Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Against the “What-If” Approach to History

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on November 21, 2010

Civil War historian Glenn LaFantasie has a column out today at Salon, in which he poses a typical “what-if” question: what if Robert E. Lee hadn’t publicly and persistently repudiated the idea of the Confederacy engaging in long-running guerrilla warfare, an insurrection, in the months and years after Appomattox? LaFantasie then goes on to spin a wild tale of a resurgent Confederacy, which finally wins recognition by the United States in 1881. After decades of bloody slave revolts, the Confederacy amends its constitution to abolish the institution of slavery in 1938. Confederate ships lie at anchor alongside U.S. vessels at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the two nations eventually reunite in the late 1940s. LaFantasie’s fantasy finally ends up with the re-established United States being today, more-or-less where where we actually are.

I suspect a lot of folks stopped reading about halfway through (as I did at first), put off by LaFantasie’s apparent effort to out-do Harry Turtledove. But that’s a mistake, because if you give up halfway through, you miss his real point: “what-ifs” are fun as a party game, but have little real bearing on the study of history:

But wait, you cry, that’s not fair! You’ve got the nation following the same track after 1952 that it actually took in its real history!

I suppose you have every right to be upset, to feel like I’ve rigged the game, which, of course, I have. The fact is: You can’t change history, no matter how many times history buffs play counterfactual parlor games or politicians try to alter it by dictating what should be in textbooks or by wishing they could take back something they’ve said that’s now plastered all over the Internet.

In my counterfactual history of the Civil War and its aftermath, I’ve manipulated facts and events so that everything would lead us precisely and purposely to where we already are. Maybe that’s because for all my flights of fancy, I can’t stop being a historian. In my less-than-fertile imagination, the United States ends up precisely where it’s supposed to be, with the American people standing exactly where we are now, for better or for worse. And having reached this place, we are as confused as we’ve ever been about what we’re supposed to do next.

American history has followed roads that are not necessarily inevitable or predictable. But our path as a country has been, I believe, both dogged and implacable. History is not fungible. The facts of history cannot be changed. Nor should we want to change them. We have much to learn from the past if we are to understand properly how the nation has wound up where it is now. In the end, the American people in 2010 have reached a crossroads of their own making, forged in the fires of their past. We have arrived at the place we are supposed to be. Now it behooves us to mind very carefully where we go from here.

Well played, sir, and well put.