Alternate history is fun. It is very satisfying to imagine what would have happened if Alexander the Great had not died young, or Napoleon had succeeded in cobbling together a world empire. It is no wonder that alternative history has evolved into a rich genre that allows its practitioners to indulge in historical fantasies or offer dire warnings.
Since the early 1900, the American Civil War has been occupying a sizeable chunk of this literary real estate, producing its own genre of Civil War alternate history (CWAH) –see Renee de Groot’s wonderful article Divided We Stand: “Confederate” and Civil War Alternate Histories.
This CWAH narrative admittedly is a bit repetitive as it tends to hinge on the Confederacy winning the war. This “what-if-ism” occasionally takes somewhat amusing forms: in his Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment (Penguin, 2013), journalist Charlie Schroeder recounts his stint at the two-day annual reenactment the Brooksville Raid: on Saturday the Union troops win, but on Sunday, it is the Confederates turn, because, as one reenactor told journalist, the event’s coordinator, a Baptist minister, “wants the Confederates to win on the Lord’s day.”
CWAH traditionally entailed a rosy picture of the flourishing independent South inhabited by benevolent planters, graceful and tenderhearted females, and happy slaves. This fantasy was not the sole domain of the exponents of the “Lost Cause.” In his (exceedingly boring) novel Hallie Marshall: A True Daughter of the South (1900), Frank Purdy Williams, a progressive reformer, held up this imaginary “Southland” to contrast with the horrible labor conditions in the Gilded Age America. Ernest Howard Crosby, wrote “If the South Had Been Allowed to Go,” (1903) to speculate that if it had not been for the imperialist North, slavery would collapse in the South organically, without “the evils which we have entailed upon ourselves by the manner of its abolition.” Winston Churchill offered that if the Confederacy had triumphed, it would forge a “new fundamental relationship between master and servant” instead of the effort to “graft white democratic institutions upon the simple, docile, gifted African race belonging to a much earlier chapter in human history.”
At the turn of the last century, the picture of a Confederate victory took a darker turn. Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (1992) has a supply of AK-47 delivered to the struggling Confederacy by a time-traveling group of South African racists. It became even more jarring as historians dispelled the once common assumptions that that the Union victory was preordained or that slavery would have ended on its own. CWAH embraced and rather realistic image of a United States resting on slavery and white supremacy, most vividly and chillingly portrayed by Ken Willmott’s in his mockumentary CSA: The Confederate State of America (2004) or in Ben Winters Underground Airlines (2016).
CWAH tends to think grand, largely in terms of great battles and great men. But what if we think on a less grandiose scale? For example, what if Anson Stager’s parents had decided to move South and the inventor of the USMT code had been born in Virginia rather than New York?
On one hand, he might not have even made it in telegraphy. He would not have been apprenticed to Henry O’Reilly at the Rochester Daily Advertiser, and quite possibly had no one to introduce him to telegraph business. Stager certainly would have never made it as the first general superintendent of Western Union.
On the other hand, had Stager been born in Virginia, entered telegraphy, and shown the same promise, he could have risen to the top of the American Telegraph Company which had lines in the North and South. (Western Union lines lay entirely within the Union). He could have associated with Dr. William Sylvanus Morris (1823-1893) of Lynchburg, Va., and, like him, become a Southern director for the company. Stager could have been present at the emergency meeting of the company’s executives on May 12, 1860 which split the American Telegraph Company into Southern and Northern branches. And, as a superintendent or even president of the Southern Telegraph Company, he would have taken an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy.
And, of course, it could have been the governor of Virginia John Letcher rather than Ohio’s William Dennison to ask Stager to develop the codes for the Confederate army. In the fall of 1861, Stager could have used his organizational talents to build up the Confederate Military Telegraph that would report directly to Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin.
With the Confederate command in possession of superior telegraph communications and unbreakable ciphers, its chances of winning would have increased exponentially. It would certainly have minimized a possibility of Union soldiers coming across battle plans wrapped around some cigars, as it happened with Robert E. Lee’s orders to General D.H. Hill before the battle of Antietam. More importantly, it would have afforded unprecedented level of battlefield and logistical communications not to mention infinite possibilities to mess with the increasingly bitter partisan divisions in the North.
Could a simple accident of birth have changed the course of history? Is it impossible to imagine that should Stager’s life have taken a different turn, alternative historians would now be speculating what would happen if the North had won the war? Is it inconceivable that we could be now living in a world where Willmott’s CSA was an honest to goodness documentary?
