What If the Confederacy Had Won? A Realistic Look

The Confederacy as an independent nation is a fantastical idea that has been taken up by numerous alternative history writers. However, it is an interesting exercise to conduct because the separation of the Confederacy from the Union was entirely plausible. It was possible with just a bit more luck on the part of the American South. The Battle of Gettysburg could’ve changed the fate of the war and allowed General Lee to march on toward the Union’s capital. Furthermore, in analyzing how the Confederacy would’ve behaved after independence, we can also discover the many reasons for why they lost and failed in their efforts to secede.

To see how the Confederacy would’ve handled themselves, there are many things we must take into consideration. We must examine the vast openness of the West, the proposals to expand the South before the Civil War, the temperament of Jefferson Davis and of Lincoln or, if he were elected, McClellan. Perhaps more importantly we must glance at the economy of the Confederacy and how foreign nations would’ve reacted to an established breakaway state. All these ideas coalesce together and will give us an idea of the direction the Confederacy may have taken and what may have occurred after their severance from the United States of America.

For the south to succeed in its effort for independence and to have the best possible chance at success for the future, General George McClellan would’ve had to have been successful in his bid for the presidency in 1864. While McClellan did repudiate his party’s platform, he would’ve been able to have been pressured even more than Lincoln would have therefore, the likeliest chance for peace would’ve been with McClellan.

The Democrat Party held their meeting in Chicago. It was here where they proclaimed, “That this Convention does explicitly declare, as the sense of the American People, that, after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war, during which, under the pretense of a military necessity of a war power higher than the Constitution, the Constitution has itself been disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down, and the material prosperity of the country essentially impaired, justice, humanity, liberty, and the republic welfare, demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities…”.1 McClellan altered some of his policies but the pressure would’ve been insurmountable against him had he been elected.

If we only look at the results of the electoral college, it would seem that McClellan had no chance to reach the presidency. Cited in the Library of Congress, McClellan lost 21 to Lincoln’s 212.2 However, if we look closer at the population and state by state totals, we can see that McClellan lost by only a few hundred thousand votes across the entire voting population. And certain states were very close in their elections. Primarily New York was within 1%, the states of Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware were all under 4% and a handful of other states which were above 5%3 may have been within reach had the battles not gone as well for Lincoln as they had. The election for the southern secession needed McClellan, and McClellan’s election wasn’t as impossible as it seems at first glance.

If we now know that McClellan is president and then consider Westward expansion, we can look at the example of when the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the Missouri Compromised which was used to separate slave from non-slave states. Instead of a guide based on a line, each state would decide for themselves if they wanted to be a free state or a slave state. As a result, both sides rushed into the territory of Kansas hoping to tilt the results in their favor. Violent clashes broke out and became constant leading up to the years just before the American Civil War.

These clashes likely would’ve continued along the same battleground lines even if both Davis and McClellan came together to establish an official boundary much like Spain and Portugal agreed when dividing up the New World in the Treaty of Tordesillas. This example is further proven when the British and the United States shared a border and there were clashes along the northern US and Canadian border during the Patriot War in the 1830s. While events like these were minor, they still occurred and these issues were merely over territorial claims. The claims that would’ve existed along the Union and Confederate lines would’ve not only entailed territorial disputes, recognized or not, but also the very heated issue of slavery coupled with resentment and animosity over a war that had already been fought.

In the erection of the Confederacy we must also understand that the fate of slavery would continue for at least a short time. This is especially true if the war would’ve been cut short had McClellan won the presidency since Confederate cotton wouldn’t have been as crushed as it had been in the last months of the war. Even if General Lee had managed to win at Gettysburg and pressed for peace, the attempts of the South to crown themselves the Kings of Cotton once again would’ve been routed. Other nations had already begun to trade or cultivate their cotton elsewhere and slavery likely wouldn’t have been sustainable much longer after the war. A different crop would’ve been required to remain competitive on world markets and the Union surely wouldn’t have bought their cotton from a rogue nation that supplied it using slaves. Likewise, as the national archives of the United Kingdom state, Britain had been turning against slavery and had in effect become the world’s policeman when it came to encouraging or forcing nations to recant or end their slave trade.4 If the American South had continued their allowances of slavery, especially if the United Kingdom had already established a new source for their cotton, this likely would’ve brought the Confederacy politically against the British within a few decades after the Civil War had ended.

