Get involved in any sort of community or discussion forum for alternate history, and sooner or later, the American Civil War’s going to come up. It has to; at least among Americans, it’s the second most popular topic in the genre. And if you’re in the sort of discussion that approaches the topic rigorously and historically, sooner or later someone’s going to bring up that will face the Confederacy in any sort of Southern Victory timeline: slavery.
Slavery would cripple the Confederacy’s relations with Europe, and probably with the Union, too–which, considering that the Confederacy’s entire economy rested on trade with Europe and the Union, bodes ill for Confederate prosperity. Furthermore, the widespread practice of slavery deadens any drive for progress or innovation, as Alexis de Tocqueville noticed during his tour of the United States in the early 1830s: the spirit of optimism, of an improving world, that drove so much American prosperity vanished as soon as Tocqueville crossed the Ohio River, from the free North to the slave South. The Confederacy would soon have found itself left behind by rising standards of living in the Union and Western Europe, reduced, economically, to an undeveloped, colonial backwater.
So if slavery is so quickly going to become such an albatross around the Confederacy’s neck, the obvious thing would be for them to get rid of it, right? That’s what happened in the North, after all–for all the abolitionist moralising from Northerners about the evils of the practice in the South, the fact is that the Northern states successively abolished slavery because there was little to no economic incentive to keep it. It’s much easier to condemn the moral evil of a system when you get no financial benefit from it.
This is the tack that Harry Turtledove’s recent ten-volume series about a Confederate victory takes. The series opens with a second, brief war between Union and Confederacy, in the early 1880s. The South’s first move when war is declared is to ask for military aid from Britain and France. (In this timeline, it was Anglo-French military intervention that won the war for the Confederacy in the first place.) The two European powers happily agree to enter the war–on the condition that the South abolishes slavery. And the South … agrees, quite readily. It’s covered in one fairly quick scene very early on in the first novel in the series.
But, the obvious objection is going to be, the Confederacy can’t just give up slavery, because it’s too emotionally invested in it. It just fought the bloodiest war in American history to preserve it, after all. White Southerners invested a lot of their identity in the defence of slavery before and during the Civil War–insisting that it was a positive moral good both for whites and blacks; that even if it hadn’t been, it was still their right to own slaves, a right with which no national government–whether in Washington or Richmond–could interfere; that the emancipation of the South’s slave population would lead to the end of civilisation in America and the destruction of the white race. So the Confederacy simply abandoning slavery within twenty years, a la Turtledove, rings just as hollow as any sort of timeline where the Confederacy grows and flourishes while still practising chattel slavery.
With all that as background, therefore, I was fascinated to find a discussion of Southern abolition in the final chapter of Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning history of the American Civil War. I think it’s fairly common knowledge that in 1865, when it was in its death throes, the Confederacy raised, armed and fielded several regiments of black slaves, who had received the promise of freedom if they’d fight for the South. But this, of course, was in the last days of the war, when Southerners were facing the utter failure of their cause. Desperation makes people do funny things, try alternatives they never would otherwise. The idea of arming or emancipating slaves earlier, when the war was still in the balance, would never have been countenanced, right?
There were those who advocated recruiting slaves into Confederate armies from the war’s earliest days, but they were a fringe minority, an outgrowth of the tremendous cognitive dissonance that Southern whites maintained regarding the peculiar institution–insisting loudly and unceasingly that blacks wanted to be enslaved, that they enjoyed a satisfying and happy existence under white ownership, while simultaneously living in irrational, unthinking fear of what would happen were blacks to gain access to arms, literacy and other things that would allow them to rise up against their masters. (Witness the hysteria that followed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.)
By the latter part of 1863, however, there were a lot more voices joining in with this talk. Including editors of Southern newspapers. These quotes are from editorials that originally appeared in the Jackson Mississippian but were reprinted in papers throughout Mississippi and Alabama: “We are forced by the necessity of our condition to take a step which is revolting to every sentiment of pride, and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war. … It is better for us to use the negroes for our defense than that the Yankees should use them against us. … We can make them fight better than the Yankees are able to do. Masters and overseers can marshal them for battle by the same authority and habit of obedience with which they are marshalled to labor.” The editor of the Mississippian conceded that this could lead to abolition, “a dire calamity to both the negro and the white race”, but insisted “that it is a question of necessity–a question of a choice of evils.”
Similar sentiments were being voiced by generals in the Army of Tennessee, the main Confederate force in the Western Theatre. In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne circulated a memo to division and corps commanders in which he said that slavery “has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.” He recommended the recruitment of slave soldiers and “guarantee[ing] freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy”–in other words, the abolition of slavery. He received endorsements from twelve brigade and regimental commanders within his division.
To be sure, most of his colleagues disagreed with him. One division commander called it a “monstrous proposition … revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.” A corps commander described it as “at war with my social, moral, and political principles”, while a brigade commander declared that “its propositions contravene the principles upon which we fight.”
But the most striking thing to me about these editorials and General Cleburne’s proposal isn’t some idea that it was widely embraced at the time, but simply that it was a substantive part of the conversation. This is late 1863 and the first month of 1864, after all–long before the fall of the Confederacy had come into sight. To be sure, the tide had begun to turn against the South in summer 1863 with the fall of Vicksburg and the Battle of Gettysburg, but the writing was far from on the wall.
Indeed, it was a common view at this time that the South had only to hold out another year, and it would secure its independence. As 1864 progressed, the war congealed into two great Union sieges of Southern metropoles: Grant at Petersburg (the gateway to Richmond) and Sherman at Atlanta. And with the Confederate defenders having the best of it in both cases, many observers both Northern and Southern–including Abraham Lincoln–concluded that Lincoln was sure to lose reelection in November, and that his defeat by George McClellan would guarantee the opening of peace negotiations by the Union. (Whether or not McClellan really would have capitulated is immaterial–the actors in question believed at the time that he would.) It wasn’t until Atlanta fell to Sherman in September that Lincoln’s re-election seemed the more likely outcome.
And yet, with Southern victory apparently still obtainable without such measures, general emancipation was already being contemplated in the waning days of 1863. Does that mean I now suddenly think the Confederacy would have been only too happy to chuck slavery as soon as it became more convenient in the 1880s or 90s? Of course not. But it does make me think that many Southerners would have been more willing to come around to the idea of some sort of emancipation more easily than serious practitioners of alternate history often assume.