What if the Confederacy Had Won? A Counterfactual Contemplation

One of the more interesting counterfactual exercises open to people interested in the era of the American Civil War is what would have happened had the Confederacy prevailed.  It is worth thinking about. Part of such a counterfactual exercise would be to define the moment at which the Confederacy prevailed in securing its independence, because what follows depends on when that moment occurs.  For example, the story’s far different if the United States decided to accept Confederate independence in March 1861 than if Confederate independence is secured as the result of war-weariness and a negotiated peace four years later.  The story would differ if you chose the Confederate counteroffensive of 1862 or the summer and fall of 1863.  So, if you are going to ask, “What if the Confederacy had won?”, first you must determine when you would have that event happen.

That said, I wonder whether in the long term the Confederacy would have welcomed the consequences of independence.  My own sense is that the Confederacy would have found itself in best shape had independence been achieved in 1862, maybe 1863.  So let’s stipulate for the moment that there was a war, and that after 18-30 months of conflict, Confederate triumphs led to Union war-weariness and a negotiated peace that would have left the original eleven Confederate states largely intact, with and acceptance that some sort of West Virginia would exist, and the the fate of Kentucky would remain up in the air (since one could make a case either way).

You see how many variables you have to establish before going on, and I assume that many comments will pick at the variables.  Remember, it’s a counterfactual exercise, and so to speak with the greatest of certainty as to what would have happened is more than faintly ridiculous, given the inherent nature of the exercise.

I think an independent Confederacy would have found it tough going, tougher still if it could not secure the Ohio River as a northern boundary.  It would have remained an economy that relied primarily on exporting agricultural goods.  At the same time it would have had to make a higher investment in homeland defense costs than was previously the case, and it could no longer rely on the United States to return fugitive slaves.  Unless the Confederacy rebuilt relations with the United States in rather short order (which would have been a tall order indeed), it’s major trading partner would have been Great Britain.  That would not have deterred the British from looking for alternative sources of cotton, which would have led to a decline in cotton prices.  What would have happened to the Confederate economy then?  After all, if cotton went down, the price of slaves would have gone down as well, unless the Confederacy soon found alternative employment for slaves.  Would the result have been an industrial revolution founded upon slave labor?  Or would the Confederates have looked longingly at Mexico and the Caribbean as fertile ground for an expanded slave empire?

Emancipation would have been a bit of a challenge, given that so much Confederate capital was invested in slavery, and that capital (which would have been needed to invest in economic diversification) would simply erode in value and eventually vanish.  Thus the notion that slavery would have faded away really doesn’t make sense to me unless one is willing to accept the result of an impoverished Confederacy, deprived of its major source of capital.  Would it have become a haven for foreign investment?  Would the almighty Yankee dollar have the last laugh?  Or would it be the British pound that would prevail?

Now, maybe things would have turned out differently.  That’s inherent in counterfactual exercises, right?  But there’s no guarantee that Confederate independence would have been a good thing for Confederates.  Be careful what you wish for.


23 thoughts on “What if the Confederacy Had Won? A Counterfactual Contemplation

  1. Ray O'Hara April 23, 2011 / 3:18 pm

    First off, regardless of when the war ended and where the armies were it would be the negotiation table where boundaries would be established.
    If a state like Md or Ky that was behind Union lines wanted to go I can’t see a war weary Union stopping them and the possibility of the remainder breaking up is there. The Republic of New England anybody?.

    The slavery issue would be the thing, the North would have the conflicting desires of not helping the South with fugitive slaves while at the same time not wanting the blacks around their states either.
    And with the country split the ratio of white to black in the new CSA would be much different in effect. no longer would the South have the large mass of Northern whites as protection, the population ratio would soon reach 1-1 and maintaining control of the slaves would be all the more difficult.

    Wealth, so much was tied up in slaves, but it was artificial wealth sitting on a shakey base and shut off from the northern bankers loans would have been much more difficult to find. Market forces would have cut deeply into the value of slaves, it was under threat just from being excluded from the territories with no room to expand that value would soon collapse as the slave population grew.

    Slavery was also rapidly becoming socially obsolete and the CSA rather unpopular internationally if not a pariah state, especially as the CSA would resist change to the bitter end and then an Apartheid system would have prevailed that imo would make Jim Crow look benevolent.

