Churchill’s Fantasy: “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”

Churchill’s Fantasy: “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”

Excerpt­ed from the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. Why set­tle for the excerpt when you can read the whole thing ? Click here. 

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“Sir Winston’s Gettysburg essay… a fan­ta­sy which tran­scends all my objec­tions to explor­ing the what-ifs and might-have-beens in that great war.” —Shel­by Foote

“If Lee Had Not Won the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg” first appeared in Scribner’s Mag­a­zine, Decem­ber 1930 (Cohen C344). It resur­faced a year lat­er in a col­lec­tion of alter­nate his­to­ries, If It had Hap­pened Oth­er­wise (Cohen B43). Its last appear­ance, in 1975, was in The Col­lect­ed Essays of Sir Win­ston Churchill, (Cohen 286). A copy is avail­able by email for per­son­al use but not for repro­duc­tion. —RML

Paul Alkon on Churchill at Gettysburg

Dr. Paul A. Alkon was Bing Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. His appre­ci­a­tion of Churchill’s Get­tys­burg alter­na­tive his­to­ry is the best I’ve read. It is excerpt­ed below from Paul’s book, Win­ston Churchill’s Imag­i­na­tion, by kind per­mis­sion of Ellen Alkon. To this I added brief excerpts (ital­ics) from Churchill’s actu­al 1930 essay.

The Treaty of Harper’s Fer­ry, signed between the Union and Con­fed­er­ate States on 6 Sep­tem­ber 1863. It embod­ied “two, fun­da­men­tal propo­si­tions: that the South was inde­pen­dent, and the slaves were free.” —Churchill, 1930

1930: Gettysburg imagined

“Once a great vic­to­ry is won it dom­i­nates not only the future but the past…. Still it may amuse an idle hour [if] we med­i­tate for a spell upon the debt we owe to those Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers who by a death­less feat of arms broke the Union front at Get­tys­burg and laid open a fair future to the world.”1

Expe­ri­ence in bat­tle on four con­ti­nents gave Churchill a hor­ror of war. He also gained an abil­i­ty to imag­ine alter­nate sce­nar­ios. It is shock­ing to real­ize that the worst pos­si­ble out­come after the First World War came to be, just two decades lat­er. Con­tem­plat­ing the caus­es of that war, Churchill with his his­toric imag­i­na­tion con­jured up a sce­nario which might have pre­vent­ed it—in 1863.

“If Lee Had Not Won the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg,” is Churchill’s only free­stand­ing spec­u­la­tion about a dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal out­come. It is a clas­sic of the genre “alter­na­tive his­to­ry” in sci­ence fic­tion. Some his­to­ri­ans refer to it—often suspiciously—as “coun­ter­fac­tu­al history.”

Churchill presents his sto­ry as writ­ten in a world where Lee did win the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg. As a con­se­quence the South won the Amer­i­can Civ­il War. Implau­si­bly from our view­point, we are told that Lee’s vic­to­ry pre­cip­i­tat­ed a sequence of events lead­ing to the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, clos­er links among the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples, avoid­ance of the First World War, and the prospect of a Unit­ed States of Europe led by Kaiser Wil­helm II.

1863: Lee the Emancipator

“If Lee after his tri­umphal entry into Wash­ing­ton had mere­ly been the sol­dier, his achieve­ments would have end­ed on the bat­tle­field. It was his august dec­la­ra­tion that the vic­to­ri­ous Con­fed­er­a­cy would pur­sue no pol­i­cy towards the African negroes which was not in har­mo­ny with the moral con­cep­tions of West­ern Europe, that opened the high roads along which we are now march­ing so prosperously.”*

As the sto­ry unfolds, Lee’s army march­es vic­to­ri­ous­ly to Wash­ing­ton, Lincoln’s gov­ern­ment hav­ing fled to New York. Here Churchill must explain how Lee acquired ple­nary author­i­ty. Churchill deft­ly explains that Get­tys­burg threw Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis “irre­sistibly, indeed almost uncon­scious­ly, into the shade.” There is a grain of real­i­ty here, for Lee had warned Davis that slav­ery was the unac­cept­able wrong that would doom their cause. The North began the war fight­ing against Seces­sion, Churchill explains. But “the moral issue of slav­ery had first sus­tained and then dom­i­nat­ed the polit­i­cal quarrel.”

