Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Sunday, July 3, 2011

On the Confederate victory at Gettysburg: July 3, 1863

Little Round Top
Gettysburg battlefield, Pennsylvania

The destruction of Philadelphia by Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on September 11, 1863 effectively ended the War of Secession. Fighting between Lee's forces and remnants of General Winfield Scott Hancock's Army of the Potomac would continue for another month, with minor skirmishes ranging across Pennsylvania. But the burning of the city where the Declaration of Independence had been signed triggered the final dissolution of the American union, four score and seven years after its birth. Five days after Philadelphia, word reached Washington that France and Britain had  extended official diplomatic recognition to the Confederate States of America. The Anglo-French decision had been reached prior to the Philadelphia catastrophe, but news of European recognition sealed the union's fate. On September 17, a delegation of Congressional leaders met with President Lincoln at the White House. Following that meeting, Lincoln announced his resignation from office. Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was sworn in two hours later as the seventeenth President of the United States. It was Hamlin who signed the peace accords with Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, on October 30, 1863. 

The consequences of Confederate independence continue to be felt. The territory of the former United States at the outbreak of war in 1861 is now home to twenty one independent nation-states. The old Confederacy is the least of them all. The secession of Florida in 1972 reduced the rump Confederate states to a shell of their former greatness, with only Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi remaining as members. Today the Pacific Republic, anchored by California and the Vancouver States and the alliance with Tokyo, contends with the Texas-led Concordium of the Central Republics for economic and military supremacy in North America. Pacific dominance in information technology is more than counter-balanced by the C.C.R.'s control of oil fields in its Mexican and Venezuelan territories.  

The autocratic empire of New York stands in glittering isolation from the other North American powers, its attention long since turned eastward across the Atlantic. The admirals, field marshals and industrial managers in Manhattan are content to supervise a thriving Bismarckian realm extending from Pittsburgh to Charleston. New York's alliance with the trans-European Kriegstadt, dating from the Great War of 1913-1922, remains strong on paper. Whether the troops and naval squadrons of New York will continue to participate in Berlin's counter-guerrilla operations against Russian insurgents remains a subject of fierce debate within the Alliance.  

The other shabby autocracies and principalities of North America fend for themselves as best they can. The Mormons have their Utopian theocracy in Deseret. The Dominion of New England recently withdrew from the British Commonwealth at last, but faces internal strife that could be its undoing.  Various separatist parties, having abandoned armed resistance in the 1980s, are now close to forming a coalition in the parliament at Boston. Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Confederation remains a squabbling hodge-podge of corrupt little cornfield republics. The Dixie Mountain states fight their endless, bloody wars for God and feudal rights. And so on. 

All of this because of what began on an April day in 1861 at Fort Sumter. Or perhaps it all started in the presidential election of 1860, which unexpectedly brought an obscure extremist party to power in Washington, led by an ill-prepared, mediocre lawyer from Illinois. Or perhaps today's North America first took shape at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which failed so completely to forge a durable, functioning political union of the newly independent colonies. 

Some novelists and film-makers, rather implausibly, trace today's situation to the Battle of Gettysburg, the enormous bloodletting across three days in July, 1863. The triumph at Gettysburg led to further victories for Robert E. Lee at the Susquehanna and Pottsville in August. And on to Philadelphia, the city where the Union ended and began. No one can deny that Lee's spectacular success in the summer of 1863 made him immortal. Military glory ensured his election as the second President of the Confederate States of America. It did not, however, save him from assassination in Birmingham on November 22, 1868. By then, Lee's brief presidency had already been a failure, as the great military conqueror proved unable to reconcile feuding delegations in the Confederate Congress. Two years later, the coup against President Longstreet by General Nathan Bedford Forest would signal the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. 

Its former antagonist in the North fared no better. The disputed presidential elections of 1868 and 1872 degenerated into open warfare among contending military factions. Commanders who fought alongside one another in the War for the Union now waged bitter, bloody combat in the farmlands and cities of the United States. General Custer's seizure of Washington on June 25, 1876, ended the fighting. His summary execution of Generals Grant and Sherman on the national centennial made another war -- and the final breakup of the Northern Union -- inevitable. 

From a certain simple point of view, the bitterness and squalor of the century and a half since 1863 might, conceivably, be traced to a few key moments in that fateful year. If Lee's daring decision to divide his forces at Chancellorsville had backfired, maybe the Confederate victory at Gettysburg two months later would not have happened. If Union General George Meade had not abandoned the left flank of his lines at Gettysburg on July 2, maybe Longstreet's Charge would not have swept Union forces from Cemetery Ridge on the following day. Perhaps Meade might have held the left flank on July 2 if not for the surrender of the 20th Maine at Little Round top that day. Maybe the destruction of the United States of America happened because a professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College, one Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, found himself commanding men in battle at a critical moment in North American history. If Chamberlain had rallied his regiment at Little Round top, instead of surrendering, maybe everything afterward would have been different, as some writers of the Lost American Cause have insisted. Maybe Meade wouldn't have panicked when Confederate guns gained the summit of the hill Chamberlain lost. Maybe he wouldn't have ordered the withdrawals that led to Longstreet's Charge the next day. Maybe, if, only, might, would, should.

The urge to seek a single, decisive turning point in North American history is tempting. But turning points are the stuff of storytelling and myth. Historians are less apt to romanticize the course of human events. Their job is simply to seek explanation, by clearly defined chains of cause and effect. Unfortunately, events in the century and a half since the War of Secession (or the War for the Union, take your pick) do not easily yield to clear simple answers. The chains of cause and effect exist in an ocean of possibility and time. In the end, it's beyond our understanding, except in the most tentative of ways. 

We know that we are here, now. In this time and place. How this happened matters less than what we do today. For our descendants, it will be the same, looking back at the decisions we made. Mystic chords of memory will not offer simple understanding or solace. Only questions. We do the best we can, and go on. There is no other choice.

* * * * * 


I first encountered a depiction of "Longstreet's Charge," in an alternate Battle of Gettysburg, in the book Gettysburg: An Alternate History, by Peter G. Tsouras.  My use of that phrase is freely borrowed from that book, which portrays a very different outcome at Gettysburg than the one I sketched in this post. In Tsouras' account, Longstreet's Charge ends in an unspeakable catastrophe for the Army of Northern Virginia, on a scale far greater than the nightmare charge led by George Pickett in our universe. The bloody slaughter of Longstreet's men triggers a furious Union counterattack that breaks the Confederate Army, resulting in the capture of Robert E. Lee and the ending of the Civil War two years early. 

In the fiction of Harry Turtledove, I first pondered the idea of a Confederate victory in the American Civil War leading to German triumph in World War I. In Turtledove's alternate history and mine, there is no unified American republic to reinforce the exhausted Western Allies in 1917-1918. Thus, Kaiserine Germany succeeds in its bid for European hegemony. The Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Hitler, and the Cold War never happen. The twentieth century world becomes a very different place. 

I owe my sketch of fratricidal warfare in North America in part to the novel The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In that book, British inventor Charles Babbage builds a functioning computer in the 1830s, inaugurating a revolution in information technology during the Victorian Age. British technological supremacy leads to overwhelming global dominance, with Her Majesty's diplomats and generals successfully instigating the breakup of the fragile union of American states by the 1850s. 

Confederate victory in the Civil War is probably, along with Nazi conquest of the Western Allies, the most popular alternate history in fiction. Like all good fictional tropes, it is subject to endless, fascinating variation. It was fun to add one more version to the mix.

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