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History, Huntington Library.
4:20 P April 1
The Magruder msg come from
Montreal by the Canada line, to Portland –
here is the reply.
You will see it is a Naval
Halifax Commodore G.A. Magruder
Montreal – I sail today for St. Thomas
arrives in Havana the fifteenth (15) or twentieth
(20) Expect to meet you. Letters not recd
(signed) G.A. Magruder Jr.
It is probable that neither of these parties
are aware that the telegraph line runs
through W.U. Territory & an international
question of great interest to telegraph companies
may be involved in this case.
The message is retained at Portland subject
to order of the Dept, or Gen Dix.
If referred to him. I Conjecture that young
Magruder is bearer of dispatches from
abroad. I have sent to Halifax to make
certain whether the word “expect” is correctly
written, It may have been expected to meet you.
What do you do when an enemy communication just falls into your lap?
On March 31, 1864, a puzzled Edward S. Sanford sent a message from the New York office of the American Telegraph Company. The Company’s office in Portland, Maine had received a telegram addressed to “Maj. G.A. Magruder at Halifax.” The sender was Commodore George Allan Magruder (1800-1871), the former chief of the U.S. Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography of the Navy Department who lived in Montreal ever since he resigned from the service in April 1861. The recipient was his son and namesake, Major George Allan Magruder, Jr., (b. 1842), a Confederate officer on the staff of his uncle, John Bankhead Magruder. Since October 1863, the younger Magruder acted as a special envoy of the Confederate State Department and carried diplomatic dispatches to Europe and Cuba.
How did a message sent from Montreal to Halifax end up in Portland? Sanford thought “it was not sent by Magruder in person but brought to Portland by some one [who] had orders to forward from first telegraph station.” This theory fell through the next day, when the Maine operator received the response. Magruder informed his father that he was about to sail for St. Thomas, to arrive in Havana in two to three weeks, adding that he had received no letters.
Sanford shouldn’t have been so puzzled. Right before the war, his own company, the American Telegraph Company had engineered a long-term lease of two major Canadian companies, the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph lines, thus linking Nova Scotia and Maine. Apparently, the Magruders used the Nova Scotia company unaware that it was operated by Sanford’s outfit.
The messages were not intercepted. Neither the USMT nor Sanford, who was serving as “military supervisor of telegraphic messages,” had anything to do with obtaining this piece of intelligence. It’s just sort of wandered into an office of a private commercial telegraph line.
The realities of the Civil War often run contrary to our ideas of what war-time communication lines are supposed to be. There was, of course, no unified system of military telegraph. In February 1862, Congress had authorized President Lincoln to “take possession of any or all the telegraph lines in the United States, their offices and appurtenances.” The Lincoln administration did no such thing. Instead, the War Department created what historian Joshua D. Wolff called “a mixed military economy” which relied on private contractors and “public enterprises.” (Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845-1893 (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
The system created numerous problems. The USMT leadership retained their positions of executives of communications companies, raising suspicions about a conflict of interest. The leadership of Western Union and the American Telegraph Company painted themselves as selfless patriots. The reality was more complicated: serving as government officials while overseeing their own businesses, the companies’ managers not only turned the United States government into their customer, but also harnessed the military necessity to extract the unprecedented level of protection, public funding, and material support.
The overlapping commitments more or less erased the boundaries between public service and private interest. For example, Stanton’s directives that military supervisors did not interfere with “private business” could jeopardize military secrecy, as with no provisions for an eventuality of said business located in a border or even a Confederate state.
As it turned out, it was also possible that an American commercial company could transmit messages sent and received abroad. No wonder Sanford was stumped. There was neither precedent nor proper chain of command. Eckert was to contact Charles A. Dana, newly appointed Assistant Secretary of War, to find out “to whom we can refer similar cases when they require alert action.”
There were also international implications to think about. Was it legal for a party in a civil war to intercept messages originating in another sovereign nation, especially if such intercept was done by a private company? With some relief, Sanford remarked that because it was “probable that neither of these parties are aware that the telegraph line runs through W.U. [Western Union] Territory,” an “international question of great interest to telegraph companies may be invalid in this case.” (Western Union did not have any holdings in Canada). In other words, finders keepers.
Hurrah for our volunteer JustStardust for spotting this!
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History. The Huntington Library.