    England would indeed have sought other sources of cotton leaving the USA as the best hope for trade and both factions N and S would quickly learn how much they needed each other economically and trade would have resumed but now with a new layer of bureaucracy in the way and a CSA govt needing revenue might have eyed tariffs on Northern goods.

    The CSA would have found itself in the position of a dog who catches the car, okay, you got your desire now what?. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

    I also wonder about the fate of the Indian, would a rump and possible broken into several small countries America have been so predatory and genocidal in it’s dealings with them, might they have actually survived as a viable culture.

    • MarkD April 24, 2011 / 2:21 pm

      Roy: I agree that it is hard to see how the CSA doesn’t “resist change to the bitter end and then an Apartheid system would have prevailed that imo would make Jim Crow look benevolent.” Of all the possible elements in counterfactual scenarios, I think this element has the highest degree of likelihood, whatever else happens economically or politically. Yet long term the economic and political outcomes (of which it would normally be highly speculative to guess) are in some degree easier to predict if we follow the lessons we know about how they are in nations with Apartheid systems like this. It isn’t pretty. On the bright side, the Northern public would have been spared having to endure generations of people taught history by “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” 🙂

  2. Richard April 23, 2011 / 3:41 pm

    Part of it may have depended on how the United States reacted immediately after any such agreement was reached.

    Did the radical take over and immediately abolish slavery? If so, that likely drives Kentucky (and perhaps Missouri and even Maryland) towards desiring secession too. If even one of those did desire to secede, does the US let them go, or fight for it? How those questions are answered might make a difference, and either provide the Confederacy with more territory, more access to the Ohio River (and Cincinnati had quite a bit pro-Southern sympathy, so that might be a good trade port to have access to)

    Or does the US leave slavery intact and abolish the fugitive slave law? If the US now welcomes fugitive slaves (though state black codes may fight that), that would not help “relations” between the two nations be re-established quickly.

  3. MarkD April 23, 2011 / 4:31 pm

    Counterfactuals are difficult as you say, but I agree that of all the likely scenarios I find plausible they would rue the day they were independent. I think the romantic scenarios where independence makes great them a nation trade too much on the success of the Union, but there is no straight line from independence to peace, prosperity, and greatness. These don’t just fall into place on their own.

  4. Johannes April 24, 2011 / 5:29 am

    Add to the border disputes the fractures within the Confederacy itself where counties within various southern states remained pro-union, or disagreements between southern states. Who is to say whether or not there might occur further civil wars between them? Might it be safe to conclude that such action might have led to a balkanization of the confederacy or America?

  5. Zac April 24, 2011 / 6:13 am

    Just throwing this out there, but it’s totally possible that the Confederacy would’ve found more long range support via France instead of Great Britain. Britain needed U.S. wheat and corn just as much as it needed cotton, and she had her whole Empire and trading partners to fall back on for cotton (Egypt, India, etc.). France, on the other hand, had just as strong of a desire for cotton and didn’t have other sources to fall back on. Indeed, France was really the biggest economic victim of the two in the Civil War.

    Plus, Napoleon III had all sorts of New World schemes and would jump at the chance to get a foothold/ally in America. In fact, Napoleon seriously flirted with intervening in the Civil War in late ’62/’63, because of the need for cotton and the possibility of having the South as an ally. France gave the CS some very generous loans and offered to allow the CS to build warships in France (built ostensibly for Italy).

    I think an independent Confederacy would certainly have struggled economically, and probably politically as well. Yet I doubt they would sincerely regret independence.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 24, 2011 / 11:59 am

      France’s involvement in Mexico was advanced in part by suggesting that perhaps the Mexicans might seek to regain what Mexico had lost in 1848 (and even before). Oops. That might have complicated things a bit. The Confederacy would also have found itself on the wrong side of things after 1870-71.

      • Eduardo December 24, 2011 / 1:08 pm

        That’s not true, the Mexican collaborators were members of the church and the military who had lost their privileges during the Reform Wars and offered Napoleon III a foothold in the Americas in exchange for helping them put in charge someone who would restore their privileges they weren’t resentful about the loss of territory because it was them who made it possible in the first place.
        Napoleon III also wanted the Confederacy to win to have access to cheap cotton but without having to have France directly involved in the conflict. A quick French victory in Mexico would have given France access to the huge CSA-Mexico border and they would have been able import cotton and send amunition and mercenaries.

