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Counterfactual scenarios can be both fun and enlightening.

What if… “Stonewall” Jackson had been with the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg? Nathan Bedford Forrest had been given command of an army in the Western Theater? Joseph E. Johnston had not been wounded at Seven Pines on May 31, 1862? Abraham Lincoln had not called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion on April 15, 1861?

As long as people have been interested in the war, such “might-have-been” questions have spawned lively debate. No one knows what really would have happened in these or myriad other counterfactual scenarios.

Although many individuals dismiss forays into “What if?” territory as a foolish waste of time, I believe some hypotheticals have more substantive potential than others. And no harm can result from addressing any of them.

The scenario I hear most often relates to Jackson at Gettysburg. A sarcastic answer to that what if might go something like this: “Because he had been dead for almost two months, Jackson’s presence at Gettysburg as a decaying corpse would have made no difference at all.” Jackson, it is argued, would have attacked Cemetery Hill and perhaps Culp’s Hill on July 1, claiming the critical high ground to complete a tactical triumph against the Army of the Potomac’s I and XI corps.

It is safe to suppose Jackson would have been more aggressive than Ewell, but whether that would have yielded greater success is much more problematic. A Federal retreat on July 1 would simply have shifted the action south to Pipe Creek or some other position that George G. Meade would have defended.

Many of Forrest’s supporters second Shelby Foote’s extravagant assessment of the cavalry commander as one of the war’s “two authentic geniuses,” claiming that his ferocious audacity at the head of an army could have salvaged Confederate prospects in the Western Theater. Forrest certainly posed problems for Union commanders throughout the war and demonstrated genuine gifts for raiding and harassing enemy forces. Yet absolutely nothing in his record suggests he possessed the administrative and political skills necessary to oversee an army, and his hair-trigger temper and sometimes erratic behavior almost certainly would have produced problems at any level above that at which he operated.

Joe Johnston’s wounding raises more intriguing possibilities. He had retreated to the outskirts of Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign, mounted a breathtakingly inept series of assaults at Seven Pines, and likely would have found himself besieged in the Confederate capital within a few weeks.

A siege would have played to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s strengths. “Little Mac” could have taken his time to bring superior Union strength to bear, placed powerful artillery along his positions as he had at Yorktown in April, relied on the U.S. Navy to control the James River, found time to ride around his lines remarking, “How strong, how strong,” and closed the campaign with one of two probable scenarios: surrender of the Rebel army or Johnston’s abandonment of Richmond.

Either of those denouements would have made continued Confederate resistance very difficult. A relentless tide of defeat had washed over the Confederacy in the Western Theater the previous six months, including defeats at Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh and Pea Ridge, the surrender of New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis, and loss of the Mississippi River as a commercial artery and most of Tennessee’s rich logistical heartland. Richmond’s fall in July or August, on the heels of so much bad news from the West, almost certainly would have undone the Confederacy and restored the Union, with McClellan as the preeminent Northern military idol and emancipation unsecured.

And what if Lincoln had followed a more conciliatory course after Fort Sumter’s fall in April 1861? We know Northern policymakers and military counsels debated the handling of Sumter in March and early April.

The Rebel bombardment of the fort in Charleston Harbor changed the equation, but an earlier instance of such aggression, when South Carolina batteries fired upon Star of the West on January 9, 1861, had not precipitated a major federal reaction.

Lincoln’s decision to raise a volunteer army could have waited, though the negative political consequences might have been great. The actions of the Upper South hinged on Lincoln’s response to Fort Sumter. Most significant, the call for volunteers immediately changed the political situation in Virginia, where the secession convention had voted against leaving the Union but performed an abrupt about-face two days after Lincoln’s call.

Virginia’s action virtually guaranteed a much longer and bloodier war to suppress the rebellion. It was the birthplace to 91 of the 425 men who became Confederate generals, contributed more soldiers to Southern armies than any other state (North Carolina’s longstanding but unsupportable claim to that distinction notwithstanding), and possessed one-fifth of the South’s railroad mileage and assessed value of farmland and buildings and a much higher percentage of its industrial capacity. Virginia also carried with it the immense prestige of unequaled ties to the Revolutionary War era’s founding generation.

More than all of those things, it supplied the man who would become the Confederacy’s equivalent of George Washington. Robert E. Lee posed the greatest obstacle to Union victory after 1862, vexing Federal military opponents and influencing civilian morale on both sides of the Potomac. Other Virginians, including Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, also played crucial roles at high levels of command.

In sum, without Virginia’s participation as a Confederate state, it is difficult to imagine a four-year war that extracted a massive toll in human and material resources.

What if all speculation about might-have-beens ceased immediately? Our knowledge about the conflict would not be affected…but some of the enjoyment of exploring its leading figures and dramatic events would be lost.


Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.