In his book Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner writes…
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….
What if Robert E. Lee and his troops had won Gettysburg? It probably would not have happened with Pickett’s charge. Indeed, Pickett’s Charge probably would not have even taken place. The battle would have been won the day before and we’d all be familiar with a lesser known Confederate officer, William C. Oates of the 15th Alabama infantry. If Oates and the other troops of General John Bell Hood had overwhelmed Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine infantry, they would have rolled up the Federal left and would have probably forced General George Meade and his army to retreat towards Washington, D.C. This could have heralded the beginning of the end, culminating in a Confederate victory in the war.
What would have happened? I used to think that if the South had won, slavery would eventually die out and through negotiations, we’d be one nation again. However, historians seem to think differently. Historians, at least the ones drawn upon in The Butterfly Effect by Andy Andrews, seem to think that the continent of North America would more closely resemble Europe than present day North America. The implications being that instead of one United States of America, there would be several countries within those boundaries. At the time of the Civil War there were rumblings from several factions within the USA of secession. The unnamed historians go on to speculate that there would not have been a nation strong enough to stand up to Nazi Germany and Japan at the same time. This is all speculation, but it’s not new speculation.
In Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction by James McPherson, we read these two quotes from Union soldiers on why they enlisted…
‘If the Unionist let the South secede, the West might want to follow and this country would be as bad as the German states…There would have to be another form of constitution wrote and after it was written who would obey it?’
‘Admit the right of the seceding states to break up the Union at pleasure…and how long will it be before the new confederacies created by the first disruption shall be resolved into still smaller fragments and the continent become a vast theater of civil war, military license, anarchy, and despotism? Better settle it at whatever cost and settle it forever.’
Little wonder that we consider Abraham Lincoln to be our greatest president—if these men, raw recruits in the Union army, could see this looming on the horizon if the South was allowed to secede, then certainly the President of the United States, by all estimation a brilliant man, could see it too.
This week we will commemorate the 237th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. I think that, as we commemorate these events, we should keep in mind the man who would not compromise on the Union. We have Abraham Lincoln to thank for our nation as it is today.