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What If the South Had Won the American Civil War?

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Robert writes eclectic and informative articles about a variety of historical subjects, including unusual events and people.

The United States after a Confederate victory

The United States after a Confederate victory

The Victory of the Confederacy

The civil war between the North and the South was a brutal struggle between two competing visions of America. Its outcome would determine whether the United States as a nation would survive and whether the ideals of the Constitution, that all men are created equal, would triumph over the devastation of war.

The war dragged on for nearly four years and was fought from one end of the continent to another. Entire cities were burnt to the ground, and vast armies met and fought for supremacy on the bloody battlefields of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and many others.

In the end, the Confederate capital fell to Union troops, and the exhausted and hungry remnants of Lee's army surrendered at Appomattox. The president of the Confederacy was captured a short time later, allegedly disguised as a woman, as he tried to flee to the coast to catch a boat that would take him to safety. The North's victory was absolute. The South was destroyed and irrevocably changed.

But the outcome had been far from certain. More than once the armies of the Confederacy had threatened Washington itself. And many of the great Union victories could have turned into routs if only a single variable had been different.

What would America and the world have been like if the South had won the war?

General Robert E. Lee - The Great Confederate General

General Robert E. Lee - The Great Confederate General

A Confederate victory would have meant continued slavery for millions of African Americans and their descendants

A Confederate victory would have meant continued slavery for millions of African Americans and their descendants

Secession: Tale of Two Countries

The most obvious and immediate outcome of a victory by the Southern States would have been the splitting of the United States into two countries – the Southern Confederacy with its capital at Richmond Virginia, and a Northern United States, much reduced in size and population.

The two countries would have been fundamentally different economically and culturally. The South, dedicated to the principle of state rights, would have been a loose confederacy and not a true union; much more like the European Union than the United States. It would have hung on to the institution of slavery, and most likely have continued to utilize slaves primarily in agricultural enterprises, mainly to grow cotton.

One of the great weaknesses of the Confederacy during the war was that it was not as industrialized as its northern enemy, and as a result could not produce cannons, rifles and ammunition as quickly or in as great quantities as the Union. If the South had won the war, or if for example, the North had allowed the southern states to secede without trying to hold on to them by force, the South would likely have never fully industrialized. Its primary economic activity would have been cotton production, which it would probably have sold to England, whose textile mills were at the time the biggest market for cotton in the world. The South would have remained a largely rural and underdeveloped country, focused on agriculture.

African Americans would have been condemned to many more generations of slavery. Some would have succeeded in escaping to the North via the underground railway, but the rupture of relations between the North and the South would have made those escape routes much more difficult. Occasionally, there would be slave rebellions, but these would be ruthlessly crushed by the Confederate Army.

The Northern United States would have survived but they would have been deeply wounded economically and psychologically, The burning of Washington by the victorious Confederate troops would have been a humiliation from which it would have been hard to recover. The capital would likely have been transferred to New York, only slightly damaged by the war and safer from Confederate attacks in the event of a war. Most likely the North would have continued to lay claim to the South and plotted and dreamed of another war to avenge its national pride and recover its lost territories.

The North's defeat would have plunged the country into a lasting economic depression and stifled the westward expansion of the country. Most likely Utah would never have joined the union but would have remained an independent Mormon nation ruling much of the West, and standing in the way of American western expansion. The tales of the Old West would have been very different.

The Effect of a Southern Victory on World History

In our timeline, the victorious United States recovered from the civil war and emerged a world power within a few short years. Rapidly industrializing and blessed with ample space, the United States attracted millions of immigrants from Europe who changed the ethnic makeup of the United States from primarily Anglo-Saxon to a mixture of races and nationalities, all contributing to the American melting pot. If the South had won the war, a deeply damaged North would not have been a beacon for the millions of immigrants who would stream through Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty would probably never have been erected.

Lacking a safety valve to get rid of its poor, unemployed and unwanted people, revolutions would probably have broken out throughout Europe, but would likely have been suppressed by a congress of European nations acting to maintain the status quo.

Alaska - The Russian bridgehead into North America?

Alaska - The Russian bridgehead into North America?

A Russian Alaska

The United States purchased the territory of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 for a mere 7.2 million dollars. The purchase was widely criticized at the time and sarcastically referred to as Seward's Folly, after William H. Stewart, the U.S. Secretary of State who had negotiated the acquisition of Alaska. A defeated United States would have lacked the funds as well as the confidence to expand northward.

A victorious Confederacy might have had the money to buy Alaska, but it would have had no desire to do so. Cotton doesn't grow there, and the Confederacy would have had little interest in beaver pelts, then the main export of the territory.
As a result, the Russian Empire would have retained its Alaskan possessions. If a Cold War had developed in the future between the United States and Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, the two countries would have faced each other across an uneasy frontier in North America.

It is possible that the Russian Empire might have taken advantage of the power vacuum created by a Union defeat to expand its territories in the New World, bringing it into conflict with the British Empire over British Columbia and other parts of Canada.

