Interrogating the Project of Military History

March 25  - Counterfactuals can be of two kinds.  Up until now I have discussed only "plausible world" counterfactuals, and Prof. Lebow's nine criteria are intended to apply to that variety.  "Plausible world counterfactuals are intended to impress readers as realistic; they cannot violate the readers' understanding of what was technologically, culturally, temporally or otherwise possible."  But there are also what he terms "miracle" counterfactuals--for example, "If Bosnian [Moslems] had been blue-nosed dolphins, NATO would not have allowed their slaughter."  Because counterfactuals are simply thought experiments, "miracle" counterfactuals have as much utility as their "plausible world" cousins.  They are especially useful for purposes of theory building and testing.   "The value of such counterfactuals is based entirely on their ability to provoke, or better yet, compel researchers to think about issues and problems they would not otherwise address, or look at them in a new light."  One of the better "miracle" counterfactuals I have encountered is Harry Turtledove's novel Guns of the South, which asks what would have happened if, on the eve of the Virginia Campaign, Lee's army had received a sudden, mysterious supply of AK-47s!

Well, Lee didn't receive a supply of AK-47s--or much of anything else--and my counterfactual assessment of his generalship during the Virginia Campaign will be of the "plausible world" variety and will employ Prof. Lebow's "plausible world" criteria (see entry 22).  My methodology is simple:  I will take a few of the key decisions Lee made during the campaign and postulate that, if he had chosen differently, the result would have enabled him to retain significant freedom of maneuver rather than to be chained to the defense of Richmond-Petersburg.  As "consequents" go, that one is pretty mild.  A better "consequent," if I had more latitude, would be that the Confederacy won the Civil War or Lincoln was not reelected.  But my assignment limits me to the realm of Lee's generalship in May 1864, and it would be a stretch for anything Lee might have done during that period to result in either of those outcomes.  A plausible world counterfactual resulting in Confederate independence would be much better situated earlier in the war (a decisive Confederate victory at Gettysburg is the usual candidate).  And to unseat Lincoln in the election of 1864, a better antecedent would be if Confederate generals Joe Johnston or John B. Hood had managed to prevent Union general William T. Sherman from capturing Atlanta.

Freeman's chapter "'Rapidan to Petersburg' in Review" identifies sixteen key decision points during Lee's campaign.  In his view, Lee made most of these decisions correctly, and those he made incorrectly were not fatal in result.  Freeman thinks that Grant, by contrast, made a number of bloody mistakes but nevertheless won by the unflinching application of superior force.  His assessment of Grant's generalship is similar to that of Confederate artillerist E. Porter Alexander:  "[Grant] was no intellectual genius, but he understood arithmetic. . . . [He] knew that if one hundred thousand men couldn't [defeat Lee] two hundred thousand might, & that three hundred thousand would make quite sure to do it. That was the game which he deliberately set out to play."  Grant in fact did not deliberately set out to wage of a campaign of attrition, but for the sake of argument let's accept the assertion that he did.  Both men believe that to select such a strategy shows that Grant was Lee's inferior as a general because he failed to fight as Lee would have done.  Which seems an odd assessment, given that they also think the strategy Grant selected was so robust that even serious mistakes on Grant's part, and the most brilliant generalship on Lee's, could not defeat it.  It's as if they think Grant would have been a better general if he had discarded a strategy that offered a one hundred percent chance of victory in favor of a strategy that played Lee's game and thereby carried significant risk of failure.

In effect, then, Freeman argues that no matter what Lee did, he could not have won the campaign.  Ultimately, then, his implicit counterfactual scenario is different from mine:  If Lee had chosen differently at this-or-that point, Grant would have won the campaign decisively, and the war would likely have ended in 1864, not 1865.  But that's not a very interesting counterfactual, at least from the standpoint of evaluating Lee's generalship.

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