If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg
by Winston S. Churchill

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Scribner's, December 1930

included in —

If It Had Happened Otherwise (1931)
  edited by J. C. Squire

The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, Vol. IV
  Churchill at Large (1976)

The Great Republic
  A History of America (1999)

May 2005

If Churchill's story title causes a double take, that is intentional. In our own historical timeline, of course, Robert E. Lee's Confederate army did lose the major battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in early July 1863. After this three-days' battle, although the American Civil War was far from over, Lee's army and the Southern Confederacy in general were no longer able to assume the strategic offensive.

"If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg" is Winston S. Churchill's speculation on how things might have been different. Letting his creative and mischievous impulses write an alternate version of Gettysburg and its aftermath, Churchill really has given us two stories in one. Instead of using our own timeline as the basis, with the Northern victory at Gettysburg, he provides the inverse: since General Lee was victorious in July 1863, such-and-such are the details of how it happened and how the following years developed naturally. In other words, Lee's victory is matter-of-fact, this is our history as readers that the narrator sketches for us.

With this inverted background, Churchill then provides some fancifully redoubled alternate history: suppose the famous battle had gone otherwise, if Lee had lost at Gettysburg, what would the world be like?

Of course it's not exactly like our timeline.

An earlier and sharply pointed speculation, written when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and for secret circulation only, discusses the possibility of an Imperial German surprise attack in peacetime (a Bolt from the Blue in Churchill's phrase) upon the British coast: "A Time Table of a Nightmare" (April 1913). This is contingency war-plan thinking with deadly serious purpose, rather than the historian's leisure of this story.

"If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg" is entertaining science fiction in a small compass but on the large scale of world history. Churchill clearly is having fun, but this of course is a busman's holiday of the historian who is also a military man and statesman of Anglo-American heritage.

Along with all such well-done speculations, long or short, it reminds us that even the surest solid rocks of our history might have been molded differently by the participants.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

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