When it comes to foreign nations, it’s also important to remember that France would’ve become involved in the aftermath of the Civil War. Napoleon III’s France would’ve been less restricted in their morality compared to the British as France had designs on Mexico and perhaps those designs would’ve expanded to other areas due to the fractured United States. Politically, it is easy to see that the French would’ve remained loyal to the Confederacy for as long as their goals served them and the British, while not supporting the Union, likely would’ve intervened when they felt necessary as they had for centuries on the European continent. Perhaps France would’ve pressured Spain to give into the Confederacy’s aims on Cuba or other Caribbean islands in exchange for the Confederacy’s continued support against Mexico, or, simply to have a stable, safe border along the states and territories of the American South.

However, Britain wouldn’t have turned a blind eye to the Confederates. It was in their interest to keep the North American continent fractured and troubled. In Harrison’s report, we can see how the common British people supported the south, principally in British Labour and the Confederacy, “…all but an ‘insignificant minority’ of British workmen supported Lincoln and the North… Yet, in truth, there were a number of eminent Labour leaders whose enmity to the North made them friends to the Confederacy, while working-class newspapers and journals were, on the whole, hostile to the Federals. (This was unquestionably the case before the Emancipation Proclamation, and even after 1863 a number of journals continued to lend their support to the cause of Secession).”5 As we can see, there wasn’t much support for encouraging the reunification of the United States.. Additionally, since the Union and the United Kingdom shared a common border along Canada, it would also mean the British wouldn’t have to maintain its military to a higher standard as long as the Civil War continued or resulted in a permanent fracture between Davis and, as we’ve assumed, McClellan.

Foreign affairs are a very important consideration for the Confederacy for without foreign support, Davis and his government would be unable to maintain their independence against the north. Eventually, had McClellan been elected, a different president would’ve come after him. Different parties would’ve likely sprouted in the north since the Republicans failed in one of their primary missions which was to end slavery. Hawk and Dove parties may have broken out and if a hawkish Union president would’ve assumed power, the South would’ve been more easily conquered since they’d continue to rely on slaves while the North continued to industrialize and modernize.

If we continue to look at the British, we must see that initially their support was tepid. The Confederates were eager for support and assumed only positivity out of every report as noted in Confederate Diplomacy, “[Robert Barnwell Rhett, the Future Chairman of the Confederate Committee on Foreign Affairs] visited Robert Bunch, the British consul at Charleston. He left this interview with the distinct impression that Great Britain could be persuaded to recognize the independence of the Confederacy, if it were offered attractive inducements. The authoritative Toronto Leader on January 24, 1861, announced ‘in the most positive terms that it is the intention of the English Government to acknowledge the independence of the Southern Confederacy as soon as it is formed.’”6 The Confederacy had high hopes for future partnerships but they only spoke with intermediaries or lower level ministries. Nothing concrete was ever enacted for future recognition.

This same tactic was used with the French. Continuing in Confederate Diplomacy, Blumenthal explains, “In their eagerness, Confederate leaders seemed prone to accept secondhand statements of subordinate foreign officials as quite reliable indications of their governments’ policies.”7 However, Davis did have reason to believe the foreign powers would intervene, if only in recognition. Both France and Great Britain had undertaken shipbuilding contracts for the Confederacy and seemed to be supporting the wartime effort. Furthermore, Davis’ lack of territorial gains impressed further the point that the Confederacy only wanted its independence and did not land that belonged to the Union.

Internal policies also would’ve affected how the Confederacy would’ve acted. Almost immediately they were beset by the slavery question in spite of supposedly resolving it within their constitution. Impressment became a possible reality as explained in Lessons Jefferson Davis Never Learned, “As Professor Stephanie McCurry observes, ‘[f]or a nation established to give greater security and permanence to slaveholders’ enjoyment of their peculiar property, impressment came as a terrible blow.’ Slaveholders no longer had exclusive control over their slaves. Their government, which was designed to protect their rights in their slaves, could impress their slaves into service for the Confederacy.”8 There was little difference between what was occurring in the South and what would’ve happened under Lincoln.

