Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Musings on an Independent Confederacy

Guest post by Chris Nuttall.

The American Civil War is one of the more popular stamping grounds for alternate history.  Some writers have explored a victorious CSA; others have looked at how that victory might have come about.  But few of them seem to consider the long-term development of the CSA in a manner I consider realistic.  Certain factors – geography, for instance – do not change regardless of who is in the White House, while other factors twist and turn according to the dictates of history.  What would an independent CSA actually look like?

I’m not going to worry too much over how the CSA gains its independence.  A stunning military victory might be enough to break the US’s war effort.  Outside support (such as British intervention after the Trent Affair) would make the CSA much more formidable very quickly.  Lincoln might try to move too quickly, overreach himself and eventually lose all support within the north.  Obviously, certain things will be different depending on the precise details of the war.  A CSA that leaves in peace is different from a CSA that wins the debate by force.  I am merely going to assume that the states that formed the CSA in our timeline separate from the Union and see what happens after that.

Historically, the CSA’s government simply didn't function very well.  Indeed, the level of success they did have (in building up an arsenal, for example) was remarkable.  President Davis was dedicated to the cause, but he found it difficult to convince all the states to move in unison, even in their own defence.  He was an experienced military officer himself, yet he found it hard to delegate responsibility and meddled with the war effort from a distance.  The CSA also didn't have political parties – and while I tend to agree that political parties are a bad thing, they are vital for commanding support from the Senate.  Davis had a position that was more vulnerable than he perhaps realised.

How will this develop in the first twenty years after independence?  One thing that will have been made clear by the fighting (if there is a war in this timeline) is that the CSA will need to keep an army.  Without an ongoing war, it is likely that Davis will find it much harder to convince the states to continue to collaborate in building a force that can stand up to the North.  One possibility is that each state will develop its own army with a small confederate force as a reserve if necessary.  Davis may will lose a great deal of political capital trying to make it work, which given the ramshackle nature of Confederate politics may be personally disastrous for him.  It’s possible that someone like Lee (assuming he is still prominent) will have more success, but the CSA may not see the need for a CSA army.  It might end up being pointed at the CSA states.

I think that it won’t be long before the South develops political parties of its own.  One of them, I suspect, will be a heavily conservative party based around the plantation owners, who were the richest men in the South.  Others are likely to be very different; one may support emancipating the slaves, one may feel that ‘nigger’ labour is taking jobs from white men, one may want political reform.  I have a feeling that the South will see a surprising amount of emigration from younger white men who feel that there is no place for them in the South.

This may seem odd, but it is a fact of history that the US North received an astonishing amount of immigrants even during the four years of civil war.  The south received almost none, at least as far as I am aware.  Looking at the South, it seems natural that the South would develop vast plantations rather than independent farms and freeholds, plantations where slavery would rule supreme – and almost no industry at all.  I suspect that the Confederate government would try hard to encourage industry within the CSA – they performed some remarkable efforts during the war – but the basic tenor of the South told against it.  This means, I believe, that the South will remain economically weak during the first 40 years or so after secession.

However, this may cause major problems for the South in the very near future.  There was a reason the South believed (wrongly) that ‘King Cotton’ could be used to force the British and French into recognising the South – cotton was very important to their economies.  However, in OTL, the British sourced new supplies from both India and Egypt, not least because the CSA couldn't supply them with cotton.  In ATL, there will still be supplies from alternate sources, cutting the price of CSA exports and therefore reducing the revenues it had to draw upon.

These two problems will probably mean that the CSA will not become anything more than a local power.  Building a Navy is expensive and will become more so as the improvements developed by the USN and the Royal Navy become requirements for naval forces (or they will become useless white elephants in the event of a war).  I doubt that the CSA could afford to keep up, which suggests that the USN will still rule the American waters.  Alliance with Britain and France might solve this problem, but that presents other difficulties (see below.)

In the long term, the CSA does have the oil fields of Texas, which may be discovered earlier.  However, this may be of questionable value until the 1914s, assuming that technology continues to develop roughly on schedule.

When dealing with the CSA, there is one element that stands up above all others; slavery.  The CSA was completely composed of slave states – there were relatively few free black men – and they had a reasonably sophisticated set of justifications for slavery.  These are the people who used the word ‘nigger’ even in routine conversation.  Whatever Harry Harrison may suggest, the South is not suddenly going to become a PC state that bans slavery.  In fact, there are strong grounds for suspecting that slavery will continue in the south until at least the 1900s.  As I have noted above, the South’s economy was largely based on slave plantations and the owners of those plantations would be the most politically powerful men in the country.  The concept of monopoly-holders wielding vast power to crush competitors isn't a new one.

This would probably be enhanced if the South believes that it fought to defend slavery.  If the North made the emancipation proclamation in this timeline, the South is very likely to stubbornly resist any steps towards slave emancipation.  Worse, freeing the slaves would be expensive; slave owners (political power, remember?) will demand compensation, while the poorer whites would be fearful of being undercut by black labour or having to pay for freeing the slaves.  Ian Montgomery suggests that in the event of Southern emancipation, the South would probably try to pay for it by taxing the newly-freed blacks.  This might be tricky as the blacks would have little to pay the taxes, at least at first.  They might therefore be forced back onto the plantations as ‘debt slaves,’ rather than more formally being enslaved.

