According to Renee de Groot, a graduate student in American Studies at Smith College, there have been 150 Civil War “alternative histories” (CWAHs) written since 1900.
Civil War alternate history merits consideration, if only as a testament to our continued fascination with the Civil War. Alternate history, in the broadest sense, is the practice of imagining alternative outcomes for episodes of the past that are alive to us today. The choice of episodes is not coincidental; they are moments we consider pivotal in determining the shape of our contemporary world. They may contain historical parallels that allow us to reflect on our present or contain agents and events that still capture our imagination. Very often, their true meaning in the course of history is still subject to debate. In the United States, the Civil War is a powder keg containing all of the above.
CWAHs have always been meaningful reflections of the ambiguous way American society looks back on its civil war. In contradiction to the adage that history is written by the victors, the popular memory of the war that stills looms large in American culture contains a curious sympathy with the losing side, even as it condemns the Confederacy’s motivations in the conflict. How many other nations erect statues to the leaders of a failed rebellion? Historians who have studied the memorialization of the Civil War argue that for at least a century, American popular consciousness embraced a culture of compromise meant to imaginatively reconcile the Union victory with the Southern refusal to let go of the Lost Cause. This national discourse cast the war as a tragic but honorable “brother’s war” and prioritized national harmony over a true reckoning with the war’s causes and costs. The abandonment of Reconstruction and the failure to check Jim Crow were among the results.
Read the entire piece at The Los Angeles Review of Books.
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