1905: The “English-Speaking Association”

Giv­en the North’s pre­pon­der­ance of wealth and indus­try, los­ing at Get­tys­burg would not have daunt­ed Abra­ham Lin­coln. But in Churchill’s vision, “Lee’s dec­la­ra­tion abol­ish­ing slavery…undermined the obdu­ra­cy of the North­ern States:

“Lin­coln no longer reject­ed the South­ern appeal for inde­pen­dence. ‘If,’ he declared…‘our broth­ers in the South are will­ing faith­ful­ly to cleanse this con­ti­nent of negro slav­ery, and if they will dwell beside us in good­will as an inde­pen­dent but friend­ly nation, it would not be right to pro­long the slaugh­ter on the ques­tion of sov­er­eign­ty alone’…. The Treaty of Harper’s Fer­ry, which was signed between the Union and Con­fed­er­ate States on 6 Sep­tem­ber 1863, embod­ied the two, fun­da­men­tal propo­si­tions: that the South was inde­pen­dent, and the slaves were free.”* 

The Unit­ed and Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­i­ca, riv­en after Get­tys­burg, thus become per­ma­nent republics. They live peace­ably side by side—both armed to the teeth—through 1905. When war scares erupt in Europe, they join with Great Britain to form the “Eng­lish-Speak­ing Asso­ci­a­tion.” The sig­na­to­ries are Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt, Prime Min­is­ter Arthur Bal­four, and Woodrow Wil­son, “the enlight­ened Vir­gin­ian chief of the South­ern Repub­lic.” Not a decade lat­er, the “E.S.A.” fore­stalls world catastrophe.

1914: “Saved! Saved! Saved!”

Every­one remem­bers the per­ilous days of 1914, Churchill writes. The mur­der of the Aus­tri­an Arch­duke pre­cip­i­tat­ed gen­er­al mobi­liza­tion. It was “the most dan­ger­ous con­junc­tion which Europe has ever known. It seemed that noth­ing could avert a war which might well have become Armaged­don itself.” Desul­to­ry fir­ing had already bro­ken out when the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Association

“…ten­dered its friend­ly offices to all the mobi­lized Pow­ers, coun­selling them to halt their armies with­in ten miles of their own fron­tiers, and to seek a solu­tion of their dif­fer­ences by peace­ful dis­cus­sion. The mem­o­rable doc­u­ment added ‘that fail­ing a peace­ful out­come the Asso­ci­a­tion must deem itself ipso fac­to at war with any Pow­er in either com­bi­na­tion whose troops invad­ed the ter­ri­to­ry of its neigh­bour.’ Although this suave yet men­ac­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion was received with indig­na­tion in many quar­ters, it in fact secured for Europe the breath­ing space which was so des­per­ate­ly required.”*

The French Repub­lic, the Emper­or Franz Joseph and Czar Nicholas quick­ly acced­ed to the E.S.A.’s “friend­ly offices.” The Ger­man Kaiser was the last to agree. Some say Wil­helm was deter­mined on war regard­less. Oth­ers insist he uttered “a scream of joy and fell exhaust­ed into a chair, exclaim­ing, ‘Saved! Saved! Saved!’”

Our world as dystopian and improbable

Churchill’s imag­i­nary res­i­dent of this imag­i­nary world spec­u­lates in vin­tage prose about what dread­ful events Lee’s vic­to­ry pre­vent­ed. Had the Union tri­umphed, armies of car­pet­bag­gers might have descend­ed to exploit the new­ly freed slaves. The South, sim­mer­ing in resent­ment, might have invoked racial oppres­sion. Ben­jamin Dis­raeli, that Lib­er­al reformer, might have become a Tory! “The sabres of Jeb Stu­art’s cav­al­ry and the bay­o­nets of Pick­ett’s divi­sion” turned William Glad­stone from a Lib­er­al to a “reviv­i­fied Con­ser­v­a­tive.” (In real­i­ty, of course, Dis­raeli was the Tory, Glad­stone the Lib­er­al.) Churchill wax­es lyri­cal in his fantasy:

“Once the per­ils of 1914 had been suc­cess­ful­ly avert­ed and the dis­ar­ma­ment of Europe had been brought into har­mo­ny with that already effect­ed by the E.S.A., the idea of a ‘Unit­ed States of Europe’ was bound to occur con­tin­u­al­ly. The glit­ter­ing spec­ta­cle of the great Eng­lish-Speak­ing com­bi­na­tion, its assured safe­ty, its bound­less pow­er, the rapid­i­ty with which wealth was cre­at­ed and wide­ly dis­trib­uted with­in its bounds, the sense of buoy­an­cy and hope which seemed to per­vade the entire pop­u­la­tions; all this point­ed to Euro­pean eyes a moral which none but the dullest could ignore.”*

