And The South Rose: 4 Hypothetical Scenarios if the Confederacy Won the Civil War

And The South Rose: 4 Hypothetical Scenarios if the Confederacy Won the Civil War

Patrick Lynch - November 24, 2016

As much fun as it is to discuss historical facts, it is arguably more fun to imagine different hypothetical outcomes. We know that the North won the American Civil War but what if the South had emerged victorious? According to Abraham Lincoln, it was a war that didn’t just determine the future of the U.S.; it would also decide the future of mankind.

Although this might seem like hyperbole on Honest Abe’s part at first, deeper thought suggests he was not that far off the mark. That American history would be irrevocably changed isn’t debatable. Slavery would have continued in some form for years, if not decades, after the conflict. While some may argue that the USA is more like the Divided States of America in the modern era, this schism would have been even more marked in the event of a Confederate victory.

Then there is the issue of world history. The United States became embroiled in a number of wars; most notably World War II where its intervention played a significant role in the Allied victory. If a Confederated States of America (CSA) lasted that long, how would it impact the outcome of WWII and indeed the other wars the U.S. was ultimately embroiled in?

While it is unlikely that the South could have won via unconditional surrender, it was possible for them to fight to a stalemate and negotiate a settlement whereby the South seceded from the Union to form the CSA. The whole ‘how could the South have won the Civil War’ question will be answered in more detail at another date. However, a victory at Antietam could have shifted momentum in the South’s favor. Further poor performance by the North under Lincoln could theoretically have led to the election of Gerald McClellan as President in 1864. Although some historians disagree, McClellan may have sued for peace to end the war.

In this article, I will look at 4 possible scenarios which look at what America might have looked like had the Confederates defeated the Union. For the sake of argument, scenario #3 will briefly include an alternate history where the South achieved an unlikely military victory.

Please note that these are scenarios and as such, they are simply speculation. As none of the following situations ever occurred, we can’t say for sure whether they could have happened let alone would have happened. I invite readers to comment and offer their scenarios as we get a debate going. Let’s start!

And The South Rose: 4 Hypothetical Scenarios if the Confederacy Won the Civil War
The American Yawp (Richmond & Petersburg Railroad Depot c. 1865)

1 – The Confederacy Would Crumble Anyway

The Confederated States of America consisted of 11 states. They were connected by a desire to retain slavery and secede from the Union, but by little else, it appears. In December 1860, a group of South Carolina politicians called a convention of ‘the people’ and voted to leave the Union. Six more states in the Deep South joined them within a matter of weeks and pushed the United States to the brink of war. We all know what happened next.

The big issue with the CSA was the fact it wasn’t exactly a bastion of democracy. Around 35% of its 10 million population were either slaves or disenfranchised. Another 30% were white women who didn’t have democratic rights. In fact, only 12% of the population were white adult males with the ability to vote.

The war was unpopular with many in the South, to begin with; things only got worse when, by 1862, over 75% of its white military-age male population had been enlisted. Things didn’t get any better when the Southern government created rules to allow slaveholders to avoid conscription. Several riots were perpetrated by the women of Southern soldiers in the spring of 1863 as discontent was rife. The actions of these women forced the government to revise its tax and conscription policies.

The war probably held the shaky CSA together in the first place. Once the ‘threat’ of the Union had vanished, it would have been tough for the Confederacy to stick together. The 11 members were interested in individual states’ rights. With the war won, it’s possible that internal differences would have caused friction between the states. Add in the general discontent of the people, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The CSA would have kept ‘the peculiar institution‘ of slavery intact, but some countries would be less than keen to maintain trade relations with such a ‘backward’ country. Plantation owners would have quickly found it difficult to sell their produce, and a major blow to the CSA’s economy would be inevitable. Add in the less-than-ideal geographic location of the South with its boiling summers and long distances between major locations, and an economic depression was likely.

Ultimately, the CSA would have been forced to consider abolishing slavery and request to rejoin the Union. Whether they were accepted would depend on the North’s economic status. Another issue is the rather large slave population which could lead to the following scenario.

And The South Rose: 4 Hypothetical Scenarios if the Confederacy Won the Civil War
Latin American Studies (Slavery in the United States)

2 – Another Slave Rebellion

The Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 is arguably the most famous slave revolt in the South. Turner led a group of up to 70 slaves in an armed insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia. He is said to have experienced prophetic visions which told him to rise against slaveholders. Turner and his group began by killing his master before murdering a total of 50 people. The small scale of the uprising meant it was doomed to failure and a militia force arrived to subdue the rebels. Turner and approximately 55 slaves were executed including the revolt’s leader.

At one time, there was a school of thought that suggested that slaves were docile and had resigned themselves to a lifetime of servitude. Certainly, there must have been a severe psychological component in play. Some slaves were conditioned to believe they were ‘born’ to be slaves so they had no desire to fight against their masters. Slaveholders were routinely vicious in the way they dealt with ‘troublesome’ slaves. The thought of a failed rebellion and the horrendous consequences prevented slaves from launching and uprising before and during the Civil War.

However, it is utter nonsense to suggest that slaves in the United States were more servile than in other nations such as Haiti. According to historian Herbert Aptheker in American Negro Slave Revolts, there were as many as 250 slave revolts in American history. Other historians have found evidence of over 300. Other notable uprisings include the Stono Rebellion of 1739, Gabriel’s Conspiracy in 1800 and the German Coast Uprising of 1811.

