Thursday, September 20, 2012

Interview: Roger L. Ransom

I present my interview with Roger L. Ransom, author of The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been?:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Berkeley, California in the fall of 1938 and spent my early years moving back and forth between California and New Jersey – with a brief stop in England right after World War II.  At an early age I developed an avid interest in history – particularly military history.   While in England I started a collection of lead soldiers – a hobby that I still pursue today by building little models to fight in games of Warhammer 40K with my grandsons.

I graduated from Reed College in 1959 with a BA in economics.  Unable to decide what to do next, I decided to enter the graduate economics program at the University of Washington, where I discovered that I could combine my long time interest in history with a more recently acquired taste in economic theory.  After teaching economics for four years at the University of Virginia, I headed back to California in the fall of 1967 with my Wife, Connie and our two girls.  I spent a year visiting at the University of California before accepting a position as an associate professor of economics at the University of California Riverside.

While I was at Berkeley Richard Sutch and I established the Southern Economic History Project; an enterprise eventually led to the publication of One Kind of Freedom – a book about emancipation and the postbellum South that was well received and is still on many reading lists for courses on Reconstruction.  My collaboration with Richard continued for the next three decades with articles on savings, retirement, and the labor force in the 19th century.

In 1984 I moved from the economics department to the History Department at UCR; a change that got me teaching courses on the Civil War and eventually World War I.  My research focus over past two and a half decades has increasingly focused on an effort to make sense of war.  I won’t venture to say how successful these efforts have been; the visible results of my studies can be found in the articles and two books that I have written since 1985.

It has been my great fortune to be able to do something that I really love to do: teach and write about a subject that I think is an essential part of the human experience from earliest times to the present.  History is the study of past events that have shaped the present and will shape the future, and how societies meet the problem posed by wars and economic change are at the very heart of what we call the emergence of the modern world.

What got you interested in counterfactuals?

My interest in counterfactual analysis stems from a natural curiosity that I think is shared by virtually everyone who wonders “what if” things worked out differently.  My curiosity was further peaked as I encountered the ways in which economists tried to test robustness of their theoretical “models” or “hypotheses” by applying under several different sets of circumstances to the outcome of their analysis.  Quantitative economic history – or Cliometrics as it is now called – is sometimes described as “predicting the past with ever greater precision.”  If you think about it, that’s not much different from predicting the future – though the precision in the results tends to fall off when you lose the advantage of 20-20 hindsight.

My first effort at counterfactual economic history was my PhD thesis, which asked how much difference the Ohio Canal made to economic growth in the period 1820-1850.  The analysis imagined what the economy of Eastern Ohio at that time would have looked like without the Ohio Canal.  I concluded that the canal did make a big enough difference over a couple of decades to consider them a successful investment by the state, even though the introduction of railroads in the 1850s greatly reduced the reliance on canals over the next half century.

Since that first effort, counterfactual analysis has played some sort of a role in most of my research, particularly my work on war and economics.  In 1998 I decided to finally tackle the one counterfactual problem that always fascinated me, but always seemed too big to tackle: What if the South won the Civil War?  My efforts led to the publication in 2005 of The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been?.  Looking back over my years of work, this book has in many ways been the most satisfying research effort of my career.  It certainly was the most fun!

Do you feel counterfactuals can be useful in the classroom?

I used counterfactual references all the time in my class, but I was careful to warn my students that this is an approach that must be used with caution.  My view of counterfactual history is that to be useful as a teaching tool it must be based on a solid understanding of the “real” facts before you begin imagining what “might have been”. In The Confederate States of America I presented a “menu” that advised writers to make their counterfactual story two parts historical reality; one part commonsense, and one part imagination. Despite this warning, I find that students who try their hand at counterfactual exercises tend to let their imagination get out of hand and go off the deep end in constructing “alternative worlds”.   A fundamental problem facing writers of counterfactual history is that you can never prove or disprove a statement about events that never actually happened.  As a critic of one of my earlier efforts pointed out, “counterfactual history is rather like hunting dragons; you can’t catch them because they don’t exist!”

That said raising counterfactual questions about what might have been is an effective way of getting students to think about the problem we are studying.  The issue of whether or not the South could have won the Civil War has dominated American historians’ approach to the conflict ever since Jubal Early insisted that they could not have won (even if, as he thought, they should have)!  Teaching the Civil War offers unlimited opportunities to spring such questions.  I do so primarily to dispel any notion my students may have that history is destined to follow some predetermined path.  My own iron law of history is “Remember, things could have been different!”

Can you give us an example of a student letting their counterfactual get out of hand?

