And The South Rose: 4 Hypothetical Scenarios if the Confederacy Won the Civil War

Reader's Digest

As much fun as it is to discuss historical facts, it is arguably more fun to imagine different hypothetical outcomes. We know that the North won the American Civil War but what if the South had emerged victorious? According to Abraham Lincoln, it was a war that didn’t just determine the future of the U.S.; it would also decide the future of mankind.

Although this might seem like hyperbole on Honest Abe’s part at first, deeper thought suggests he was not that far off the mark. That American history would be irrevocably changed isn’t debatable. Slavery would have continued in some form for years, if not decades, after the conflict. While some may argue that the USA is more like the Divided States of America in the modern era, this schism would have been even more marked in the event of a Confederate victory.

Then there is the issue of world history. The United States became embroiled in a number of wars; most notably World War II where its intervention played a significant role in the Allied victory. If a Confederated States of America (CSA) lasted that long, how would it impact the outcome of WWII and indeed the other wars the U.S. was ultimately embroiled in?

While it is unlikely that the South could have won via unconditional surrender, it was possible for them to fight to a stalemate and negotiate a settlement whereby the South seceded from the Union to form the CSA. The whole ‘how could the South have won the Civil War’ question will be answered in more detail at another date. However, a victory at Antietam could have shifted momentum in the South’s favor. Further poor performance by the North under Lincoln could theoretically have led to the election of Gerald McClellan as President in 1864. Although some historians disagree, McClellan may have sued for peace to end the war.

In this article, I will look at 4 possible scenarios which look at what America might have looked like had the Confederates defeated the Union. For the sake of argument, scenario #3 will briefly include an alternate history where the South achieved an unlikely military victory.

Please note that these are scenarios and as such, they are simply speculation. As none of the following situations ever occurred, we can’t say for sure whether they could have happened let alone would have happened. I invite readers to comment and offer their scenarios as we get a debate going. Let’s start!

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  • Chris Herman

    The scenarios mention WWII, WWII, the Cold War, and other global events after 1865 as though they would’ve been inevitable. However, a victory by the South would’ve ultimately caused such large historical ripples that these events would have either played out differently or not at all. For example, assuming WWI still would’ve occurred, a divided US would’ve had considerably less impact on the outcome even if it had been involved. That could have resulted in victory for Germany and the other Central Powers thereby reducing the likelihood the Nazis would come to power and start WWII.

  • Tom Doss III

    I will address just one thing that is wrong in this analysis: The South would have become an economic powerhouse because the crippling tariffs imposed by the Union would would not have been present in the harbors of the lower southern coast, Galveston, and especially New Orleans. A huge amount of traffic would prefer those ports and not those of the North, especially New York.

    • Riley Hall

      No it wouldn’t have, because most European countries ended up replacing Southern Cotton with Egyptian. The South’s biggest export would have been of far, far less value.

      • Frito Pendejo

        Yup. Cotton is fairly hardy and could be grown in many parts of the world. The notion that the South had a hammerlock on the trade simply isn’t true. The same is true of tobacco and rice, two other major exports. It’s unlikely that the nascent manufacturing centers of Richmond, Atlanta, and Birmingham would’ve been enough to sustain the South in the world economy.

    • Grei Walker

      It’s also interesting that the entire premise is based on two logical fallacies; 1 – That the war was actually necessary to end slavery in the United States. 2 – That the South would’ve never adapted its economy beyond cotton, or even farming in general.

    • Kobrakai7272

      But the South had no industrial base, no money to build an industrial base, and no raw materials to give them a competitive advantage over their northern neighbor. The one thing they had that the world wanted was cotton, which required low cost labor and which burns through soil nutrients.

    • Jeremy Jay Lee Austin-Skidmore

      That would only be possible if the south had developed industrially. (Not saying it wouldn’t have, but I am saying it’s a prerequisite.)

      • James Michael Crain

        First, cotton continued to be an economic powerhouse into the 1950s, despite the absence of slaves (sharecroppers took their place) and worn-out soil. Second, the South DID develop an industrial base — the Birmingham area is but the most prominent example. Third, the institution of slavery would have been continued, even if it were shown to be inefficient, on the basis that it was necessary to control the “inferior,” “subhuman” blacks in the South. Indeed, Art I, Sect. IX, Para 4 of the Confederate Constitution prohibited any law “…denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves…” I grew up in the south during the ’50s and ’60s, and it took the US Army (or the threat of it) to even get schools integrated.

