Monday, July 30, 2007

The "What If. . ." Problem

I was reorganizing my bookshelves a few days back when I found an old paperback copy of George Stewart's 1959 book, Pickett's Charge. I love old paperbacks, especially since I can read them easily while lying in bed, shortly before falling asleep. So I tucked the book under my arm, and when bedtime came, I opened it up and began reading. Now, I've read this book before but a very long time ago, so it seemed like I was reading it for the first time. Making my way through the introduction, I was struck by the following passage: "One thing I did not deal with," wrote Stewart, "was the 'if' problem. All that business in connection with the Civil War strikes me as absurd. I know of no other subject in history which attracts so many people to write about what did not happen, but might have happened in their imagination."
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I was particularly struck by this passage, because the 'if' questions are among the most frequent that we Park Rangers hear. It seems that hardly a day goes by that I do not get asked my opinion on a particular "what if. . ." question. "What if McClellan didn't get a hold of Special Orders No. 191?" "What if McClellan had used his entire army, instead of holding the 5th Corps in reserve?" "What if Grant would have been in command at Antietam?" And so on, and so on.
Of course, the "what if" questions are not confined to the battle of Antietam. "What if Lee had accepted Lincoln's offer to command the Union army at the outset of the war?" And, yes, the biggest "what if" question of them all: "What if Jackson would have been at Gettysburg?"
Now, I will admit that I do sometimes think about those "what if" questions. I even posed a few in my last blog on the Medal of Honor and the failed attack at the Crater. But perhaps Stewart was right. The "what if" questions, as I also mentioned in my last blog, sometimes strike me as a waste of time because there are no right answers, and no one's beliefs about, or answers to, the great "what if" questions are any more credible than another's. Some have made livings writing about "what did not happen, but have happened in their imagination," and some of these counterfactual works have done incredibly well. And while some of these works can be fun, seriously contemplating the "what ifs" of Civil War history seems like exercises in futility.
I had a conversation with a former seasonal ranger at Antietam about the frequency of "what if" questions we get asked at the park. He was quick to voice his frustration and even intolerance about being asked these questions, and I'll never forget his response to the above-mentioned greatest "what if" question of them all: "What if Jackson would have been at Gettysburg?" He said he got this question so many times, that he answered with: "Well, I imagine that if Jackson would have been at Gettysburg, his corpse would have smelled really, really bad. . .being dead two months and all."
I personally would never answer that question in such a manner, but I do still chuckle a bit when I think about his response.
It might be better, I think, to answer all such "what if" questions with another "what if. . .?"
"What if the founders of the nation held true to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution. . .that all men are created equal, and that all are endowed with certain unalienable rights. . .you know, to life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness."
But then again, if they did so. . .then I would have to find a new line of work!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Great post!

The "what if Stonewall had been at Gettysburg" question was adressed quite succinctly by Charlie Fennell during one of his tours. To the person asking he responded that Jackson would have stunk up the place. After a short pause, he followed with, "He'd been dead for a couple of months."