I have seldom encouraged my students to undertake counterfactual assignments.  I did assign a paper in a undergraduate senior seminar several years ago when I had just finished a draft of the CSA book.  I gave my students MS copies of all the chapters except the last -- and told them to give me ideas for the final chapter to the book.  Most of the responses were pretty tame, but one that stood out was by a Poli Sci major who wrote a brilliant counterfactual analysis arguing that because the CSA Judicial system was very weak, it was likely that the CSA would become a evolve into a one-party system.  It was a bit of a stretch, but very well done.  Another student worked his story to World War I and had the Germans attack the Panama Canal to touch off the war.  Most of my students took my warnings about carrying things too far seriously and were very cautious.

What is The Confederate States of America about?

When I set out to write the book I laid out three broad objectives.  The first was to make one last attempt to explain why war – which is always the worst way to resolve political crises – turned out to be the only way to resolve the conflict between the states.  My answer was that the economic issues surrounding the slave question trumped any attempts at peaceful solutions.  [Chapter 1].  Next, I wanted to settle the question of whether or not the South could have won the war.  After reviewing the events of the war, my answer was that the South certainly could have won – but the odds certainly favored a Northern victory.  [Chapters 2 & 3]  Finally, I wanted to offer my conjecture of what the world would have been like if the South had won the war.  Based on what I had learned, my answer was that it would not have been a good thing for any Americans – and particularly not for African-Americans – if the Confederacy had won.  [Chapters 4 & 5]

What inspired you to write your counterfactual history?

The first time I remember seriously thinking about the consequences of a Southern victory in the Civil War was in 1953, when I read a novel by Ward Moore titled Bring the Jubilee.  The story involved sending someone back in time who inadvertently changed the outcome at Gettysburg and led to a Confederate victory.  Moore imagined a prosperous CSA that extended into Latin America while the USA languished after the defeat.  That outcome puzzled me, since in the 1950s most the antebellum South was hardly viewed as a monolithic economic and political force that could eventually rule all of South America.  A few years later I came across McKinlay Kantor’s book, If the South Had Won the Civil War.  Kantor’s book was part of the Civil War Centennial Commemoration, and he imagined that the U.S. and the C.S.A. had cooperated with each other after the dust of the Civil War had finally settled to win two world wars and were on the verge of a peaceful re-union in 1960.  This was certainly a fitting theme for the centennial commemoration, but I found it a bit of a stretch to believe that things could have gone that smoothly.

When I started teaching Civil War in the 1980s I revisited my thoughts on a Confederate victory.  I was struck by the fact that although there were many essays outlining how the South could have won enough battles to be victorious in the war, no one since Kantor had bothered to explore the further implications of that victory.  In 1997 Harry Turtledove’s book, How Few Remain: A Novel of the Second War Between the States told an independent South that had won the Civil War, fought and won a second war with the North.  How Few Remain was the first in a series of counterfactual accounts written by Turtledove that traced the path of an independent CSA from 1865 to the end of a counterfactual account of World War II.

The counterfactual world depicted in Turtledove’s novels was a far cry from that put forward by either MacKinlay Kantor or Ward Moore.  I decided the time had come for me to seriously consider the question of what might have happened had the South won the Civil War.  In 1999 "Fact and Counterfact: The 'Second American Revolution' Revisited," appeared in Civil War History and presented the outline for the story I eventually fleshed out in The Confederate States of America.

What sources were particularly helpful when researching for the novel?

By the time I started my book, I had already researched and published my ideas on slavery, the war, and the consequences of emancipation.  One of the nice things about counterfactual history is that since you are making up a story, you do not need sources for the portion of the book dealing with the years following the Southern victory.  However, I did need to come up with a plausible story for a Southern Victory.  The area of research that proved most fruitful for me was the vast literature dealing with why the South lost the war.   By examining the reasons cited by historians explaining South’s defeat I was able to pinpoint some turning points when things could have gone better for Southern hopes.

My counterfactual story of what might have been was based on four factors that were consistently cited as reasons for the Confederate defeat:

1] The South lost the three most important battles in the war: Shiloh, Antietam and, of course Gettysburg.  Clearly, all of these conflicts must turn more favorably for the South if they are to gain their independence.

2] Time was not on the side of the South.  Lee could not keep winning victories forever, and it is interesting to note that recent essays dealing with the prospect of a Southern victory have moved the focus from Gettysburg to Lee’s 1862 invasion of Maryland that ended with the battle of Antietam as the turning point that won the war.

3] Whatever the course of events on the battlefield, Lincoln had to be defeated in 1864.  Lincoln was the backbone of the Union War effort.  His unwillingness to compromise on the issue of slavery as a means of reaching agreement to end the war was a key element prolonging the war to a point where Northern economic and military strength could eventually prevail.

