Political Arenas
May 29, 2017 · 5 min read


The secession war in United-States, which the Americans call “Civil War”, is the most murderous conflict according to the number of US death. It took place between 1861 and 1865, making 617.000 deaths, more than both World-Wars (still according to US deaths). It achieved on stronger United-States, with the consolidation of American institutions, the abolition of slavery and the industrial development of the Nordic states. It also spread the federal model over the globe, thanks to the growing prestige of the United-States in the World.

One of the root causes of the conflict was quasi-ideological, with a growing border between an industrial north and slavery south. The Confederation opposed the Union. Each part had its capital, Washington DC and Richmond. Each part had its president, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Each part had its generals, its army and war logistics. The issue was the sovereignty of the states within the federation. Could American states end the federal contract to determine their own will?

In the beginning of the conflict, the success of the South could make think that they were able to win, even if the forces were very unbalanced. On 21 July 1861 in Bull Run, the federal forces (19.000 soldiers) were defeated by the confederates (15.000 soldiers). The South benefited from very good strategists, such as the general Robert Edward Lee. Although 1862 was a turning year in the conflict with the massive involvement of the North, the Southerners won a battle in the beginning of May 1863 and Lee’s army went to Pennsylvania, destroying everything in its path. The North was therefore weakened, with many desertions and lynchings. In 1864, the “wilderness campaign” caused huge losses in both sides. Nothing was completely played at that time. And we, as historians, must take care not to be theologians, which mean not to study the beginning of the “Civil war” on the outcome of the conflict, the victory of the north. What would have happened if the South had won the War? I am not used to think history by history-fiction/an-history. However, it might help to think better the importance of the real historical events.

I will propose four political systems which could have been produced, involving different narratives.
First, the outcome of the victory of the South could have been another Union, ruled by the Southern States. The United-States of America would have another capital in Richmond. They would have kept the name of “confederation” in memory to the “civil war” and to the position of the Southern states, but being a true federal country. We can imagine that the northern countries would have been much weakened, politically and economically. Their industrious prosperity would have been stopped and slavery would have remained in all the United-States for a long time. Therefore, the epic narrative would have not gone further than the military conquest itself. The general economic situation would have quickly darkened the speeches, especially in the north. The United-States would have been unable to surpass the British Empire and to become the first industrial power. It would have weakened its economic and military powers, making the US unable to intervene in Europe in 1917 and change the course of war. They would not have had the prestige to spread the “14 points” in 1918 which influenced the creation of the League of Nations.

Secondly, the United-States could have been a large confederation where states would have kept their sovereignty and have built a system of treaties between each others. There would not have been any powerful federal state among the states. The South would have continued its epic narrative of the War, using also this narrative to try to maintain its power and prestige. The north would have used a more comic narrative, about a defeat which will not prevent a happy end. The north could have continued to develop its industry and would have been free to abolish slavery. The south would have remained slavery and would not quickly decline, benefiting from commercial agreements with the north. The entire confederation would become wealthier, even if it would have sustained very few elements of cooperation. Whether this system had worked, it would have been spread all around the world, accelerating the idea of confederation of Europe for instance. It would have played in favor of peace in the early XXth. If it had not worked, as the tensions between the north and the south of the confederation would have risen again, it would have brought new tragic narratives, with new wars and disbeliefs in the confederation system.

Thirdly, the outcome could have been the constitution of an independent confederation of Southern States. On the one hand, the industrialized north would have used a deeper comic story. Even though it would have been unable to maintain the Union, it would have continued its ascension to become one of the most powerful states of the world. Its transition to the post-industrial era and to the tertiary age would have been fastened. On the other hand, the confederal south would have remained in a primary economy close to Latin America and South America. Its economy would have relatively declined, to the extent to be dependent of the North. Therefore, its political independence would have been weakened by the intervention of the North-America, as it has been in South-America. Migrations and walls would have arisen between the two sides. In this case, the South would have developed these tragic narratives of a country doomed to decline, despite past victories.

Fourthly, we can imagine a complete collapse of any regional system. The narratives would have been tragic everywhere first, as all the projects of federal unions and confederations would have disappeared. Each state would be completely independent, with its own laws and without common policy. The tragic would have remained in many of the unindustrialized states. It would have refrained the US to be the first economical power but a country like California would be successful in the top of the world order and begin to develop a comic story, with no hero but a happy end.

If the confederates had won the war, the contemporary world order would be very different, as the Federal United-States have played a determining role to forge the world we know. Many can defend it would have strengthen the world tragedies, such as World-Wars, Cold-Wars, post-cold-Wars. Others would have defended a comic plot, where a weakened United-States would have helped to lead toward world peace.

As it is an imaginative exercise, you would be welcome to add other alternatives!

Bastien Girard




Political Arenas

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