Historians of the American Civil War often have to contend with what-if questions (and some ask a few of their own). Indeed, inherent in much of an assessment of the wisdom of this or that move or decision is some contemplation of what was likely to happen if someone made a different move or decision. Otherwise, we would be stuck assessing decisions by outcomes, which is little more than hindsight, and tells us very little about the options open to the decision maker.
A different sort of what-if question reverses the course of history in some seemingly critical way. The favorite what-if that embodies this approach is asking what if Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg. Usually, the person asking the question has Jackson replace Richard S. Ewell as a corps commander on the afternoon of July 1 and believes that Jackson would have attacked the Union position on Cemetery Hill, usually with the assumption that such an assault would have been successful, etc.
This exercise is so inherently problematic as to suggest that it is useless unless someone would rather deal with history as they fantasize about it as opposed to understanding what really happened and why (which would take actual work as a reader and researcher). Is Jackson wounded at Chancellorsville, at least severely enough to keep him out of action for the remainder of that battle? If not, perhaps Chancellorsville is different, so perhaps there’s no Gettysburg. Was Jackson wounded severely at Chancellorsville? When would he return to duty, and in what condition? Does Lee reorganize the Army of Northern Virginia? And on and on and on … and yet you have to answer these questions before you get anywhere near July 1 or Gettysburg.
Nor do we ask other questions with quite the same passion or imagination. What if Phil Kearny escaped alive from Chantilly? What if fate spared Nathaniel Lyon at Wilson’s Creek? What if Lee was killed on May 6 or May 12 instead of going to the rear? What if Longstreet was not wounded on May 6? What if Grant was killed at Belmont? What if Dan Sickles was not wounded at Gettysburg? What if Sherman was killed at Shiloh? What if Lincoln was killed at Fort Stevens? Each of these questions is based on events which could have happened, but one quickly sees that it would be hard to answer any of them with any degree of confidence. Yet it is Jackson that gets most of the attention (the only other Civil War what-if that compares is “what if Lincoln had not been assassinated?”).
So let’s go with the premise that Jackson survived Chancellorsville. We could very easily set up a chain of events that suggest that it might not have made much of a difference to the outcome of the war. He could have been checked on July 1 at Gettysburg, for example, with the rest of the battle unfolding much as it did, because … well, because, we don’t know. But why not ask a more important question: what would have happened if Stonewall Jackson made it all the way to April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee is forced to face the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia is trapped?
Now, I know some of you will want to go back to some moment during the hours leading up to that Palm Sunday moment, and speculate about Lee’s decision not to fight a guerilla war. As we know, that isn’t quite what the issue under discussion was, anyway. Would Jackson have advocated fighting on, either as a unified force or by first dissolving the army in the hopes of reconstituting it down the road?
Jackson was a fierce warrior. When asked in December 1862 what the Confederates needed to do to stop the Yankee invader, he supposedly said: “Kill them, sir! Kill every man!” Note this rather imaginative recasting of the quote … and another version offered by Hunter McGuire, Jackson’s medical officer who is credited in various accounts as the source of the quote …
McGuire offered the blunter version later on …
In any case, Jackson is here portrayed as a man who was a natural-born killer filled with the wrath of the Old Testament. How would he have reacted to the need to surrender to a foe he so despised … and respected?
(That Jackson sounds a lot like William T. Sherman is worth contemplating. Then again, Charles Royster suggested that decades ago in The Destructive War (1992). I’ve also suggested that Jackson had much in common with John Brown.)
Would Stonewall Jackson have accepted defeat? Would he have kept on fighting somewhere, somehow? Would he have returned to Lexington resolved to so the best he could to bind up the nation’s wounds and help his native Virginia recover from the war? Would he have used the same energy that he employed in educating enslaved black children to seeing that they as adults could enjoy their freedom?
We don’t know, of course. But I always find it interesting to see which counterfactuals we are willing to entertain and which ones never occur to us. I also find it interesting to see what people say when they offer their counterfactual musings. I believe all of that says so much more about us than about anything else. When we talk about what generations of Americans remembered (and forgot) about the Civil War, we might also want to engage their speculations about what might have happened … as well as to recall what they declined to speculate about.