In September 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee is in Maryland on the first of two invasions of the North. Both would end in defeats, this one at Antietam, the second, in the summer of 1863, at Gettysburg. Antietam was not a resounding victory for the Northern forces, lead by the ever-cautious General George B. McClellan. In fact, it probably would have been a victory for Lee but for one factor. Some critical orders for part of his army were lost and then found—found by Federal troops and advanced up the line to the hands of McClellan.
In modern terms, imagine that the playbook for the opposing team in the Super Bowl falls into the hands of the rival head coach—and then the rival team goes on to victory, slim victory, but a win nonetheless. That’s what happened at Antietam. McClellan had a natural tendency to pull defeat from the jaws of victory and he nearly lost this battle.
But, what if those orders had not been recovered? What if Robert E. Lee won the battle of Antietam? I am not a historian, but I have read extensively on the Civil War. I am also a student of the U.S. Presidents.
So, just for fun, I offer these possibilities for what would have happened if Lee had won Antietam. If you want a more thorough interruption, I invite you to read Harry Turtledoves’ How Few Remain, a book on the second American Civil War, that opens with the exact scenario I’ve described here.
So, if Lee had won Antietam, these are things that could have happened:
- The war would have ended in a few months, maybe sooner.
- Abraham Lincoln’s popularity would have declined and he would have lost his re-election bid to (wait for it) George McClellan. McClellan, even though he lost Antietam and ultimately the war, remained popular with the troops and the general population, as blame for the loss is placed on Lincoln.
- Lee may have succeeded Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederate States of America in 1868 (the Confederate constitution called for a single six-year term for the president and Davis was not officially inaugurated until 1862);
- However, Lee’s health was in decline, even in 1862, and he may have declined;
- Opening the way for the likes of James Longstreet, who, without Gettysburg, retained his favor with the south and was very diplomatic.
- Another possibility is John C. Breckinridge. Roger Ransom in his book The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been postulates that Breckinridge had the politician savvy and had finished second to Lincoln in the 1860 election. Additionally, he finished second to Davis when the Confederate delegates met in 1861.
- Ulysses S. Grant would never be heard from again, fading into obscurity.
- Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson would have lived, as there was not a battle of Chancellorsville. He likely would have become the conscious of South, but probably never president nor even a politician. Perhaps he would have risen to full command of the Confederate peace-time army.
- George Custer would have still battled the Plains Indians, and Little Big Horn would probably have happened.
- Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, whose reputation was built on Little Round Top, would have gone back to being an obscure college professor.
- The March to the Sea would never have taken place and people in Georgia, if William T. Sherman’s name were mentioned at all, would say, “Sherman, who?”
- McClellan, whether a one or two term president, would be succeeded by Democrats for years to come.
- Men like Horatio Seymour, Samuel Tilden, Winfield Scott Hancock come to mind as presidents in this scenario.
- Grover Cleveland, instead of being the first Democrat elected president in 24 years, would possibly have been just another president of this era.
- When would the modern world catch up with the South and bring an end to slavery? I don’t know; it would but the timing is difficult to determine.
- Would the South and North eventually re-unite? Some think not (see below).
The world would be a different place for sure. The integrity of the union, having been torn asunder by the Confederate victory, would, some theorize, have lead to other sections breaking off and forming their own countries. The United States of America would, most likely, be considerably smaller and probably not a world power. Who would have stood up to the likes of Nazi Germany and Japan in the 1940s? Without the US, there probably wouldn’t have been such a power that could have successfully opposed both of those powers at one time.
This is fascinating stuff and the conjecture could go on and on. While it’s fun to speculate, I am thankful that things turned out as they did.