more typical, “The South wins and either becomes a racist nightmare dystopia that dominates the North or it becomes a genteel civilization that eventually slowly emancipates the slaves and makes racial peace”.

1. The North imposes a genuinely tough and unforgiving form of military occupation and sees Reconstruction through more thoroughly until it’s finished, resulting in an America with more racial justice and with a South that is fully reintegrated into the Union, more along the lines of post-1950 Germany or Japan. Nobody writes that one up, but it’s not completely without plausibility, nor is it without appeal. (Counterfactual fiction has a somewhat understandable aversion to writing about outcomes that were far better than the real world because of the loss of dramatic potential, but there are good examples of engaging stories that follow that path.)

2. A US where slave revolts became widespread after Harper’s Ferry (or at some earlier moment), leading to an overall collapse of public order in some slave states and subsequent federal intervention, eventually leading to emancipation without a Civil War.

3. A US where the South secedes and the North decides to let them secede but also overthrows Dred Scott, encourages fugitive slaves, and closes the border to the South and prevents westward movement. The South becomes an impoverished shithole banana republic and in the early 20th Century begs for readmission to the Union.

4. A South that is permitted to secede that then wages war on Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America and Mexico to try and secure more territory for slavery and eventually loses in a series of border conflicts, including the re-annexation of most of Texas.

5. A South which successfully sues for favorable peace after Gettysburg only to fall to a socialist revolution in the early 20th Century due to an alliance between slaves, freedmen, small landholders and industrial laborers against the old plantation class.

See, the thing you discover is that whether you’re doing fiction or you’re trying to make a careful counterfactual argument that is somewhat scholarly in nature, almost all “The South and the Civil War” counterfactuals are captive to the Lost Cause and are deeply solicitious of Southern white manhood–of the need to compliment the honor and dignity of Confederate soldiers, the legitimacy of the Confederate cause, to treat the Civil War as a noble conflict between brothers, and so on. But there are so many other stories that could be told–or conjectures that could be made. (And have been made, at least by some scholars of Reconstruction.)

So if Benioff and Weiss keep going with this, I really urge them to leave Shelby Foote behind. If they really must do this, try something else that’s really provocative for a change. I think a series where an independent South is a horrific failed state or a series where Reconstruction is genuinely harsh to good ends also would get people talking, and for once, the provocations would be aimed in a different direction than they habitually are.

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25 Responses to On Confederate Counterfactuals

  1. Rebecca Weitzel says:

    I have great responsible, peaceful, adult friends of all nationalities here in Indiana. They are more respectful to me than supposedly superior white men.

  2. I’m guessing, from the list of Civil War counterfactuals you’d like to see, that you haven’t read (or maybe aren’t aware of) Terry Bisson’s excellent novel Fire on the Mountain. The premise is that Harriet Tubman joins John Brown’s raid (in reality she was planning to but got sick) and she’s much better at it than him. It’s more on the literary than the academic side, but as both a response to Turtledove et al and an exploration of our own history’s failings–not to mention a great read–I cannot recommend it more to people who are interested in this stuff.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually yeah, I’ve read it–and it’s great. Definitely informs that item on my list. It would be mind-blowing if Benioff and Weiss chose to option it. It’s terrific–one reason I want to teach the course again in the near-term is to mix it into the syllabus.

    Less successful but also interesting is Steven Barnes’ attempt to do a more fantastic alt-history that has African civilizations colonizing the New World and enslaving Europeans.

  4. DB says:

    Not only did Benioff refer vaguely to some Shelby Foote book, but he also confessed to only the vaguest memory of learning about Lee’s “Lost Order” or indeed the entire Maryland Campaign it was a part of. This is not a guy with command at his fingertips of even some of the most basic facts of the war’s military history. This does not inspire confidence in someone helming a major TV production about it.

    Which ” awful goddamn Harry Turtledove book”? He’s written quite a few Civil War counterfactual novels.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m thinking of Guns of the South.

  6. Frank l says:


    1) Weiss (not Benioff) was the one quoted on Foote and the lost orders

    2) the series is set in present day and, thus, the applicability of expert knowledge on the war’s military history is questionable

    3) Benioff and Weiss aren’t writing it

    4) Fire on the Mountain is superb

  7. Matt McKeon says:

    One of the great missed opportunities of Reconstruction was the redistribution of land. If the holdings of the major secessionists had been seized and turned over to freedmen(basically the 40 acres and a mule idea), it would mean a significant class of black landowners. Gen. Sherman got the ball rolling on this, but it was eventually reversed.

