Marco Polo says that the Khan sent him back to Europe with a message for the Pope: Send me one hundred teachers of Christianity, and I will spread them throughout my Empire and teach my princes the ways of Christ. He goes on to report that the Pope denied the request, claiming that the appropriate clerics were all too busy. If true, the astonishing story quickly raises the speculation: What would the world be like today if Christian teachers had gone to eastern Asia in the thirteenth century, sponsored by the ruler of the largest empire in history? Would China have a Christian history? If so, would it have participated in the Crusades? Would it have had a Reformation? With religious ties between East and West, would increased trade have brought increased wealth to both cultures and more rapid development of science, technology, art, and finance? With more communication between the two areas, would European history have seen a greater, earlier presence of Buddhism and Confucianism?
I love “What if?” moments of history like these. The American Civil War seems unusually full of the moments, and McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom has reminded me of many. Of course we can ponder general questions such as “What if the Confederacy had won?” or “What if the war had concluded with slavery still in place?” But the knife edges of more specific moments intrigue me much more. What if the Union success early in the day at the first battle of Manassas had continued through the afternoon and resulted in quick Northern victory? What if Joe Johnston had not been wounded at Seven Pines and Lee put in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia? As they actually played out, both events lent strength to the Confederacy but ironically, by prolonging the war, brought about its utter subjugation. A faster victory by the Union would have ended with the South making some concessions while maintaining slavery, at least for a while longer.
General George B. McClellan single-handedly provides a long litany of “What If?” moments. Southern General John Magruder performed theatrical tricks at Yorktown to make his force look much larger than it was: parading soldiers in circles through the woods, having stentorian officers shout orders at nonexistent troops, and so on. What if McClellan hadn’t fallen for it? McClellan refused to bring his 20,000 Union soldiers to participate at Second Manassas, telling his wife that he wanted his supposed countryman and colleague Gen. John Pope to fail so that Lincoln would have to sack him and ask McClellan to return to the highest command. What if McClellan had reasoned alternatively that his last-minute arrival on Pope’s flank would turn the tide of the battle and make him an instant hero? His own conciliatory politics could well have won over the Northern populace and brought about peace negotiations with the Confederacy in 1862. What if, on the other hand, Lincoln had not done exactly what the megalomaniacal general had foreseen and had instead dismissed him for insubordination to the Commander-in-Chief and disloyalty? The Union Army of the Potomac may well have thrown down their weapons in protest at the humiliation of their favorite leader. Finally, what if McClellan, given Lee’s battle plans in one of the greatest intelligence gains in all of American history, hadn’t dawdled four more days to plan his “devastating” attack across Antietam Creek? Taking immediate advantage of the information, he could have swallowed Lee’s Army piece by piece while they were still scattered along the highway leading into Maryland.
In July of 2002, I visited the Tower of London. The summer crowds filled the fortress to capacity, especially the building holding the crown jewels. Visitors to that display were shunted along past the amazing treasures on a moving platform. Only given a few precious seconds to view the coronation crowns, the two young girls in front of me placed their hands on the glass cases as they rode by, coming as close as possible to grasping history literally. I think we enjoy “What If?” moments because we, like those little girls, want a precise grasp on the story. We want to identify the nail that lost the kingdom, the butterfly wing that created the storm. It all comes down to Longstreet’s delayed attack at Gettysburg. Got it. It all comes down to Lincoln putting Grant in charge of the whole show. Got it. It all comes down to Joshua Chamberlain’s bayonet charge on Little Round Top. Got it.
That last idea is the one I’m really almost enticed to believe. It seems I could hold the entire military narrative of the American Civil War in my hand and view it at a single glance if it were true that Chamberlain’s bold move determined U. S. victory twenty-one months later. But then I know that the unpredictable contingencies of human action form the glass barrier that keeps me from grabbing that historical crown.