What if the South Won the Civil War?
Here’s a take on that quest from author H.W. Crocker III.
So just suppose that Abraham Lincoln had let the South go. What if he had said the following:
We part as friends. We hope to reunite as friends. There will be no coercion of the Southern states by the people of the North. No state shall be kept in the Union against its will. Such a turn of events would be contrary to every principle of free government that we cherish. But we ask the Southern states, to which we are bound by mystic chords of memory and affection, that they reconsider their action. If not now, then later, when the heat of anger has subsided, when they have seen the actions of this administration work only for the good of the whole and not for the partisan designs of a few; when this administration shows by word and deed that it is happy to live within the confines of the Constitution, that we will admit of no interference in the established institutions of the several states. I trust that by our demeanor, by our character, by our actions, by our prosperity and our progress we will prove to our separated brethren that we should again be more than neighbors, we should be more than friends, we should in fact be United States, for a house united is far stronger, will be far more prosperous, and will be far happier, than a house divided, a house rent asunder by rancor, a house that undermines its very foundations by separation.
To the people of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas, I have a special message. I tell you that this government will raise no arms against the states of the Southern Confederacy. We will wage no war of subjugation against these states. And I confirm, yet again, that I have neither the right, nor the power, nor the desire to abolish slavery within these states or any other where it is lawfully established. What I do desire, as do all the Northern states, is that we be once again a nation united in peace, amity, and common government. Let us through prayer and good graces work to achieve that end. I ask that all good men of the United States, and those now separated from us, work peaceably to achieve the reconciliation that is our destiny and our hope. Four score years ago we created a new nation, united in principle. I pray that sharing the same God, the same continent, and the same destiny, we might unite again in common principle and common government.
Had Lincoln given that speech would “government of the people, by the people, and for the people have perished from the earth”? According to some historians, it would have in fact been confirmed, as the Southern states would have enjoyed that very thing and not have been forced into accepting a government that they did not want and that did not represent their interests, leading to a more peaceful late nineteenth century than America experienced. Would slavery have persisted until this very day? No, it seems certain it would have been abolished peaceably, as it found itself abolished everywhere else in the New World in the nineteenth century (although sadly, it would have likely lasted decades longer than 1865, as slavery persisted in places such as Brazil until the end of the nineteenth century). Imagine that there had been no war against the South, and subsequently no Reconstruction putting the South under martial law, disenfranchising white voters with Confederate pasts, and enfranchising newly freed slaves as wards of the Republican Party. Without that past, race relations in the South could have been better, not worse, and planters would have most likely arranged, over time, to emancipate their slaves in exchange for financial compensation.
For a refresher on the events of Reconstruction, watch this video
It is sometimes said today that Lee was the equivalent of Erwin Rommel in a Confederacy that was the equivalent of the Third Reich . . . though the South, of course, waged no aggressive war, committed no Holocaust against the Jews—in fact, included the Jewish Judah P. Benjamin as its, in succession, secretary of state, secretary of war, and attorney general, the first Jewish cabinet officer in North America—and had as its governing ideology states’ rights and an even more limited federal government than the United States. Pretty fascist, huh?
The comparison isn’t accurate. Far from being sympathetic to National Socialism, the antebellum South was more wedded to economic and governmental libertarianism (no tariffs, no taxpayer-funded “internal improvements,” no overweening national government trampling on states’ rights) than was the North. The Confederate Constitution limited the president to one six-year term. There was no Holocaust in the South, or anything remotely like it. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave-owners and so was Jefferson Davis, and Davis was no more evil than they were. In fact, he saw himself, in many ways, as their inheritor. Thomas Jefferson’s grandson died fighting for the Confederacy. John Marshall’s grandson was on Lee’s staff. Relatives of Washington, Patrick Henry, and other Virginia patriots, lined up with the Confederacy. So did the grandson of the author of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key.
