The American Civil War: What If?

9 April 2011

The American Civil War: What If?

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s not much as anniversaries go, but most of us won’t be around in fifty years, so we’ll have to settle for the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. The groups who re-enact Civil War battles will therefore be out in force on Tuesday, 12 April, but does it matter to anybody else?

Not much, I hear you cry. But it’s still an intriguing question: how different would the world be now if the South had succeeded in seceding from the United States?

As it happens, we have a half-million-word answer to that question: the series of eleven “alternate history” books that American novelist Harry Turtledove has written about a world in which the Confederate States of America successfully won its independence in 1863. It ends up in 1945 with death camps in the CSA and nuclear weapons on Philadelphia and Charleston, and it is fully plausible every step of the way.

Turtledove’s instincts as an historian are impeccable because he actually is an historian, with a PhD in Byzantine history. Nothing unlikely or inexplicable happens in his books. He just tweaks the outcome of one local conflict in the1860s – and the whole of modern history unfolds very differently, but entirely credibly.

The Confederacy gets its independence in 1863 by winning the Battle of Gettysburg (that could certainly have happened), whereupon Britain and France grant it diplomatic recognition (which probably would have happened). The rest of the former United States, still twice as numerous as the Confederacy, is very bitter about its defeat, but apart for one brief clash in the 1880s, the two successor countries live side by side in peace for fifty years.

It’s the geopolitics that causes the problems. The United States, hostile to Britain and France because their recognition of the Confederacy made the division of the country permanent, aligns itself with the rising new power in Europe, the German empire. As the alliances take shape in the early 20th century, it’s Germany, Austria-Hungary and the USA versus Britain, France, Russia and the CSA.

Turtledove has a nice touch with the fine detail of daily life in a changed history. Kaiser-Wilhelm-style mustaches are popular in the USA because of the German alliance. The linguistic change that happened after the real American Civil War, when Americans stopped saying “the United States are” and began to say “the United States is,” never happens in the alternate world.

American politics is different, too. The Republican Party, blamed as much as the despised Abraham Lincoln himself for losing the war, vanishes. Lincoln ends up in the Socialist Party, which eventually emerges as the main rival to the Democratic Party. But it is the wars that really change.

When the First World War finally arrives, it is fought in North America too, with trenches from tidewater Virginia to the Mississippi river, and another set of trenches dividing Canada, part of the British empire, from the northern US. The black former slaves of the Confederacy, freed by President Robert E. Lee in the 1880s but then left to rot, rise in a Communist-backed revolt in 1915 but are ruthlessly crushed.

The US army finally conquers Canada, and in 1917 its new “barrels” (tanks) break through the Confederate trenches in Kentucky and Virginia. A revolution (though not a Communist one) takes Russia out of the war, and the US navy begins to starve Britain, which depends on Atlantic convoys for its food. The USA and Germany win the war.

The victorious powers impose harsh peace terms on the losers – territorial losses, “war guilt” reparations, and disarmament – just like they did in the real history. So politics becomes radicalised in the defeated powers, Britain, France and the Confederacy, and fascist parties gain control in all of them. The demagogue who is voted into the presidency in the CSA is rather like Hitler in his rhetoric, though his hatred is aimed not at Jews but at blacks.

The Second World War arrives on schedule, and opens with a Confederate blitzkrieg in Ohio that almost cuts the United States in half. The weight of numbers begins to swing the balance the other way after a while, but even as Confederate armies retreat, the death camps run by the Freedom Party to exterminate the South’s blacks continue to run full blast.

Both sides are also racing for nuclear weapons, and some are used in the end – but Germany and the USA have more of them than Britain and the CSA, so the victors in the First World War win again. And this time, the Confederacy is fully occupied and formally abolished, though a genuinely reunited United States will clearly not come to pass for several generations, if ever.

There. Now you know the plot, and I just saved you a month of reading. But the point is this: it could have happened like that. Indeed, it is no more bizarre than what actually did happen. Turtledove has given us a plausible depiction of a world in which the Confederacy became an independent great power, and it is even less attractive than the world we know.

So it is an important anniversary after all, you see. Even though back in 1861, it could still have gone either way.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 8. (“Turtledove’s…credibly”, and “Turtledove…change”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.