The class structure within the south was being decimated. Since Davis would’ve allowed impressment, it would’ve dictated that the slaves actually belonged to the government whenever the government opted to use them. Private citizen moral would’ve plummeted after the war and there would’ve been little recourse for slave owners aside from setting up another insurrection. However, those efforts would’ve likely failed. Any division would’ve invited a return of a Union army, especially under a more hawkish president once McClellan had expired his term(s). The Confederacy had set a precedent of federalism where the government had already begun consolidating itself even before their liberation from the North.

Some of this is due in part to how new the government had been formed during war time, as had the American government. A confederation is a difficult government to work with in particular when it comes to war. Just as George Washington and the other parts of the American government had to sort out their assumed and listed powers, so too did Davis and his Confederacy. They had to reject what was impractical in the moment and decide how exactly the government was going to work and operate as they went forward with the war and their policies. This doesn’t mean, however, that everyone was in agreement.

Fractures had already begun, particularly with the slavery question. There were constitutional questions where Davis fought for more centralized government power which went against the rights of the states which was one of the principled reasons for the rebellion. In Alexander H. Stephens and Jefferson Davis, Rabaun outlines that Davis supported conscription while Confederate Vice President Stephens and many others opposed it.9 They supposed that it infringed upon the rights of the state. More importantly, it shows that Davis was willing to exceed his powers when necessary. The issue of states rights would not be enforced in this instance and would likely diminish over time. In the end, the Confederate States of America would almost be anything other than a Confederation after a few decades, especially if future Confederate presidents followed the role of Davis. As government often proves, once it takes power, it rarely returns it.

As we’ve laid out we can see how the Confederacy would’ve changed, how it would’ve reacted with the Union and how it would’ve made attempts to reach out to foreign nations. It supposedly sought peace. Jefferson Davis even requested peace from his Vice President at the outset of secession10 but at the same time, the Confederacy had already stumbled over its own laws in much the say way the colonies had during the American Revolution under their Articles of Confederation. The Confederacy was beginning to change from the moment it was created.

Ultimately it is difficult to predict the direction the Confederacy would’ve taken. There are so many possibilities to look at that it is impractical to state that anything is ensured. One alteration from history will then require another. But as has been shown throughout this article, this is a reasonable expectation that the Confederacy’s future would’ve been far from assured. Fractures existed in class structure, slavery, expansion with the West, their northern neighbor and possibly even with the United Kingdom in the future. The Confederacy could very well have survived, but it would’ve been a distinctly different nation today than what was formed in 1861.

1. Presidential Election of 1864. (n.d.)

2. Liep, 1864 Presidential Election Data.

3. Liep, 1864 Presidential Election Data.

4. UK National Archives, Britain and the Slave Trade.

5. Harrison, British Labour and the Confederacy, 78-75.

6. Blumenthal, Confederate Diplomacy, 153.

7. Blumenthal, Confederate Diplomacy, 154.

8. Paxton-Turner, Lessons Jefferson Davis Never Learned, 190-91.

9. Rabun, Alexander H. Stephens and Jefferson Davis.

10. Rabun, Alexander H. Stephens and Jefferson Davis.

Works Cited

Blumenthal, Henry. “Confederate Diplomacy: Popular Notions and International Realities.” The Journal of Southern History 32, no. 2 (1966): 151-71. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2204555 ? seq=1 Accessed January 5, 2021.

Harrison, Royden. “British Labour and the Confederacy: International Review of Social History.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 18 Dec. 2008, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-review-of-social-history/article/british-labour- and-the-confederacy/A3EDA0B471D3D28BC83D4D7EC92430B9.

Leip, Dave. “1864 Presidential General Election Data – National.” Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections – County Data, 2019, uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/data.php? year=1864&datatype=national&def=1&f=0&off=0&elect=0.

Paxton-Turner, Ashlee. “Presidential Responses to Protest: Lessons Jefferson Davis Never Learned.” HeinOnline, 2020, heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals %2Fwvb122&div=8&id=&page=.

Presidential Election of 1864: A Resource Guide, www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/elections/election 1864.html. Accessed, 5 Jan 2021.

Rabun, James Z. “Alexander H. Stephens and Jefferson Davis.” The American Historical Review 58, no. 2 (1953): 290-321. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1842193?seq=1 Accessed January 5, 2021.

The Platforms. Baltimore. Chicago. 1864. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/scsm000249/. Accessed, January 5 2021.

UK National Archives. “Britain and the Slave Trade.” UK National Archives, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/slavery/pdf/britain-and-the-trade.pdf. Accessed, January 5 2021.

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