        • Jeremy Jay Lee Austin-Skidmore

          I never denied cotton would remain a cash crop; I ‘would like to’ believe slavery would have died off on it’s own within a decade.

          As to my ACTUAL (and mostly glossed over) comment; Mere survival (through and) after the war would have demanded STRONG industrial development- Far more than happened in actuality.
          I can’t (and won’t) say that could never have happenef, only that it was a prerequisite.

          • James Michael Crain

            It is far from impossible for a nation to survive without an industrial base. Southern Rhodesia, even after expulsion from the Commonwealth and the more-or-less intense guerrilla war, was economically viable with no real hint of industry. Indeed, throughout most of Africa and much of Asia and South America, industry is a marginal if not altogether lacking element of national economies.

            It is also nearly impossible to realize the visceral and deeply ingrained racism of the South even during the centennial of the Civil War if you have not witnessed it. The largest commitment of US military force between the Korean War and the Vietnam War (excluding the movement of forces towards Cuba in October 1962) was at Oxford, Mississippi on the occasion of James Meredith’s forced enrollment into the University of Mississippi. I am certain that, had the South separated from the union, it would have retained slavery to this very day — and regularly hanged any white agitators who suggested it be abolished. It was not until the forced integration of schools and public accommodations, and the enforcement of the right of Blacks to vote, that the vast majority of southern whites abandoned that mindset.

  • Mark Symms

    Good thought provoking article. My theory is that if the South had won at Antietam, a whole other scenario that would be the four times the South could have won, slavery would have been over by the late 1880’s like Brazil. Relations with the European countries would have given us an aparthied like system. I fear that in this scenario, Huey Long and his brown shirts subdue the other parties in the Confederacy in the 1930’s depression era. Huey then aligns with other Facists and we have WWII right in our own back yard. Every man a king is pretty powerful to someone scrambling to feed his family. The South would have probably lost this war and it would have been just as ugly as the Dresden bombings. Civilians would have been targeted too.

    • Patrick Lynch

      Thanks for the comment Mark; and for your own input; that is one grim scenario!

    • Luke Sandman

      Gettysburg could have possibly flipped the entire conflict on its head even after Antietam. Not saying that it was not a pivotal battle, just that Gettysburg was the point of no return

    • J. Martelino

      Huey Long was closer politically to the communists than the fascists. Huey Long also was, for his time, progressive in his racial views, going against the entrenched landowner and propertied classes.

    • Austexchili

      Read Harry Turtledove’s novels about a USA/CSA scenario in the 20th Century.

  • Luke Sandman

    This is must be the most rediculous thing I have ever forced myself to read, just to see how stupid it would get. How is it that someone gets to spew this crap and claim it as even speculation??? This individual references “slave revolts” that were 70 years apart, if it was 10 or less (or at least within a generation) I could understand it’s train of thought. And saying that once the war broke out, there was no “certainty of freedom” that is the biggest crock of S#!T I have ever read. How about helping the men that are dying for your freedom…. wouldn’t that be swell, or maybe even fight for it yourself??? Thinking like this is what is wrong with the United States today. Somewhere along the line someone has to actually fight for the freedoms they seek. You used to have to earn your place at the big-boy table, now we give out participation trophys, and wonder why we cant have an election without the losing side’s supporters looting and rioting on metropolitan areas.

    PS…. Sorry, I was wrong to say 70 years apart, it was roughly 61. Someone Google the life expectancy in the 1850-1870 timeframe and see what you get.

    • Tonya Gregg

      You need to read a little-known book titled, “Flames and Vengeance: The East Texas Fires and the Presidential Election of 1860.” Based entirely on period primary sources, it shows that the fear of a slave revolt was alive and well in the South in the summer of 1860.

  • William Estes

    Good scenarios. But I wonder if the border states would have joined with a victorious South. The second thing I wonder is how the Monroe Doctrine would have still attempted to be enforced with a divided America. With France in Mexico would other European powers attempt more influence in North and South America?