The read­er sees from a sur­pris­ing­ly utopi­an per­spec­tive, our own world as both dystopi­an and implau­si­ble. So the nar­ra­tor men­tions Jan Bloch’s once-famous book, The Future of War, which pre­dict­ed with what proved remark­ably accu­rate mil­i­tary detail the dev­as­ta­tion that would attend war between major Euro­pean states. But Bloch insist­ed that such a war would nev­er hap­pen.2

But Churchill asks: Sup­pose it had? A pros­trate Europe might have descend­ed into depres­sion, unem­ploy­ment, Bol­she­vism and fas­cism. Why, today in Britain the income tax might even be 25%! (In actu­al­i­ty, as we sad­ly know, all those things happened.)

1932: Implausible reality

Wil­helm II in Sep­tem­ber 1933. (Ger­man Fed­er­al Archives pho­to by Oscar Telig­mann, pub­lic domain)

The bril­liance of Churchill’s essay also lies in his deci­sion to shift its nar­ra­tive view­point. We read­ers must not only con­sid­er the con­se­quences of a Con­fed­er­ate victory—including the absence of the First World War. We must also imag­ine how incon­ceiv­able our world might seem if things had worked out differently.

“Whether the Emper­or Wil­helm II will be suc­cess­ful in car­ry­ing the project of Euro­pean uni­ty for­ward by anoth­er impor­tant stage at the forth­com­ing Pan-Euro­pean Con­fer­ence at Berlin in 1932 is still a mat­ter of prophe­cy. Should he achieve his pur­pose he will have raised him­self to a daz­zling pin­na­cle of fame and honour…and no one will be more pleased than the mem­bers of the E.S.A. to wit­ness the grad­ual for­ma­tion of anoth­er great area of tran­quil­i­ty and coop­er­a­tion like that in which we our­selves have learned to dwell….”*

Churchill’s polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion also allows him to por­tray dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent out­comes of a sit­u­a­tion. So he invokes the implau­si­bil­i­ty of what actu­al­ly happened—the gigan­tic slaugh­ter of the Civ­il War and First World War. This fore­shad­ows the rhetoric which in 1940 ral­lied his coun­try by invit­ing con­tem­pla­tion of a Nazi vic­to­ry. Too many dis­missed such a thought. But Churchill knew a Hitler tri­umph would plunge the world “into the abyss of a new Dark Age.”

That chill­ing thought acquires much of its pow­er by invit­ing imag­i­na­tion of one pos­si­ble future: An alter­na­tive, feu­dal peri­od, and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment more accel­er­at­ed than any­thing dur­ing the medieval era.

“Broad, sunlit uplands”

In June 1940, Churchill invit­ed Britons to think of the worst pos­si­ble out­come of Britain’s fight against Hitler’s Germany—not as a unique sit­u­a­tion, incom­pa­ra­ble with any­thing that had gone before, but also an alter­na­tive past wrenched out of time. He then invokes the more desir­able out­come: “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move for­ward into broad, sun­lit uplands.”3 Churchill’s skill as an alter­na­tive his­to­ri­an notably enhanced the rhetoric that he so famous­ly mobi­lized for war.

“If this prize should fall to his Impe­r­i­al Majesty, he may per­haps reflect how eas­i­ly his career might have been wrecked in 1914 by the out­break of a war which might have cost him his throne, and have laid his coun­try in the dust. If today he occu­pies in old age the most splen­did sit­u­a­tion in Europe, let him not for­get that he might well have found him­self eat­ing the bit­ter bread of exile, a dethroned sov­er­eign and a bro­ken man loaded with unut­ter­able reproach. And this, we repeat, might well have been his fate, if Lee had not won the Bat­tle of Gettysburg.”*


1 Win­ston S. Churchill, “If Lee Had Not Won the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg,” in Michael Wolff, ed., The Col­lect­ed Essays of Sir Win­ston Churchill, 4 vols. (Lon­don: Library of Impe­r­i­al His­to­ry, 1975), IV Churchill at Large, 73. All sub­se­quent ital­i­cized excerpts (*) are from this edi­tion, pages 73-84.

2 Ivan (Jan) Bloch, The Future of War in Its Tech­ni­cal, Eco­nom­ic and Polit­i­cal Rela­tions: Is War Now Impos­si­ble?, trans. R.C. Long (Boston: Ginn, 1899). abridged edi­tion, also 1899.

3 “Their Finest Hour,” House of Com­mons, 18 June 1940, in Win­ston S. Churchill, Blood, Sweat, and Tears (New York: Put­nam, 1941), 314.

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