  6. Margaret D. Blough April 24, 2011 / 7:20 am

    MarkD-They also believed that the UK and France were so dependent on southern cotton that they would have no choice other than to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation AND to provide military support for it. We saw how well that turned out.

    Even with the US, it took two tries to get a governing document that worked and, even then, there was an issue, slavery, that the Constitution left unresolved that ultimately, despite the efforts of the best and the brightest, could not be resolved without a brutal war.

  7. John Foskett April 24, 2011 / 11:15 am

    Brooks and some of the responders have highlighted significant, and in my opinion, insurmountable economic and geopolitical hurdles. The lack of any substantial manufacturing base was only one element, with widespread impacts. For example, the primitive and decrepit railroad “system” (with all its various gauges and disrepair) was a large obstacle to achieving true national survivability. The only plausible source for fixing that was to become heavily dependent on the North. But I see a larger issue. This would be a “nation” founded on the assumption that its member States had an inalienable right of secession. What would have happened when the inevitable sectional differences – mid-South, deep South, and trans-Mississippi – began to intrude? I think the thing was mortally flawed from the beginning. In short, a very bad idea cooked up by a minority of hotheads. I think there might be a lesson in that….

  8. Bob Pollock April 24, 2011 / 1:30 pm

    “This would be a “nation” founded on the assumption that its member States had an inalienable right of secession.”

    i don’t think you will find this in the CSA Constitution. In fact, although the preamble said “We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character…” It also said, “in order to form a permanent federal government…”

  9. Kgray April 24, 2011 / 10:45 pm

    I don’t know how many people are aware of this: there is a Movie Called,

    “CSA: Confederate States of America” (2004) directed by Stevin Wilmott

    It is a satirical look upon people’s life style in the Confederate States of America within modern time, if the South had won the war.

  10. Chuck Brown April 25, 2011 / 12:46 pm

    I wonder how much of the original Confederate States of America would still be around. Even during the Civil War, there were some unhappy rumblings from states like Georgia and North Carolina. Would Tennessee still be a Confederate state?

    While I agree that emancipation would have been difficult, I don’t see slave labor being used to industrialize the South. That issue had been a key in the Confederacy’s failure to receive foreign military aid. It’s hard to imagine economic aid with slavery still intact. Investments from the evil Yankees would likely have come at a price, that price being the abolition of slavery. It’s not hard to imagine some Confederate states seceding from the CSA and trying to rejoin the USA, with emancipation a requisite.

  11. Peter Reilly April 26, 2011 / 11:44 am

    Harry Turtledove has a great series on the issue starting with How Few Remain.

  12. Ray O'Hara April 26, 2011 / 4:19 pm

    The CSA would have also cast covetous eyes at Caribbean islands and Central American countries and filibustering would have been a regular feature of their foreign policy.

  13. Bob Huddleston April 27, 2011 / 9:38 am

    My favorite “what if” book on the Civil War is Ward Moore’s _Bring the Jubilee_, originally published in 1953, and considered a SciFi classic. Pringle, _Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels_ ranks it as #11. However, the Lost Cause and other devotees of the Lee cult ignore it.

    In Hodge Backmaker’s alternative world, 20th-century New York is a city of cobblestones, gas lamps and 10-story skyscrapers. In his world, the Confederate South won its independence and North America is divided with slavery and serfdom still facts of life. Its portrayal of the implications to African-Americans of a Confederate victory is not what neo-Confederates want to hear!

    After winning the Civil War at Gettysburg by the brilliant occupation of Little Round Top – Grant and Vicksburg are ignored – the Rebels go on to conquer Cuba and Mexico, moving their capital to a more central location in Leesburg, formerly Mexico City. In the novel Hodge travels to a Gettysburg think tank built by the retired Confederate colonel who captured LRT. There he falls in love with the daughter of the colonel (the novel takes place in the 1920s) and finds that the think tank is involved in constructing a time machine which he uses to go to Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 – with predictably disastrous results.