    Its not a silver bullet, of course, but better than what actually happened.

  8. John M. Burt says:

    My third novel, “An American Victory”,* currently in progress, involves war across alternate timelines, between three different Americas, none of which had our Civil War:
    One had a successful Southern secession after the failure of the Compromise of 1850 and became the imperialist Republic of Washington.
    One had a Compromise of 1862 overseen by President Douglas and a secession in 1869 which was defeated in less than a year and resulted in a thirty-year Reconstruction, with the rebel states dissolved and readmitted as only four states.
    One had a group of slave states refuse to accept the Constitution, and form the Foederal Republic of America, which became majority-black and black-dominated.
    1926 is an interesting year for all three worlds.
    My friend Gene Greigh has written an interesting book, “West of ’89”, which features a world where the Confederacy was allowed to secede without war, but a slave revolt and a later reign of terror produced a very unpleasant majority-black country. The Confederate government in exile survives as a charitable organization offering help to refugees who flee its oppressive government.

    *After Charles Fort’s snarky observation that it was a safe bet that the American Civil War would end in an American victory.

  9. MentalEngineer says:

    “Underground Airlines,” is another exceptional Southern counterfactual. It’s got bits of your 1 and 3 in its history, as well as a much more realistic take on what a modern Confederacy could look like.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Honestly, if they were going to option anything, Underground Airlines or Fire on the Mountain would be great choices.

  11. sibyl says:

    My initial reaction was, “well, let’s wait until the thing makes it to air before we kill it, but they are going to have to be VERY careful.” And the internet outrage shows why. That Vulture article to which you linked reflects that they seem to be conscious of this. And also that they are going to address a number of outrage concerns in the show. And also that they are getting help with the writing.

    I want to add a scenario to your list, from the very first Confederate counterfactual I read in the 1970s. Of course I can’t remember the title or author at this remove, but one of its conceits was that the Confederacy couldn’t hold itself together, because states just kept seceding. Florida was an independent republic, for example, and it catered to tourists from the Union.

    I mention it because, like many of your scenarios, it is informed by broader historical forces. I have to say it boggles the mind to imagine a 21st century world in which (a) the Confederacy is a viable and coherent nation that (b) includes slavery. Even Brazil gave it up in 1870. Who would trade with a slave nation? What kind of industry would the Confederacy develop? Would it have sided with Napoleon III in his invasion of Mexico? If it would, or even if it wouldn’t, how would it have survived?

    Again, I hate to judge a work of art before it’s actually completed, so I’m not going to endorse the outrage. But the degree of difficulty is very high, and I’m not optimistic television’s track record when it comes to the marriage of history and fiction.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Right–I mean this is the thing, the notion that the Confederacy alone could have sustained slavery indefinitely is just an ugly variant on unwarranted American exceptionalism. Much as Americans (I suspect including Benioff and Weiss) somehow think that chattel slavery was a uniquely American sin, when in fact North America was a far less important destination for enslaved Africans than the Caribbean, Central America and South America. If Cuba and Brazil brought slavery to an official end in the late 19th C., it’s a certainty that an independent Confederacy would have done the same for most of the same reasons. But that counterfactual unsettles many contemporary Americans who identify with the North as well, considering that it implies that the war itself was unnecessary. To some extent the war itself was one of several things that convinced the last holdouts to formally end chattel slavery, along with the Haitian Revolution, the Morant Bay Rebellion and a number of other uprisings and struggles. So I suppose one could tell a story where the Confederacy’s continuing existence delays the end of slavery in the New World by a few more decades, into the early 20th, and gives racism an even stronger malignant life beyond that (hard as that is to imagine). Which maybe gets them where they want to go–but they’d almost be better off doing it less as a counterfactual and more as a near-term dystopia along the lines of A Handmaid’s Tale.

  13. SamChevre says:

    Another Civil-War related counterfactual which I like is Eric Flint’s The Rivers of War and The Arkansas War.

    These are a what-if based on the war of 1812 going differently, and resulting in an independent Indian nation west of the Mississippi.

  14. W.P. McNeill says:

    I’ve thought about your scenario (1) a lot. The fact that the North didn’t follow through on Reconstruction with the same resolve that the allies de-Nazified occupied Germany is one of the great missed opportunities in American history.

