Fischer on the Lost Order and historical contingency

Determinism versus contingency. This is not something we worry about very much in the field of ACW studies because this is one arena in which you expect a lot of contingency historians. They seem to drift in on the waves of “what if.” The determinists, few as they are, cluster at the “outcome of the war” level.

Or do they?

In the aggregate of events that are named, classified, and stored in memory as battles, the fun for an ACW buff is isolating the events to a level of granularity where one event can be identified as the winning or losing moment. The assumption is one of multiple possible outcomes up to that point.

And at that point, this harmless contingency analysis crosses a dangerous line: a search for discovery of the irreversible point, the point that determines an outcome, regardless of later developments.

In his 1970 book, Historians’ Fallacies, David Hackett Fischer called this the reductive fallacy and illustrated it with the classic example of the "legendary battle that was lost for the want of a horseshoe nail." He also develops the loss of Lee’s Special Orders 191 to illustrate this fallacy.

More on which tomorrow.