  14. Jason Edward Taylor July 2, 2011 / 7:50 am

    If the south had won…what a novel idea. Now for those who say the war was not about slavery; there were slaves in the north etc etc etc. Yes, there were slaves in the north. The Mayor of NYC and other northern Democrats (Modern day Republicans) called Copperheads didnt care about slavery one way or the other. True. Every issue; economic right on down the line to social issues ended at the same station, slavery. Lincoln knew this and knew the war had to have a moral cause that could endure forever.

  15. Ray O'Hara July 2, 2011 / 11:19 am

    The War wasn’t about slavery crowd always approaches the issue from the Northern motives and ignores the motives of the South and they also love to ignore Ft Sumter as the start of hostilities.

  16. ShaneB July 15, 2011 / 6:15 am

    I think all this talk that the Confederacy would have been doomed to failure is way off the mark.

    In terms of economics, the Southern States consistently advocated free-trade against Northern advocation of protectionism; economically speaking, it’s obvious that major import ports would have switched from the tariff heavy Union to the free-trade Confederacy, consequentially trade routes would be southern dominated (proceeding up north) rather than vice-versa as was common previous to the conflict. This would have been an enormous boon onto Confederate business much to the detriment of the protectionist Union.

    The argument from grain, wheat etc. seems to me to be a red herring: when the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846 Egypt and other Mediterranean countries became the primary origins for wheat / grain importation – I don’t see why that wouldn’t have been the case likewise following frosty relations between Britain & the Union: it would only entail a paradigm shift in where Britain imported her wheat & grain (far more abundant as a commodity than cotton).

    Slavery would also have gradually been displaced by capital heavy agriculture – there are sound economic arguments for this that falls entirely into economic orthodoxy. The authour states the possibility of a ‘slave driven industrial revolution’: this is a contradiction in terms because industrialisation requires capital driven investments, something precluded in slave-labour. (I won’t go into the economic arguments here). Further to the argument, and the authour notes this, the Fugitive Slave Act would have been unenforceable following disunion, which would have exacerbated the demise of slavery even further; others have commented on filibusting, but this was always a fringe idea that was more associated with the romantic idea of adventure than anything else (like William Walker’s forays into Nicaragua) – the main impetus in those forays wasn’t to cement the economic standing of slavery, but to cement Southern / Democratic power in Congress against the [northern] Whigs (the new entirely acquired State of Cuba or an even an annexed Nicaragua would have entered the Union as a Slave State and would naturally have affiliated with Southern / Democratic politics).

    I personally think the Confederate States of America would have given the Union a run for her money simply because it would have been far more competitive in international trade, whilst the Confederate States wouldn’t have been crippled with enormous debts built up through the ‘internal improvement’ schemes of the Union – it would have been far more fiscally conservative, which is much better / more saleable when floating government bonds, hence it would have been far more attractive as an investment option, especially given what I think would have been the gradual demise of slavery.

  17. bobby bowman August 30, 2012 / 2:02 am

    I think that the South would also include Mexico and the Caribbean.
    I think that an arms race would have been between the Union and the Confederacy.Maybe the United States and the Confederate States would have shared weapons and fought the cold war together against the Soviet Union and China

  18. bobby bowman August 30, 2012 / 2:11 am

    I think that the South would also include Mexico and the Caribbean. I also think that Canada’s Provinces would have made up the rest of the 50 union states.
    I think that an arms race would have been between the Union and the Confederacy.Maybe the United States and the Confederate States would have shared weapons and fought the cold war together against the Soviet Union and China.

  19. David Nelson June 9, 2014 / 8:56 pm

    I’ve been studying and pondering that cataclysm for decades, and have matured a series of conclusions as to what almost happened to us. Namely, the United States would have “PERISHED FROM THE EARTH,” and the world would have entered “A NEW DARK AGE.”

    I offer a thorough explanation for this view in my public-service blog, “Civic Mentor ~~ Bulletins.” The actual article’s name is, “”IF THE UNITED STATES HAD LOST HER CIVIL WAR … ”

    If you would like to check it out, here is the URL (just click it, below — this is a not-for-profit blog):


    Please take a look, come back, and tell me what you think. I’m sincerely interested. Thanks


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