  15. W.P. McNeill says:

    3(a) A US where the South secedes and the North decides to let them secede. De jure slavery continues until 1900 or so. There is no Great Northern Migration because white industrialists in Chicago and Detroit prefer to staff their factories with white European immigrants rather than blacks, who the US government wouldn’t let in anyway because it has racial quotas on immigration. The south sits out WWII and remains mired in the Great Depression. Southern black revolutionaries make common cause with anti-colonial movements around the world, secure Soviet military assistance, and sometime around 1967 or so the former Confederacy comes under the rule of President for Life Malcolm X.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. It’s easy to understand why–and it’s not just political calculation. It is that total war followed by legalized steps aimed at national reintegration or state-building was still an unfamiliar political and moral challenge. The closest before was maybe Napoleon’s new administrative order in conquered Europe.

  17. W.P. McNeill says:

    Plus, just because northerners opposed slavery, it didn’t mean they were willing to go to the mat for black people.

    Years ago I read the first half or Henry James’ “The Bostonians”. It’s fuzzy in my memory now, but what I remember most clearly is a southerner in Boston who is depicted very sympathetically. Not as a representative of some slave-owning past that James wants to celebrate, but just as someone he is happy to no longer consider an enemy. The implicit attitude towards the Civil War is that was horrific, thank God it’s over. And if you have to have to ignore the plight of southern black Americans, so be it. That was worth it just to put this trauma behind us.

  18. W.P. McNeill says:

    Also, WWII wasn’t a civil war. Germans were foreigners, so it was easier to be harsh with them.

  19. If history professors, like mine when I was a sophomore at a small Texas college in 1958, say that the South seceded because the North imposed tariffs and taxes and because of other violations of state’s rights, should their assertions be taken as “factual?” If they are not, then what is left? Other disputed explanations? How do historians determine what is factual? What were the actual, factual causes of the Civil War? Are those causes still in force? If so, are they pushing us toward future calamities? If they are still in force, what are they, and how can we stop them?

    Would it be “counterfactual” to say that the “causes” of the Civil War that we have argued over for all these years, were all in error and we have learned things since then that show other causes were in effect and still are? Or are we certain that we know the causes of the Civil War? Would it be more useful, I know it won’t be more interesting, to create a television series of what America would be like if we were to overpower these “factual” causes of the Civil War and build a future different from the one we are now hurtling into?

    Or, put another way, are the causes of the Civil War the same factors that caused us to elect Donald Trump? That cause us to ignore the onrushing catastrophe of global warming? That cause us to say “to hell” with our posterity? What do we call the different futures that seem possible?

    The common enemy of all people everywhere is the duality of human nature which gives rise to a conflict between the rational and the irrational. One variety of our species (tyranni) naturally, irrationally works against the common good—it is very aggressive, and does not hesitate to push forward to take power. The other variety (democrati) naturally, rationally works for the common good—it is timid and hesitates to confront the more aggressive variety. This duality leads us to ignore global warming, it causes us to say “to hell” with our posterity. It causes us to destroy our civilization.

    Therefore, our new systems must rely on rationality as they apply our collective resources and powers to build and maintain the common good. It is rational to work for the common good. It is irrational to work against it. Wasn’t what happened in the South irrational? And wouldn’t only irrational men support it? Didn’t the South work against the common good?

    Shouldn’t we write a TV series that describes a future that we would like to see? Shouldn’t we do it by describing how a small group of historians stopped blogging about “counterfactuals” and started blogging about the four eternal questions: “Where do we stand? How did we get here? Where do we want to go? How do we get there from here?” Shouldn’t all historians be working to answer these questions? Shouldn’t they be applying the lessons of history to warn us of the danger ahead? Shouldn’t they use the lessons of history to teach us how to avoid those dangers?

  20. History, you may be surprised to learn, has come a ways since the standards of Texas in 1958.

  21. Timothy Burke

    “Right–I mean this is the thing, the notion that the Confederacy alone could have sustained slavery indefinitely is just an ugly variant on unwarranted American exceptionalism.”

    Except that, compared to Brazil and Cuba and the Caribbean, America very much was exceptional. The US was effectively a Great Power that wasn’t acting like one yet and that could not be said of any othe slave-holding nations of the mid-to-late 19thC. Brazil could do nothing but fume impotently as the Royal Navy hunted down slave ships in Brazilian waters, other countries could be pressured to end the slave trade or abolish slavery by the opinion of more powerful countries, but that was not true of America.