With so many rebellions prior to 1860, it begs the question: Why didn’t the slaves revolt during the Civil War when chaos reigned? According to Steven Hahn in The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, slaves had a much greater understanding of the American political system than their white masters credited them for. They were more than a little suspicious of the ‘freedom’ that apparently waited for them in the North and Hahn suggests they deliberately waited to see what would happen in the Civil War. As it happens, slaves fought for the North in the war and thousands managed to flee from their plantations.

The North won the war so slaves no longer had to contemplate an uprising. But what if the South had emerged victorious? Previous revolts lacked manpower but perhaps the possibility of permanent servitude would result in large-scale movements. The newly formed CSA would have been on a knife edge because there was a total of 3.5 million slaves in a 10 million population. There would doubtless be a large number of slaves willing to take the risk of dying for their freedom. Add in the likelihood of increased assistance from Northern abolitionists and you can certainly make a case for a significant slave rebellion at some point in the post-Civil War era.

Some slaves gained military experience and weaponry from fighting in the Civil War. Even in the absence of a major uprising, it is probable that a guerilla force of some kind would have been formed. During the war, black units were noted for their bravery which is hardly surprising as they were men with nothing to lose and everything to gain. A guerilla force, especially one backed by Northern abolitionists, would have posed a significant threat to the Confederacy.

And The South Rose: 4 Hypothetical Scenarios if the Confederacy Won the Civil War
Cheryl Head (American soldiers D-Day Normandy)

3 – 21st Century CSA

It is unlikely that the CSA would have survived for very long had it seceded as the result of a negotiated settlement. I looked at reasons for this in scenario #1, but other considerations include the fact that the relationship between North & South would have remained tense. At best, there would have been a somewhat ‘peaceful’ period between the newly divided nations, but abolitionists in the North would have continued to protest against slavery. The Underground Railroad would probably have had to be expanded, and skirmishes along the border would be inevitable. In the end, a second Civil War is entirely possible.

The CSA ‘might’ have survived with a military victory that allowed it to negotiate a political settlement on its terms. How it would achieve such a win is a topic for another article. While the South would still be economically inferior, it could still gain some leverage. For instance, it could gain control of the Mississippi River Delta and benefit from this trading route. In theory, the CSA could have had influence in the Caribbean Sea if it created a naval construction program.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 could have ended differently. In reality, the United States backed a Cuban rebellion against Spain, but in our alternate history, the CSA and the USA could have taken different sides. The lingering specter of slavery would have led to some interesting developments as we go into the 1900s. North opposition would be constant and the CSA might have decided to create a South African style Apartheid regime where legal slavery was abolished, but ex-slaves would still be treated abominably.

The major conflicts of the 20th century would all have been irrevocably altered. In World War I, the infamous intercepted Zimmermann telegram contained details of a strategy to get Mexico on the side of Germany. What would the Central Powers do to get the CSA on its side? Given the racist ideology practiced in the CSA, would its leaders have tried to intervene against Hitler in World War II or even supported him in some way? Maybe a reduction in American assistance would have allowed the Nazis to defeat its European enemies if they somehow found a way to defeat the Soviet Union.

And what of the Cold War? Perhaps it would have been the Soviets in control of a divided America. The 1960s was a time of great social change. Any Civil Rights Movement in our alternative history would almost certainly have been bloodier than in actual history. Fast forward to the modern era, and you have a very different-looking landscape as the United States’ foreign policy would be decidedly different. It probably wouldn’t be as dominant as it is today with less territory and lower aspirations.

And The South Rose: 4 Hypothetical Scenarios if the Confederacy Won the Civil War
Pinterest (Twelve Oaks plantation, Louisiana)

4 – Slavery Would Have Died Out

At one time, there was an argument that the Civil War was mainly about taxes and states’ rights. In reality, slavery was the primary issue for the South and the loathsome practice would have certainly continued in the event of a Confederate victory. It should be noted that slavery may not have been the main reason the North went to war. In 1862, Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune which stated:

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that…”

To be fair to the Great Emancipator, he was personally against the notion of slavery, but his main concern was ensuring the country remained united. By the end of 1862, it was apparent that ending slavery in the rebelling states would help the North in the war, so the Emancipation Proclamation was created the following year.

There is a suggestion that slavery was almost finished by the time of the Civil War, but that is not strictly true. In 1860, almost 75% of all U.S. exports were produced by the South. The institution of slavery was said to be more valuable than all of the railroads and manufacturing companies in America at that time. There is simply no way that the South would have given up such a lucrative practice soon after the war.

The Confederacy’s hand may eventually have been forced, however. Firstly, the idea that slavery was wrong had taken hold in most civilized nations around the world. It had already been abolished in 1833 in Great Britain which began actively hunting down slave ships. During the 19th century, Portugal transported a large percentage of the slaves that were brought across the Atlantic, yet it stopped its importation of slaves in 1867. In 1888, Brazil was the last nation in the Western world to abolish slavery.

Despite the inevitable international pressure, potentially favorable economic issues in the aftermath of the Civil War would have probably kept slavery alive for a few decades. The South would have been dealt a blow by the emergence of India and Egypt as cotton producers. It would either have had to lower its cotton prices significantly or weathered the storm until the textiles boom of the 1880s gave it a boost.

By the time of World War I, however, cotton prices would once again have plummeted. It is extremely unlikely that the South could have made the massive shift to rice, coffee and other plantation-based crops that would be necessary to keep it in sound financial stead. The most likely scenario is that the South would ultimately become destitute by the 1920s and the next logical step would be to abolish slavery and find a new way to grow the economy.