About once per publishing season comes a Civil War title rife with what strikes me as impossible causality. Here's one that really bugs me: Where the South Lost the War - An Analysis of the Fort Henry - Fort Donelson Campaign. It's a good read - I prefer analysis over narrative anytime - but here's this naive title (and naive conclusion).

There is, at the heart of the title the question of whether the Union could have prevailed without these victories.

We do love our what-if in Civil War history, but notice how people play what-if. They want to change one variable (say Donelson/Henry) and freeze the others in order to imagine an outcome. Doesn't that strike you as cheating? What if all the variables were back in play?

Single-variable what-if seems to come from military wargaming: What if the Red Force arrives on this terrain one hour later, everything else being equal? The Donelson book's author is a military academician, so he has an alibi for thinking this way.

I hoped to better understand my own aversion to causality dogmas like "Where the South lost the war" so I turned to David Hackett Fischer's old Historian's Fallacies. In discussing an error he labels the reductive fallacy, he cautions us against compressing causality to the point where the answer is "dysfunctional" with respect to the question. That's a little vague, so he gives an example, the kingdom lost for the want of a horse, the horse's shoe lacking a nail. Then he gives an counter example of allowable causality in the chain of events associated with McClellan finding Lee's orders in Maryland.

Are we to conclude from this story that the cause of Northern victory in the Civil War was the loss of Special Orders no. 191? [...] There is, I think, no prima facie case against the validity of such a causal interpretation, if it is clearly understood that everything depends upon the accpetance of a contingent-series model of causality, and if the question at hand can be fairly and fully met by such an explanation.

Well, well, another Civil War buff who wants his what-if.

I'll revisit this issue when I can find a better ally.