4] The South might also have fared better if key generals had not been killed fairly early in the war.  More than a few Southern historians have lamented the death of Albert Sydney Johnston at Shiloh and Stonewall Jackson at Antietam.  One of the more interesting elements of McKinlay Kantor’s account of a Northern victory was the demise of both Grant and Sherman at or shortly after Shiloh.

I learned from historians who pointed out all of these points. The final conclusion I drew from this research was that no single battle or event would be sufficient to change the outcome – but a series of early setbacks to Union hopes might at least make a Southern victory plausible.

In your novel you have the Confederacy defeated and annexed back into the United States following an alternate World War I. How would the former Confederacy deal with being once again part of the United States?

One of the most difficult tasks writing about counterfactual world is know when to end your story.  It is, as someone once commented to me, “sort of like learning how to spell banana – you don’t know when to stop.”  At some point your story will have lost touch with “what actually happened” and you are simply making up whatever comes to mind.  Imagination has replaced reality.  I had decided early on in my writing project that I would stop my story at the First World War – which I believe would probably have happened whoever won the Civil War.  Like Harry Turtledove, I believe that the USA and the CSA would both have been drawn into the global conflict at the outset of war in Europe.  For the U.SA and C.S.A. it would have been the equivalent of a Third Civil War.  Rather than try to re-invent that war, I chose to cut to the chase and simply declare the United States and its ally Germany would be victorious.  My epilogue (which I confess was something of a reluctant afterthought) imagines a situation where in return for peace the C.S.A. agrees to some degree of United States sovereignty over Confederate territory.

I deliberately refrained from spelling out the details of this reunion because frankly, I seriously doubt that the reintegration of all or part of the CSA could have gone smoothly if the South lost a war to the North in 1918.  Military defeat seldom dampens nationalistic spirit of the vanquished people, though it may force them to retreat from active political action for a while.  Judging by the events that we know from the historical record of Reconstruction following Lee’s surrender in 1865, I would hardly expect that the Confederates Nationalists would be receptive to Union forces appearing in the South following a defeat in 1918.

That is why I have been telling my audiences that losing the Civil War is the best thing that ever happened to the South.  Against their will they were tied to one of the greatest engines of economic growth the world has ever seen, and although it took a while, they eventually profited from that growth.  I have argued for years that the American South of today is a far better place to be – particularly for African Americans that any plausible world where the South won the Civil War

Do you believe the Confederacy would have been unable to survive to the present day?

I paint a rather dark picture of the CSA’s future in my book, but I certainly would not go so far as saying that the Confederacy could not have survived.  Of course it could.  A victorious Confederacy would not be the picture of gloom and dejection that we know from a prostrate South after defeat in the Civil War.   The South in 1860 was one of the wealthiest nations in the world according to our traditional measure of per capita gross national product.  The war did not remove all that wealth.

To be sure, in my world following the end of the war I make it clear that they would have a hard task ahead of them.  Several things might help the C.S.A. economy to prosper.  First, and most important, Southerners would eventually emancipate their slaves.  In my book, I argue this would come sooner, not later because of the collapse of the world cotton market.  I should point out that I am not alone in this suggestion; indeed the idea that the South would probably have emancipated their slaves even without a war has gains considerable currency of late.  In my book I explain the politics and economics that might make emancipation feasible – one of which was breaking free from the United States.  The other thing that would have helped Southerners recover from the war would be a political and economic alliance with England and probably France.  Over time this would change the shape of politics and economic arrangement throughout the Americas, and the demise of the Monroe Doctrine would allow Confederates and their European Allies to establish a colonial hegemony over Latin and South America that was precluded so long as the United States remained united.

American Civil War alternate histories are very popular.  Why do you think that is?

I’m not sure I know the answer to this.  Let me put forward a couple of possible factors for its popularity.

I think the popularity of Civil War histories – of any kind -- is a reflection of the fact that this war was the single historical event that defines the United States we live in today.  In his Gettysburg Address Lincoln managed to summarize the meaning and importance of the war as well as anyone before or since.   It was a test of whether or not the American System of government could survive and Gettysburg is seen by both sides of the conflict as the decisive battle of the war.  Simplistic as this may sound, the Union victory at Gettysburg has always had a powerful grip on people’s imagination in both the North and South, and as everyone knows by now, that battle was much closer than the debacle of Pickett’s charge suggests.  Lee was gambling everything on one last victory and he nearly got it.  People can’t resist speculating what a victory might have produced.

Another factor explaining why the Civil War is so popular with alternative historians is that a counterfactual Civil War makes for a great story precisely because it can turn on a single great battle that could (at least in their imagination) decide it all.   The American Civil War was the last major war where this would be the case.  By the end of the nineteenth century warfare had evolved into a situation where there were no “battles”; there were offensives that lasted not days, but weeks or months. Making alternative scenarios for these wars is tough sledding.  Gettysburg was the largest battle fought in the Civil War and it lasted only three days.  Shiloh took two days and Antietam took only a day.  Each of these battles was decisive enough for the outcome to have a huge impact in an important war.  Battles like the Somme, Verdun, or Stalingrad lasted for months.

