In late July, HBO announced its forthcoming alternate history series Confederate, a show that will take place in a world in which the South successfully seceded from the Union and the institution of slavery persisted.
The backlash was immediate. Some decried it for being the brainchild of two white men, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. In the New York Times, Roxane Gay compared it to “slavery fan fiction.” Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in the Atlantic that it would perpetuate the South’s enduring belief in the “Lost Cause,” which celebrates the Civil War as a heroic struggle and minimizes the role of slavery in the conflict.
Then the tragic events of Charlottesville happened, and some people started saying that the fictional scenario of the South winning the Civil War was happening in real life. Jamie Broadnax, a leader of the Twitter boycott group #NoConfederate, insisted that the “alternate history of what the South would be like if it won [the war]…is play[ing] out right before our eyes.”
“People have been joking on social media,” she declared. “But it’s really the truth…we’ve already seen episode one of Confederate.”
At times, this may seem to possess nuggets of truth. After all, plenty of people in the South continue to defend Confederate “heritage,” whether it’s in the form of monuments, flags or building names. And the timing of a series on the Confederacy winning the Civil War could easily be misunderstood given ongoing racial tensions in the United States.
But as a historian who studies counterfactual histories, I think the critics of Confederate are mistaken to suggest that today’s racial tensions make the HBO series redundant, or that imagining a world in which the South won is inherently apologetic to the Confederate cause.
They overlook the fact that alternate histories of the Civil War have long existed, with each possessing its own agenda. Many mirror the concerns of the era in which they were created. Some have leaned to the right, while others have leaned to the left. Some fantasize about how things might have turned out better, while others offer nightmarish scenarios of a world in which events could have been much, much worse.
By holding a mirror up to society and reflecting its aspirations and shortcomings, alternative histories can advance our national dialogue about the legacy of slavery and the Civil War.
A fantasy and a nightmare
In 1930, British politician Winston Churchill published an essay in Scribner’s Magazine called “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.”
As the title indicates, the essay is an alternate history within an alternate history. It’s narrated by an unnamed writer who inhabits a world in which the South won the war, and reflects on how much worse history would have been had the South been defeated.
In this imaginary world, Robert E. Lee is able to triumph only after agreeing to abolish slavery, which convinces the British to support the Confederacy. The South and North then split into two nations and go their separate ways.
But at the start of the 20th century, they join forces with Great Britain to form an imperial alliance. This has huge ramifications: It prevents the nations of Europe from going to war in 1914.
When writing this essay, Churchill clearly had contemporary concerns on his mind. His country had just emerged from the catastrophic Great War. What if it could have been avoided?
It also indicates that Churchill was concerned about the future of the British Empire. At the essay’s outset, the narrator expresses relief that northern forces didn’t win the war. Had they done so, he notes, they would have irresponsibly extended “equality” and suffrage to the “simple African race” and thereby brought “parliamentary government into…disrepute.”
At a time of growing anti-colonial movements — especially in India — the last thing avowed imperialists like Churchill wanted was for subjugated peoples to be inspired by the goals of social and political equality. Portraying a Confederate victory as a positive event that restores order, thus, was appealing to some.
At first glance, Churchill’s narrative lends credence to the claims of HBO’s critics that a Confederate victory in the Civil War can easily dovetail with racist fantasies.
But other tales — told from a more humane point of view — portray a Confederate victory as a nightmare. In 1953, the American writer Ward Moore published his classic novella “Bring the Jubilee.” It, too, was set in a world in which the South won the Civil War. But it devoted less attention to its impact on the South than on the North.
Tellingly, Moore inverted real history, with the defeated North reacting to military defeat in the same way as the South did — by scapegoating African-Americans in a violent campaign of lynching and forced deportation.
The book ends on a note of tragic irony when its protagonist — having accidentally gone back in time and helped the North defeat the South — thinks he’s improved the course of history, only to realize that the craven compromises following the election of 1876 portend the end of Reconstruction and the onset of Jim Crow.
A biting satire and a liberal pipe dream
A more recent alternate history was African-American filmmaker Kevin Willmott’s brilliant 2004 film C.S.A.
The biting satire took the form of a film within a film: a mock British documentary about the South’s victory in the Civil War that is broadcast — complete with bluntly racist commercials — to an American audience that remains under Confederate rule.
The film is unsparing; it’s the farthest thing from an endorsement of the “Lost Cause.” Not only does the South continue to oppress African-Americans by preserving chattel slavery (adapting it to modern technology), it also helps Hitler persecute the Jews, invades Latin America with the goal of subjugating Latinos and enslaves Asian laborers on the West Coast.
The unpredictable political valence of Civil War alternate histories was underscored, finally, by liberal journalist John Tierney’s 2006 New York Times op-ed “Disunited States of America.”
While in his fantasy, the Confederates win, he optimistically argues that a drop in world cotton prices in the 1870s would have led the South to unilaterally abolish slavery.
But the real meat of his vision emerges thereafter. The South’s secession, he argues, would have permitted the North to develop on its own without being held back by the reactionary states of the Confederacy. Written at a time when liberals were bemoaning the conservative administration of George W. Bush — who had been elected twice thanks to southern voters — Tierney’s essay expressed the belief of some northerners that they would be happier divorced from the states of the former Confederacy.
These narratives represent but a small fraction of the total number of alternate histories on the subject of the South winning the Civil War. But their diversity is representative, and should prompt critics of HBO’s Confederate to rethink their inclination to condemn the show as guilty until proven innocent.
In truth, it’s impossible to know how a southern victory in the Civil War would have changed the course of American history. Historians continue to debate whether slavery was compatible or incompatible with industrial capitalism, whether it would have continued into the present or died out on its own.
Yes, this ambiguity can create openings for misinterpreting the motives of writers, and a southern victory is a premise that understandably makes many recoil. But in stimulating debate about how the Civil War might have unfolded differently, alternate histories like Confederate can help advance our understanding of how it really was — and how its legacy may evolve in the future. As with all forms of cultural expression, the show’s fate should ultimately be determined in the free marketplace of ideas.