Southern ideas were about as far from National Socialist ideas as can be imagined. The South had little truck with nationalism (as opposed to federalism and state loyalties) and “progressive ideas” (like Marxism). Its people insisted on their liberty to a degree that not even the Federal government could tolerate. If they would not take orders from Abraham Lincoln, and often wondered why they should take them from Jefferson Davis, it is hard to imagine they would have had any interest in being harangued by a paper-hanging corporal with a toothbrush mustache.
There would have been—and were—no more ardent anti-Nazis than the people of the South. As the historian Samuel Eliot Morrison noted, writing of the 1940 election between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie, though Southerners distrusted the New Deal, “the South in general, with its gallant tradition, applauded the President’s determination to help the Allies; and ahead of any other part of the country, prepared mentally for the war that the nation had to fight.” The America First movement—which strove to keep America out of any European war—was most popular in the Midwest and among the descendants of Irish and German immigrants, many of whom had earned their citizenship fighting for Abraham Lincoln.
What If the South had won the war? Its natural ally would have been Britain, through ties of trade and culture. Sheldon Vanauken, in his imagining of a Confederate victory at the close of his book The Glittering Illusion: English Sympathy for the Southern Confederacy, actually saw the Confederacy becoming part of the British Empire, with the result that rather than entering the Great War in the rather dilatory fashion arranged by the schoolmasterish President Woodrow Wilson, Southern regiments charged in from the start, ensuring an Allied victory in 1916 rather than 1918. In MacKinlay Kantor’s classic rendering of Confederate victory, What If the South Had Won the War?, North and South eventually reunite, in large part because of common service on the side of Britain in both World Wars.
What if the south won the Civil War? Would the Plains Indians still be running free? Some like to imagine so. Certainly, the South had Indian allies, the most famous being the Cherokee Brigadier General Stand Watie, but so did the North. Still, some folks of a peculiar ideological stripe (paleo-libertarians, they’re likely to be called) would have you think that what if the south won the civil war , Indians and Confederates would have rubbed along amicably ever after: the Indians hunting buffalo on the plains; Confederate statesmen elucidating the finer points of laissez-faire.
For folks of this ilk, Lincoln fought to create an American Empire that moved from subjugating the South, to threatening the Emperor Maximilian’s Mexico, to exterminating the Indians, to conquering the Philippines. But the idea that the South was not “imperialist,” by this definition, is absurd. Thomas Jefferson, one of the idols of the paleo-libertarian school, was the president who called America “an empire of liberty.” He believed in “manifest destiny” before the term was invented. (He also believed that the United States should invade and conquer Canada.) It wasn’t Northerners who annexed Florida, it was Andrew Jackson who said he’d be happy to take Cuba next (and who was no small shakes as an Indian fighter either). It wasn’t Northerners who tore Texas from Mexico; and it was Southern boys who were most ardent for the Mexican War and a Southern president, James K. Polk, who said that thanks to the Treaty of Hidalgo, ending that war, “there will be added to the United States an immense empire, the value of which twenty years hence it would be difficult to calculate.”
It was Southerners, too, who had dreams of a cotton kingdom extending into Latin America, and Southern politicians (like Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and Mississippi Governor John A. Quitman) who supported American “filibusters,” like the Tennessean William Walker, who looked to carve out little empires in Baja California or Nicaragua. In fact, if one imagines that the South had won the war, it’s a near certainty that the South would have annexed Cuba, a long held Southern dream. And think of the implications of that: no Cuban missile crisis, another Southern beach spot for Yankee snow birds, no shortage of Cuban cigars.
In fact—we all would have had it made, to quote a Southern partisan. But while it’s fun to imagine, there’s not much point in thinking about what didn’t happen. Southerners are conservatives, and conservatives are realists. As much as Lee and Longstreet, Davis and Hampton, we need to find our war in post-bellum America.
And if the Old South had its charms and grace and merit, it would be churlish not to count the many blessings we have as citizens of the United States. We should cherish what we have in the Southern tradition. We should enjoy the unity we have as united states, even if we had rather that unity had been reached without the terrors and brutalities and injustices of the War and Reconstruction. And we should remember that men like Lee and Jackson, Stuart and Hill, while Southern heroes, should be American heroes as well. We’re all in this together.
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