Finally, I think Civil War battles gain so much counterfactual attention because the Confederate Rebels are such valiant, lovable losers and people want to find ways that they could win.  Who could not root for Robert E. Lee and his gritty veterans as they cross the Potomac and march north through Pennsylvania…only to meet defeat at Gettysburg?  Who could not root for Stonewall Jackson and his weary troops tramping through the brush at Chancellorsville to rout the right wing of an army twice as large as their own … only to see their general killed at day’s end?  And so on.  Thanks to Lee’s spectacular feats with the Army of Northern Virginia and a century and a half of cheers from advocates of the “Lost Cause,” the eastern theater of the American Civil War has become the premier theater of military counterfactual historians.

Of course, I may be exaggerating all this, but I remember growing up as a kid in New Jersey reading about the exploits of Lee and wondering how on earth could the South have lost the war with that guy on its side?  I know the answer to that question now, but I am still intrigued by how close it was.

A new book is going around suggesting that the South should be allowed to secede. Do you feel that the political differences today between the north and south are serious enough that secession should be considered again?

I probably should duck this question because I think that anyone who asks it already has their own answer firmly in place and nothing I say will change their views.

Secession in 1860 was all about slavery – the “rights” Southern States were fighting for all be reduced to the “right” to own slaves.  There were other issues, to be sure, but as I liked to remind my students, “Slavery may not be the only thing that matters here, but it is way, way ahead of whatever is in second place.”  Simply put, Southerners were fighting to protect their property – and roughly half that property was tied up in the value of slaves.  There is no issue today that remotely approaches the scale of the slave problem in the middle of the 19th century.

If it did nothing else, the American Civil War abolished the legal institution slavery, and no attempt has been made to reinstate it as a legal form of chattel labor.  Emancipating the slaves did not solve our race problem, nor did it provide anything close to equality for black Americans.  But it removed the single most important cause for fighting the Civil War.  The war also made a sufficiently strong statement about secession that no state has seen fit to try it again.  (There were two feeble tries prior to 1860; one by the New England States during the War of 1812, and one by South Carolina in 1833 over the right to nullify Federal Laws.)

As for the divisions in 21st century America, I don’t see any set of issues dividing America today that could be so clearly compartmentalized into geographic areas that should or should not secede.  The political, economic and social differences produced by slavery in the middle of the 19th century could be easily defined by the presence or absence of slave property.  Even if the divisions among us today were strong enough and the boundaries clear enough, would secession resolve any of the underlying issues?  Succession did not resolve any of the problems in 1860; it only led to the bloodiest war in American history.

A final thought would be to ask if secession for the U.S. today would be any better than the threatened disintegration of the European Union is for Europeans today.  I doubt it.

I could go on at some length, but I think the point is made.

Who designed the cover?

The cover design was managed by W.W. Norton.  I like it, but I had no input on the design.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

I have cut my workload back since I retired from UCR in 2008.  I am currently working on an essay and bibliography dealing with the costs and consequences of the Civil War.  My larger research efforts are on a book manuscript that is tentatively titled “Confidence, Fear and a Propensity to Gamble: War and economics in the Twentieth Century”.  The book will focus on the period between the outbreak of war in 1914 through the Great Depression and the end of World War II.

For more on my current stuff see my website or you can contact me at clioscribbler at gmail dot com.

What are you reading now?

I am currently reviewing a long list of readings that will wind up the bibliography of my essays on costs and consequences of the Civil War.  One of my more serious readings at the moment is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  I had hoped that it would show me how to think faster, but alas, that does not seem to be the case.  It has, however, given me a good deal of thought about “prospect theory” and the causes of war.

Do you have advice for would-be authors?

Though I know the value of research, I have always thought that what makes a book “great” – or not – is the idea that spawned it in the first place.  To that end, I tell would-be authors that the surest way to produce a good book is to start with a really good title. The title serves to remind you what you are supposed to be writing about.  When you find yourself wandering off on tangents – as you inevitably will when writing history – the title reminds you to get back on track.

My other piece of advice is that you have to believe in what you are writing.  Years ago William Parker, a well-known economic historian, was introducing my mentor at UW to a group of colleagues.  “Douglass North,” he said, “has never deigned to answer any of his critics because he is too busy leaping to his next great mistake”.  Each time I get some doubts about my how my current work is going, I remember Parker’s comment and say to myself: “Well, I guess it is time leap to my next great mistake.”  You need to have the courage to do be like Dough North.  After all how will anyone know it is a mistake if you don’t leap?

One final thought: Douglass North won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1993.

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