Friday, March 18, 2022

Booknotes: The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War

New Arrival:
The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War: Historians Tackle the Conflict’s Most Intriguing Possibilities edited by Chris Mackowski and Brian Matthew Jordan (Savas Beatie, 2022).

How wars and their great events might have turned out differently is something every military history reader contemplates at one time or another. In the course of those thoughts: "Possibilities unfold. Disappointments vanish. Imaginations soar. More questions arise. “What if...” can be more than an exercise in wistful fantasy. A serious inquiry sparks rigorous exploration, demands critical thinking, and unlocks important insights."

The Civil War certainly has its share of popular 'what if' considerations. The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War, edited by Chris Mackowski and Brian Matthew Jordan, looks at fourteen. Included are two chapters exploring what ifs of the Shiloh and Antietam battles. Others concentrate on particular generals (ex. what if Jackson had not been mortally wounded at Chancellorsville, what if Longstreet had looped around the Union left at Gettysburg, and what if Lee had attacked at the North Anna or decided to disperse his army into guerrilla bands instead of surrendering in 1865). Several are Lincoln related (ex. what if the president had made different Army of the Potomac command appointments and what if he had not been assassinated). Jefferson Davis's loyalty to Braxton Bragg is also reconsidered, as are British intervention in the conflict and what might have happened had Sterling Price been successful in Missouri in 1864. Preceding all of this is a lengthy general introduction by Peter Tsouras that delves into what makes good alternate history writing.

More from the description: "Each entry focuses on one of the most important events of the war and unpacks the options of the moment. To understand what happened, we must look with a clear and objective eye at what could have happened, with the full multitude of choices before us. “What if” is a tool for illumination. These essays also explode the assumptions people make when they ask “what if” and then jump to wishful conclusions." The Stonewall Jackson piece is especially focused on that last point.

However, it should be reiterated that the central purpose of the essays in this collection is not to create comprehensive alternate history scenarios (that would be beyond their scope). Instead they serve as "an invitation to ask, to learn, and to wonder, “What if...?”" I skimmed over the Price Raid chapter to get a sense (at least through one example) of how that plays out. As stated in the description, the essay writer does not imagine a detailed course of events through which Price might have actually seized control of Missouri but rather offers context of circumstances, decisions, and events prior to and during the operation before contemplating what impact a successful campaign might have had.

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