One of the most common scenarios I’ve seen since I have been interested in alternate history is a Confederate victory in the American Civil War. Second to an Axis victory in World War Two, it is probably the most used counterfactual and has become a regular cliche of the genre. The premise has been used in books such as Harry Turtledove’s TL-191 series and numerous short stories. However, for all its popularity, a surviving Confederate States of America is in fact one of the less plausible alternate history scenarios.
One of the main reasons why a Confederate victory in the Civil War is so implausible is simply the choice of the Battle of Gettysburg as the point of divergence. Because the battle has been labeled by historians as the turning point for the Union in the Civil War and because of the reputation Robert E. Lee has as a Confederate general, the popular perception is that if Lee won at Gettysburg, the Confederacy would have won the war. However, the reality is that by the time Gettysburg took place, the overall tide of the war had already tipped in favor of the North. At the outset of the Civil War, a large majority of the United States’ industry, economic output, railroads, and population was in the North, putting the Confederacy at an immediate long-term disadvantage. By 1863 when the Battle of Gettysburg took place, the Confederacy was in an even worse situation. The Anaconda Plan for a naval blockade of the CSA was already in place, cutting off almost all international trade. A year prior to Gettysburg, New Orleans, at the time the largest city in the Confederacy and its most important port, had fallen to the Union. At the same time as Lee was pushing into Pennsylvania, General Grant was launching the final attacks on Vicksburg and the last section of the Mississippi River still under Confederate control. Even if Lee had been victorious at Gettysburg, all these other factors mean that the Confederacy is inevitably going to lose on a strategic level.
However, let’s assume that history diverges earlier than Gettysburg, and that the Confederacy emerges victorious in the Civil War. Even if the Confederacy did manage to gain its independence, it would still face many problems as an independent nation. First of all, the Confederacy would be isolated within the geopolitical world. As a state whose existence and ideology is at least partially, the Confederacy would face ridicule by most of the other great powers. It would join just Spain, Portugal, and Brazil as the only Western nations where slavery remained legal, and Portugal would abolish slavery soon after in 1869. This historical trend toward abolitionism and the rejection of slavery as an idea was one of the reasons for the Confederacy breaking off when it did, but it would also mean the Confederate government would move steadily toward pariah status.
Additionally, the Confederacy will continue to be lagging behind the United States in development. The more urban North will continue to attract the most immigrants from Europe as manufacturing continues to develop. The Great Plains and Pacific would stay in the United States, so the Union would also have more room to develop further agriculture and would still benefit from the gold discoveries in California and the Rockies. Meanwhile, the population growth of the Confederacy would be stagnating. If the Confederacy does try to expand territorially, its only possibilities are the Caribbean or Mexico. While many scenarios have the Confederacy take Cuba from Spain after they gain independence, this would only result in the Cubans, who are fighting an independence war of their own against Spain at the time, turning their struggle against the weaker Confederacy. Any attempts at Confederate expansion would also likely be met with intervention by the United States, who has interests in closing off its new southern neighbor.
Economically, the Confederacy would have even more issues. The newly independent Confederacy is still relying on cotton as its main export. However, in the aftermath of the Civil War many fields would be devastated and it would take some years to get the CSA’s cotton production back to pre-war levels. Meanwhile, textile mills in New England, France, and Britain are going to be searching for other sources of cotton, just as they were during the Civil War in anticipation of a cotton shortage from the South. By 1865, Britain had already begun importing more of its cotton from other places in the British Empire, namely India and Egypt. India was a particularly good location for growing cotton and any cotton imports would likely continue to be prioritized from within the Empire. Later on, the Confederacy would also have to face the boll weevils moving north from Mexico. In our history, boll weevils almost destroyed Southern cotton production in the early 20th century and forced many Southern farmers to either urbanize or switch to other less profitable crops such as rice.
Lastly, the internal politics of the Confederacy and its political structure would also cause problems for the new country, and would be one of the toughest issues the country would face. Even after the Confederacy broke off, there were many parts of the South that were still pro-Union and were against the secession. West Virginia is the most famous example, since they succeeded in launching a countersecession from Virginia and becoming their own state. But much of the rest of the southern Appalachians were also pro-Union, since they weren’t tied into the agricultural and plantation economy of the rest of the South. Eastern Tennessee also held a vote on whether to countersecede from Tennessee, but that vote was narrowly defeated. Some counties in northern Alabama even organized militias to fight against the Confederates and cooperate with Union soldiers. So even if the Confederacy gained its independence, there would still be pro-Union guerrillas in various parts of the country. Additionally, the Confederacy was founded upon the right of secession and gave many powers to the states while restricting the powers of the Confederate government. This right is even guaranteed by the Confederate constitution under Article V, Section 6, which states that “the powers not delegated to the Confederate States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people thereof.” Considering this, when the Confederacy as a whole is facing rough economic times in the late 19th century, there would be legal standing for Texas, Tennessee, or Virginia to secede from the Confederacy on their own. This is only inviting further instability in the Confederate States as the federal government is undoubtedly going to fight the attempts to secede.