    It’s noticeable that while other nations, like Brazil, had to suffer the Pax Brittanica in sullen silence, in US-British disputces of the 19thC it’s always Britain that backs down in the face of American sabre rattling. I think this is why the Trent War is a fairly popular Civil War what if, as it offers a unique opportunity for Britain to win a war with the US by kicking it in the nuts while its distracted.

    Or, as in Harry Harrison’s work, unite North and South in post-racial harmony against a common enemy.

  22. Timothy Burke says:

    Let’s leave Harrison aside here, because it’s bad and of little value in arguing about actual history in any event.

    I think to credit the end of Atlantic slavery to the British anti-slavery fleet alone is to really really miss the profound changes in the global economy that strongly mitigated against plantation slavery. You don’t necessarily have to buy the full-on Williams thesis or its more sophisticated forms in later syntheses, but the end of Atlantic slavery was not primarily a consequence of diplomatic relationships. Keep in mind too that an independent Confederacy after 1865 would not have been “the US that was a Great Power”, but in fact something rather closer to Brazil or Cuba: an agricultural economy increasingly dependent upon supplying industrial economies. If you want to follow the counterfactual you’re suggesting, you have to ask yourself what kind of presence a seceded South would have been within the Atlantic world. It wouldn’t have been the United States only smaller or anything of the sort.

  23. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen, probably in response to Jerry Hamrick’s comment of July 29, said: “History, you may be surprised to learn, has come a ways since the standards of Texas in 1958.”

    I have no idea what you are talking about.

    I would appreciate it if you would answer the questions I asked in my comment of July 29.

  24. Larrym says:

    What he means is that history as now taught correctly rejects the lost cause myths that the Civil War was caused by anything other than slavery. Mono causal explanations are usually false, but in this case it was pretty much 100% slavery. Or, to put it another way, the dispute over slavery was both a necessary and sufficient cause of the civil war, rendering other, lesser grievances rather moot.

    Which of course also renders your questions moot.

  25. Larrym:

    I think it is time to raise the discussion to a higher level, one that addresses the field of History:

    Why does Amazon carry only one book devoted to the lessons of history? It was written by Will and Ariel Durant in 1968 and won some sort of prize. Shouldn’t historians write updates to that book every year or so? If not, why not?

    The Durants asked better questions than I have, and they directed them at historians. Here are a few:

    Of what use have your studies been? Have you found in your work only the amusement of recounting the rise and fall of nations and ideas, and retelling “sad stories of the deaths of kings?”

    Have you learned more about human nature than the man in the street can learn without so much as opening a book?

    Have you derived from history any illumination of our present condition, any guidance for our judgments and policies, any guard against the rebuffs of surprise or the vicissitudes of change?

    Have you found such regularities in the sequence of past events that you can predict the future actions of mankind or the fate of states?

    Is it possible, after all, “history has no sense,” that it teaches us nothing and that the immense past was only the weary rehearsal of the mistakes that the future is destined to make on a larger stage and scale?

    Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit of an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads—astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war—what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man.

    It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed. [end of Durant’s remarks]

    He was right about the hundred pages—it requires 600 pages to do the job.
    In any case how would you judge the profession of history in light of Durant’s questions?

    I have spent most of my life earnestly trying to answer these questions. I started long before I ever heard of Will and Ariel Durant. But he was headed in the right direction. His list “astronomy, … war” is incomplete. He needed to talk about systems. The GREEB institutions yield the answers to their problems by studying them for what they are human-made systems. They can be changed when they don’t work to please us. GREEB derives from our ideological institutions of Government, Religion, Education, Economics, and Business. Education should be part of the STEM group, creating “STEEM and GREB.” But it is not and it is hurting our society. If we don’t start teaching our children now to think rationally we will put an end to history, and it will be sooner than later.

    Durant wrote another book, “The Greatest Minds and Ideas of all Times.” He did not name Albert Einstein as one of the greatest minds, and he did not name Einstein’s many theories, not even special and general relativity, as among the greatest ideas.

    He did name Charles Darwin as one of the greatest minds, but he hedged a little. He said, “If Darwin was wrong…” Wow! More than a century after Darwin’s masterpiece was published Durant still had doubts. This means that his list of fields of study for historians to search for answers is, to be kind, rather feeble. Darwin’s great idea is the tool that will enable historians to answer Durant’s questions about human nature and finally provide for civilization lessons from history that will help our species. Until then, until historians adopt a scientific approach to human nature and its effects on society and its uses of the STEM institutions, history will become a dry, flowerless field, and it will be sooner than later.

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