I could see some of the South’s ‘gentlemen’ going for such a solution.  The slaves have to work anyway...and they don’t have to feed the slaves from their own pocket.  Oh, and as the slaves are not technically slaves, they don’t have to worry about slave revolts.

A more reasonably solution might be some form of gradual emancipation, with all black children born after a certain date automatically declared free.  This would make it easier for the South’s economy to adapt, but it would have two disadvantages from the point of view of the South’s elite.  It strikes at the core of their power...and it leaves them without a source of new slaves (the CSA didn't import slaves, IIRC).

In the long term, there will probably be a series of bloody upheavals.  The South simply didn't recognise the black man – ‘niggers,’ remember? – as equals.  If the Slaves become free through almost any process, they are still likely to be at the bottom of the pile and the very lowest class of people.  The civil rights era in OTL might be a storm in a teacup compared to what seethes through the South, assuming that no solution becomes possible.  What if the blacks, taking on more and more of the work as poor whites head north, eventually take over and destroy their masters?

[Some people have commented that the CSA eventually planned to emancipate the slaves.  I have seen nothing that suggests that this was actual Southern policy during the war, and would be very curious to see any evidence that might come to light.  Frankly, I would be astonished if any did.]

Another question mark lies over the Native Americans/Indians.  The CSA tended to strike deals with Indians willing to cooperate with the CSA, but to treat brutally any Indians who refused to be ‘reasonable.’  Governor Baylor of Arizona Territory issued orders for effective genocide to his subordinates, although they were never carried out and Baylor was removed from office by President Davis.  We could conclude that the CSA would be happy to leave the Indians in the desert – the land wasn't so good for farming – or that they would eventually drive the Indians to near-destruction.  Given the CSA’s racial attitudes, it doesn't look good.  But the Indians would make good scouts for the CSA’s army.  Perhaps some kind of compromise could be worked out.

How exactly will the South relate to the rest of the world?  British and French recognition will be important to Richmond and they will probably spend a great deal of time courting London and Paris.  However, the CSA was not in a strong position to seduce either of the two main European powers.  It would be clear to London, at least, that the US would grow stronger much more rapidly than the CSA and allying with the South would be a self-defeating proposition.  What can the CSA offer compared to the US as a trading partner, or the danger of losing Canada in a war with the US?  The South could sell food to the UK – very important, true – and cotton, but what else?  It would be difficult for London to cosy up to the South because of their unrepentant slavery.

What I think is most likely to occur over 1862 to 1910 is that the South will gradually be eclipsed by the North.  The Yankees were in a much better position to provide opportunities for immigrants, including some from the South, than the South itself.  I suspect that there would either be mass emigration from the South or massive civil unrest.  The South will seek short-term gratification instead of long-range safety.  By 1910, the South will be an economic basket-case, with blacks as an underclass contemplating revolution while the rest of the world largely ignores it.  It is quite possible that the South will attempt to compensate by inviting Hispanic immigration from Mexico, but unless they change their racial policies (to the tune of accepting ‘greasers’ if not ‘niggers’) they will merely be storing up trouble for themselves.   I could easily see the blacks and Hispanics becoming Communists.  What do they have to lose, apart from their chains?

There might well be another war between North and South.  If so, what might it look like?  A near-term war between the two might well look like Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain, at least in general outline.  It is unlikely, however, that Turtledove’s predictions of trench warfare for an alternate Great War will come true.  The terrain between North and South is nowhere near as restrictive as the French countryside fought over by France and Germany in 1914.  It is more likely to reassemble the Eastern Front, with both sides trying to outflank the other.  The North will have a major advantage in motor vehicles and weapons, while the South will probably have to try arming Hispanics (or even blacks; historically, some blacks did fight for the CSA) to make up the numbers.  Long term; this is likely to bite them hard on the ass.

If a version of World War One did occur in this timeline, I think the South would have tried to stay out of the fighting.  Sending food to Britain might be its only contribution to the war effort, while the British court the US, which could offer much more to the war.  But both American states would have little interest in the war directly.  Why should they join?

One AH theme that has popped up from time to time is that of Confederate Nazis.  This argument postulates that the CSA would be a natural ally for Nazi Germany as they shared similar racial views.  At its height, the theme suggests that the South would perpetrate a Holocaust on its black population, just as the Nazis did to the Jews.  It is, I will admit, possible (all things are possible), but the South had differing ideas to the Nazis.  The blacks would also be a vital part of what remains of their economy.

Harry Turtledove, in his Southern Victory series, suggests that the South would turn into something reassembling a Nazi state (complete with Holocaust.)  It does make sense in the series, but I am not sure that the CSA could ever become as powerful as it does in the book (and still inferior to the US).

