Book Review: The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War: Historians Tackle the Conflict’s Most Intriguing Possibilities


by Chris Mackowski and Brian Matthew Jordan, editorrs

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2022. Pp. xxxiv, 278. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1611215730

Counter-Factuals of the Civil War

Many historians and enthusiasts have pondered the “What ifs” of the Civil War. Historian Robert Cowley asserts that “What If” is a surreptitious question that historians enjoy discussing. Of course, ultimately it is impossible to answer. Novelists with “What if” themes have increased in numbers and are quite popular. Historians, since the end of the Civil War in 1865, through the “Lost Cause” and “Reconciliation” eras, and on down to the present have proposed many “What ifs” that have engaged scholars and enthusiasts. This volume is edited by the well-known Civil War scholars Chris Mackowski and Brian Matthew, with a foreword by Peter Tsouras, author of several alternative histories, and with maps by Edward Alexander. The book includes papers by thirteen leading historians, who have taken up the challenge of presenting plausible alternative histories, and through their knowledge, research, writing and storytelling skill have given us an entertaining read that many buffs will enjoy, learn from, and wonder, and will certainly intrigue many serious historians as well.

Each entry focuses on one of the most important events of the war and with a lively, unbiased treatment offers a plausible alternate reality. Although written in terms of persistent “second guesses", most of these essays are rooted in real history, supported by footnotes. Twelve essays evaluate pivotal moments and events of the war, addressing the question “What if this turning point had gone in a different direction?”

The object is to try to provoke more thinking by readers, which is certainly a purpose of written history.

The first five essays deal with major battles. Timothy Smith examines the significant alternate possibilities had Albert Sidney Johnston not died when he did at Shiloh. Kevin Pawlak considers what might have changed had George McClellan not found Lee’s Lost Order. Frank Jastrzembski asks whether a different Union general in command of the Army of the Potomac early in the war might have changed the outcomes of several battles. Dwight Hughes pens about the possible consequences had Great Britain and France intervened in the conflict. Finally, Kristopher White examines the perpetually popular “What ff Stonewall Jackson not been shot at Chancellorsville”.

The middle three essays deal with significant confrontations between Federal and Confederate armies. Dan Welch asks what might have occurred had Lee permitted Longstreet to move around the right at Gettysburg. Chris Mackowski writes about the possible outcome if Lee had very seriously hurt the Union forces during the Overland campaign on North Anna River. Finally, a fascinating essay by Kristen Trout deals with the consequences if Sterling Price had gained control of Missouri during 1864.

The final four papers consider questions of leadership. Cecily Zander looks at the curious loyalty shown by Jefferson Davis toward Army of Tennessee commanding general Braxton Bragg. Barton Myers considers the character of Robert E. Lee when faced, near the war’s end, with the choice of embracing an irregular strategy. Jonathan Noyalas writes a provocative contribution asking if Lincoln and the Union could have defeated the Confederate forces if Sherman and Sheridan had failed. Most provocative, Brian Jordon and Evan Rothera, asks, ''What if Lincoln had not been assassinated?''

The book ends with suggested readings for serious students wishing to learn more about these events. Far from being a lighthearted scholarly diversion The Great ‘What Ifs of the American Civil War” expands our understanding of the complexity of actual events and provides us with new viewpoints to consider. Further “What If” books are promised by the Emerging Civil War team.

Highly recommended.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include, Lincoln Comes to Gettysburg, Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War, The Summer of ’63: Vicksburg and Tullahoma, Crosshairs on the Capital: Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington, Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee's Army after Appomattox, Voices of the Army of the Potomac, The Record of Murders and Outrages, Gettysburg 1963, No Common Ground, Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers, and Stephen A. Swails.




Note: The Great “What Ifs” of the American Civil War is also available in e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close