Saturday, February 19, 2005

What If? -- A Review of Sorts

What If?: The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley, plunges the reader into the world of alternative history; acclaimed historians examine crucial moments in history and discuss what might have happened if events had not played out as they did. The series contains two volumes devoted to world history and one of American history. This is not the alternative history fiction with spaceships and time travelers like the novels of Harry Turtledove that explore what might have happened if Robert E. Lee had AK-47s at the Battle of the Wilderness. These are essays of the "for want of a nail a shoe was lost, for want of a shoe a horse was lost" variety.

There are some interesting points to ponder in the American history volume. Novelist Caleb Carr discusses how the American Revolution might have ended before it began if the colonialists' main champion in the British Parliament, William Pitt, had not taken ill. David McCullough examines the Battle of Long Island and the whims of weather that allowed George Washington's army to escape annihilation. Tom Wicker discusses the many peculiarities of the presidency of "His Accidency" John Tyler. Other essays tackle the "What Ifs?" of the JFK assassination, Watergate, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other events.

Four of the seventeen essays take on events of the Civil War. One focuses on popular culture, the other three deal with the fate of the nation.

Victor Davis Hanson writes of "Lew Wallace and the Ghosts of the Shunpike." At the Battle of Shiloh, Wallace was in command of a reserve division a few miles away. When Grant ordered him to bring his force forward to support the battered Union army, Wallace chose the wrong road. He took the short route over a road that was swampy and even underwater in places. The other road, the Shunpike, would have carried him out right where he was needed most - on Sherman's right flank. Wallace finally gave up on the impassable road and had to turn his division around and countermarch back to the Shunpike - a fourteen-mile march to a battle that was five miles away. After the battle was over the fingerpointing began and Wallace was the scapegoat. "What If?" Wallace had chosed the right road? He might have continued on with what was then a meteoric military career and never have written Ben-Hur. That doesn't sound so history-changing until you consider that "Ben-Hur marked a radical change in American letters, as millions of Americans for the first time felt that reading fiction was neither sacrilegious nor the sole esoteric pursuit of intellectuals, but was rightly intended for the secular enjoyment and edification of common people. Lew Wallace, as it turned out, introduced more Americans to reading than any other author of the nineteenth century...But more importantly, Wallace's novel began the strange nexus in American life, for good or ill, between literature, motion pictures, advertising, and popular culture. The novel led to the stage and then to the movies, but in the process it spun out entire ancillary industries of songs, skits, ads, clothes, and fan clubs, ensuring that within fifty years of its publication, nearly every American had heard the word 'Ben-Hur' without necessarily ever reading the book."

Thomas Fleming's "The Northwest Conspiracy" examines the Copperhead movement that flared up in some of the states that were carved out of the Northwest Territory - Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. Fleming envisions a civil war within the Civil War, another confederacy of seceded states, and an irreparable Union. It's interesting reading, but I'm not sure if I buy it. His thesis is that the people of these states could have risen up against the oppressive measures undertaken by the Federal government to keep these states in line. The Federal government did a mighty fine job of keeping the people in line in these states and elsewhere (Maryland). And Lincoln was fixated on keeping Kentucky in the Union. He once stated that losing Kentucky would be about the same as losing the entire game. He would have used any means necessary to keep Kentucky in the Union and the other states would have fallen in line.

James McPherson's essay explores the unusual chain of circumstances surrounding Robert E. Lee's lost order. During Lee's Maryland Invasion, a copy of Special Orders No. 191, a detailed order showing the disposition and movements of Lee's forces, was found by Union soldiers in a field where it had been dropped by a careless Confederate commander. Until then McClellan had been floundering around trying to ascertain Lee's motives, but this extraordinary stroke of luck (which included a Union officer on the scene who was familiar with and confirmed the handwritting of Lee's adjutant, Robert H. Chilton) allowed McClellan to get the jump on Lee and turn back the invasion at the Battle of Antietam. If not for the lost order, McCullough envisions the invasion continuing on into Pennsylvania, the Confederates taking the high ground at Gettysburg and fighting the battle in October, 1862 (nine months before it actually happened.) He spins this "What If?" out even further: McClellan is killed while trying to rally his men, the Union Army of the Potomac is destroyed, and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia marches unopposed on Washington. European recognition and Southern independence are the result. I agree with McPherson's point that this scenario is "much more in line with the laws of probability" than what actually happened. "The odds against the sequence of events that led to the loss and finding and verification of these orders must have been a million to one."

Jay Winik ponders the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the end of the war? "How did America avoid the cruel chain of history that consigns far too many civil wars to more turmoil and more bloodshed? How did America not become like the Balkans, or Northern Ireland, or the Middle East?" Winik gives a lot of credit where it is due - to Robert E. Lee, who ignored the advice of many (including President Jefferson Davis) and refused to scatter his defeated army into the hills to fight a guerrilla war. But what might have happened if John Wilkes Booth's plan had succeeded completely and Vice President Andrew Johnson had also been assassinated? There was no clear line of presidential succession at the time. Control of the government would have probably been put on the shoulders of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Winik paints a "What If?" picture of military rule, riots, chaos, anarchy, a generation of bloodshed. He envisions that Northern anger would have risen out of control and Lee would have had no choice but to approve guerrilla operations. He has Lee dying in prison and Southerners continuing the war for years with the battle-cry "Remember Bobby Lee." As with the McCullough essay, what really happened was even stranger: "In the end, defying the odds of history, all the pieces would tumble into place: after running the government for nearly a day, the secretary of war and the cabinet, would show remarkable discipline and foresight and turn the government over to Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a man widely written off as a drunk and a buffoon, and a man whom nobody had ever thought of as being presidential material. Robert E. Lee, now safely back in Richmond, would again, quite publicly, spurn any temptation for guerrilla war; rejecting it for all the Confederacy to see, including Davis, he instead called on all Southerners to become good Americans (in short order, the remaining Confederate generals in the field, as well as guerrillas, would follow Lee's example, and not that of the bitter-ender, Jefferson Davis). Lincoln's call for magnanimity and the spirit of Appomattox would prevail over the calls for harshness and revenge; in short order, America would become one.
"But it had been so close."
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