  • David Osterman

    I don’t think there could ever have been any kind of peace between the North and South; Lincoln with his relentless lawyers logic had already pointed out that separation would not answer Southern greivances (the border was too long and not separated by natural boundaries, the fugitive slave laws still not be enforced, there would still be battles over who got what in the western territories, etc); the biggest factor in Union victory was that Kentucky, Western Virginia and Tennessee and Maryland never broke from the Union; the northern US would either have had to succumb to a slave economy or plead for protection from the British Empire, making the Ohio River an international boundary;imagine a CSA industrial economy based on slavery and a white underclass and guess whose side they might have taken in World Wars One and Two

  • pyotr

    Once the South is successful – a _lot_ changes/ does not happen. The Cattle Drives of the 1870s don’t happen – there is now an international border between Texas and Kansas. The Spanish-American war is straight off – is the US going to get involved in a war over territory which is so much closer to the CS? (Alternately, there is a Spainish “American” War fought by the CS against Spain, and only over Cuba.) No Admiral Dewey taking Manila, or Guam etc. And Alaska – I doubt that deal goes through. Knock-ons there are large as well.

    • NDP2

      The purchase of Alaska is just one event that happened shortly after the end of the Civil War that would’ve likely turned out differently if the South won. One reason Russia sold Alaska to the US was to prevent the British from seizing it. However, if the US had refused or been unable to buy the territory, Russia was actually willing to sell it to the British since that way they’d be able to get some money out of it as opposed to losing the vulnerable far-flung piece of the empire militarily.

  • The 1864 presidential election was between Lincoln and John C McLellan, former commander of the Army of the Potomac. The Democratic platform was to end the war immediately, leaving the Confederacy intact. So if the Democrats had won in either 1860 or 1864, the South could have kept their slaves.

    • GMMI

      Actually, the commander of the Army of the Potomac from July 26, 1861 to November 5, 1862 was George Brinton McClellan.

      • My bad. Trying to work from memory

  • Pc Coker

    Great scenarios. For a Charlestonian, my contention is that Charleston would have become the premier east coast seaport for the Confederate States of America. Instead Charleston endured an eighty year depression with very short economic good times. It was the influx of the US Navy during World War II that saved its economy and the following Cold War naval build up.
    Another scenario would have been to expand the Confederacy southward to Cuba and Central America. That might of started a war with the USA if she chose to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, but by taking over these areas the CSA could have become an economic powerhouse of its own, particularly if it had built the Panama Canal instead of the USA.
    Another point is the South and the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1920s. The book, the Fourth Ghost, shows the similarity of the South politically and culturally to Fascism. An interesting read even if you do not agree with it but the similarities are there.
    Another interesting read is Our Man in Charleston which shows that the importation of slaves from Africa did not end in 1808 but continued clandestinely until the Civil War. If the CSA had won the importation would have expanded.

  • DOCS

    The most incredible thing about the Civil War was how many men who never owned slaves fought and died so that wealthy men could keep human slaves. It’s almost as incredible how many of their descendants are somehow proud of this…

  • Morrill Turpitude

    The slave revolt scenario is BS. There was only a handful of slave revolts that crossed county lines in US history. Abolitionists were discredited during the Civil War by predicting massive slave rebellions which never materialized. One of the causes of Northern anti-Civil War riots in the North was by whites who were willing to fight a war to preserve the Union, but not willing to fight a war to end slavery the slaves themselves were unwilling to fight.

    • Karl Humphreys

      Although you make some good points. I do want to point out as a historian myself, that your Historian friends gave you some very incorrect information about abolutionist being political failures and having no control in congress or a White House win prior to the Civil War. The Republican party was created on an antislavery platform and the most obvious White House win was that of Abraham Lincoln. While it may be argued that his election precipitated the Civil War he was definately elected before it occured. And if might be of note that the Republican party, politically dominated the northern states by 1858 a full 3-years prior to the war and by 1860 had control of congress. It’s interesting that they were able to dominate, seeing that the Republican party had only come into existance in 1854. Their meteroric rise, acccording to popular theory is credited to the parties oppositon to the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise by which slavery was kept out of Kansas and against the enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. It’s also interesting that just two years after the Republican parties creation, in 1856, that the platform against slavery had become so popular in such a short time, that John Fremont, the Republican parties first presidential candidate carried 11 out of the 34 states–coincidently that is the same number of southern states that eventually secede from the union. The Republican campaign slogan used that year was; “Free Soil, Free Men, and Frémont.” It is postulated that Fremont might have actiually won had it not been a three-way race..

  • Daryl Ready

    Grey Victory was a good read, about after the south won. Slavery was on its way out and would not have lasted much longer. The civil war was about states rights, not slavery