The Kingdom of Hawaii - what if it was never annexed by the United States?

The Kingdom of Hawaii - what if it was never annexed by the United States?

An Independent Hawaii

The legitimate ruler of Hawaii was overthrown and the territory was annexed by the United States in 1898. The seizure of Hawaii was consistent with the American policy of westward expansion across the Pacific, which included the seizure of the Philippines from Spain. A defeated Northern United States would probably have lacked ports and naval bases on the west coast and would have never looked to expand into the distant Pacific. As a result, Hawaii would have remained independent or might have been seized by Japan.

In any event, the relationship between the United States and Japan would have been very different. Lacking possessions in Hawaii and the Philippines, the United States would not have been in competition with Imperial Japan. As a result, there would not have been any war between the two countries. Japan would have had a free hand to expand into China, and China would never have emerged as a world power but would have remained a Japanese fiefdom.

Without American help, the British and French were left to face the German Empire on their own

Without American help, the British and French were left to face the German Empire on their own

The Arsenal of Democracy

The United States played a critical war in the outcome of both World War 1 and World War 2. The American intervention in World War 1 on the side of France and England helped to end the stalemate that had developed on the western front. In World War 2, American troops were instrumental in D-Day and the ultimate defeat of Germany. Even before the United States intervened directly, its Lend-Lease program provided the Russians with war materials and helped them withstand the German onslaught.

If the United States had split into two countries, the remnants of the United States would have had little interest in another war and would have stayed out of the conflict unless attacked directly. Most likely, neither Germany nor Japan would have gone to war with the United States because an isolationist United States would not have expanded into the Pacific where it conflicted with the Japanese sphere of influence. Without American support in the form of weapons and soldiers, the first world war might have turned into a German victory or a stalemate.

Germany would not have been defeated in WW1 and would not have been subjected to the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which contributed to World War 2. If there had been a second world war, Germany would have faced off against England and France, without fear of intervention from the United States. Britain would have been starved into submission by German U Boats and today most of western and Eastern Europe would be a German possession. However, it is likely that the Holocaust would not have happened.

The Holocaust was the result of many social and political forces which combined to bring the German Nazi party to power. However, the main force which opened the way for the Nazis to seize power was the economic devastation suffered by Germany as a result of its defeat in World War 1. If Germany had not lost the first world war, or if the war had ended with a negotiated peace, much of the anger and resentment which brought Hitler to power would not have existed. As a result, the Nazis would not have been able to put their murderous ideology into practice.


No Nuclear Weapons

It has often been noted that wars spur scientific and technological advances. World War 2 was responsible for a number of scientific breakthroughs, the most significant being the invention and use of the atomic bomb.

The titanic struggle between the United States and its allies against Nazi Germany and Japan was marked by an arms race as both sides tried to develop an atomic bomb. The United States, with its vast industrial resources, was the first to develop, test, and use atomic weapons. In the result, the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were destroyed, and the world would never be the same.

Soon the Soviet Union had also acquired nuclear technology, thanks to its spies who stole the secret from the Americans. Both countries then embarked on a tense arms race in which each developed more and more powerful bombs and more effective delivery systems; soon the world stood on the edge of a nuclear abyss.

Even now, with the Soviet Union gone, the United States, Russia and China have enough weapons to destroy the world. But if the United States had broken in two and never participated in a second world war, or if it had lacked the industrial might of a united America, it is likely that the bomb would not have been developed until much later. It might never have been developed at all.

In a world without a strong United States, the Soviet Union's power would have been virtually unchallenged.

In a world without a strong United States, the Soviet Union's power would have been virtually unchallenged.

The Cold War and the Communist Ascendancy

After World War 2, the west faced a new threat in the form of an expansionist Communist Empire led by the Soviet Union. The West led by the United States and Britain faced off against the Russian Bear and conducted proxy wars throughout the world, in Korea, in Vietnam and throughout Africa and Asia. Without American power including its nuclear deterrence, Soviet Russia would have expanded to a far greater extent and might have even succeeded in spreading Communism throughout most of the world.


We Can Only Speculate

A Confederate victory during the Civil War would have fundamentally altered the history of the modern world. The United States would likely never have developed into a world power, much less a Super Power. The First World War would probably have ended in a German victory, causing a fundamental shift in the European and world balance of power. If the Soviet Union had emerged, there would have been no Cold War because the Russians' domination of the world would have been unchallenged.

For the most part, the changes would have been for the worse: slavery would have continued for decades if not centuries more; the expansive dictatorships of Germany and Japan would have gone unchecked, and much of the material progress brought about by a prosperous United States would have gone unrealized. Yet on the other side of the balance sheet, we probably would not have developed nuclear weapons, and the Second World War and the Holocaust would not have happened.

One of the difficulties in playing the "What If" game is that the farther one departs from our timeline, the harder it is to see into the alternate reality of what might have been. More and more factors come into play, and it may be that the world of a Confederate States of America would have been even more alien than we can imagine.

© 2013 Robert P