For those interested in writing an AH book set in (for example) an alternate 1914 with an independent CSA, it is worth considering that the butterfly effect will have made the people of the CSA very different from the people of OTL.  How many famous names will not exist because their parents were on opposite sides of the North/South divide?  Anyone wanting to write a convincing history will have to consider if famous people will still become prominent in ATL.  Example: Theodore Roosevelt gained fame in Cuba, which helped to take him to the White House.  Will he still be famous in an alternate history?  Other people may live longer.  Turtledove comes up with the idea that Custer’s Last Stand will not take place in ATL because the CSA border would have prevented him from charging all the way to Little Big Horn and nemesis.

There are people who still see a certain romance in the South’s ‘Lost Cause.’  It is not an attitude I share.  The South was governed by a thoroughly unpleasant system that kept hundreds of thousands of people in bondage – and convinced hundreds of thousands of people who didn't directly benefit from slavery to fight for it.  There is a good reason why Lincoln is not only the greatest American, but one of the greatest humans in history.  The defeat of a system based on human bondage was a truly worthy deed.  Had the South become independent, the world would be a far darker place.

Apartheid South Africa, only worse.

[As always, I welcome comments and suggestions for additional articles.]

Appendix – RBC (on CF.NET) suggested that the South would end up with at least four political parties.

Democratic Party: The initial ruling party in the Confederate States, it shares its name with a party of the same name in the United States. However, this party likely disappears after a few elections, to be replaced by some new parties, such as the Populists or the Whigs. Ideology: Fluctuating.

Whig Party: The first party to emerge after the formation of the Democratic Party, the Whigs become the political vehicle for much of the planter aristocracy, particularly in the states along the Atlantic coast, and, potentially, Kentucky (if it is part of the confederacy). Ideology: Conservative; represents the interests of the landed classes.

People's (Populist) Party: Initially formed to represent small farmers, the Populist Party becomes the main party of working class (white) protestants financed by a small group of gentry residing in mostly western states, such as Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Curiously, this is also the party preferred by the Indians of the Confederacy. Ideology: Christian populism, temperance; eventually woman's suffrage.

Farmer and Labour Party: Dominated by Catholics (mainly Irish, Italian, and French), this party is strongest in Louisiana and mining towns throughout Dixie. It is this party that pushes successfully for programs in the Confederacy to aid small farmers and improve working conditions for miners and factory workers. Opponents accuse this party of catering to slaves because free blacks are permitted to attend its party meetings. Ideology: Worker's rights, agrarianism.

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Chris Nuttall blogs at The Chrishanger and has a website by the same name. His books can be found on Amazon Kindle.


  1. If they had won, I don't know if they would have stayed fully independent, unless they found away to deal with their social issue as well as find the funding ability to full industrialize and also bring in immigration. Adding in issues and such with Mexico and the Carribiean as well as England and France not mention possible trade wars with Spain and South American nations. Lots of room for another nation on the continent but all of changing in their thinking and out look would be needed. Not to mention a stronger central government and a standing military.

  2. Tom Kratman has commented that the US (ie the North) would not allow a competing nation in North America.

    Canada was part of the British Empire and Britain was friendly with the US.

    Mexico was never a strong competator for the US.

    While the Confederacy (as you say) won't be a strong competator, the US may still be hositle to it.

    Without outside aid, the Confederacy might not last until the 1900s.

    Paul Howard (Drak Bibliophile)

  3. It's like I said in one of my own articles (

    In the long run, defeat may have been the best fate for the CSA. Even if the Confederacy had won, its future was guaranteed to be grimmer than defeat. After all, nothing quite says national stability like a deeply indebted, neo-feudalist proto-banana republic built on chattel slavery. Odds are good, the best fate of an independent CSA, as its founders would have envisioned it, would be akin to your standard issue Latin American tin pot dictatorship. Far more likely, it would either be reabsorbed by the United States, splinter into separate nations, collapse due to anything from racial violence to economic crisis, and in any case, would likely not survive the century, and if it did, it would be as an economically broken, backward pariah state, masses of black slaves and poor disenfranchised whites itching to set aflame the powder keg, with a vengeful United States in the midst of jingoism staring hungrily across the border. Look away Dixie Land indeed!

  4. Considering that the south did experiment with using slaves in iron-works before the war and after the war blacks were used as forced labor in mines under the convict-lease system, I could see the the Farmer and Labor Party and/or the Populist Party eventually advocating an end to slavery and for the removal of blacks from the Confederacy (perhaps to Liberia). After all slaves working in mines would undercut the wages of free (white) mine workers and drastically reduce their power to force change through strikes. So in order to defeat this the logical thing to do would be to advocate a ban on slaves working in mines at the very least or to advocate for the removal of slaves (and free blacks) from society as a source of competition.

  5. Also the "Whig" Party identified by RBC is likely to be called the "Conservative Party" since that was the actual name of the only organized opposition party to exist in the South during the civil war (the Conservative Party of North Carolina to which the governor of North Carolina, Zebulon Vance, was a member; Vance used to be in the Whig party before it collapsed).

    I also doubt the Democratic Party would disappear after a few elections.