Civil War pop history has a love/hate relationship with contingency.

There are all these little contingencies in history that would slow the progress of a tale. Such as they are, they are shelved, along with nuance, context, and other complexities.

Some middling contingencies are welcome. These are the celebrated turning points that juice up the story.

More often than not they are based on an assertion that is not footnoted or discussed. Thus, the idea that someone missed an opportunity to annihilate someone depends on the possibility that Civil War armies could be annihilated. The idea that someone failed to punish someone else sufficiently is likewise based on unwise assumptions about relative strengths (symbolized by sloppy numbers with lots of zeroes) and/or hindsight that overlays an interpretation of the critical moment on a chaotic and fluid situation. Certain middling contingencies are conjured for dramatic effect, when in fact they are points in great trains or strings of contingencies less well understood, less explored.

If I posit the contingency, “What if Pope had accepted McClellan’s orders to command the field army on Sept. 5, 1862,” no one knows what I am talking about. They would have had to have read the OR for Mac’s orders to Pope on that day (why would they do that if pop history says Pope was relieved earlier?) and they would have had to know that Pope angrily appealed Mac’s orders twice to Halleck triggering a command crisis that finally resulted in his relief, his transfer, and McClellan’s acting in Pope’s stead as commander of the field army against Lee.

That is not a small contingency to shelve, but it has been effectively mothballed, despite the glaring record of official correspondence. Napoleon B. Buford rejecting command of the AoP is not a small contingency. Ethan A. Hitchcock refusing command of the AoP is not a small contingency. Burnside refusing command of the AoP three times is not a small contingency. If your motif is Lincoln sticking with McClellan until Nov. 5, 1862, these events are actually poison to your story.

So, although pop historians like some middling contingencies (turning points), not all such are welcome in their narratives.

The braver Civil War writer will grab the brass ring offered by a literary construct called “the point of no return.” This is the “super contingency” that changes “everything.” The importance ascribed to Gettysburg falls in this category. A good “point of no return” offers a unique combination of circumstances that will change shortly after a decision point has been identified.

I think this is a carryover from 19th Century histories.

All contingency represents a “point of no return” – the status quo ante cannot be retrieved after most choices are made. But the super contingency represents the taking of larger decisions, perhaps bigger risks, and perhaps trying for larger outcomes. These are worth examining as a problem in a separate post.

My concern with pop history is that it presents a manageable, at times static, field of view peppered with incidents selected (or created) for their narrative qualities. Movement is created by highlighting a few choices.

The author makes a show of being contingency friendly, but is actually something of a determinist (historicist). When you read titles like Turning Points of the Civil War; Vicksburg the Real Turning Point, you actually see the author change orientation from free will to determinist in mid-story. Pop narratives are filled with historicism – but the historicism is episodic.

People who work with historical contingency much more closely than historical writers are traders. The trader is constantly modeling and analyzing change, historically and in the present. I cannot imagine a trader proposing a herky-jerky model of contingency. Some events trigger larger scale changes than other, however, each incident is resolved in tandem with a cohort of other incidents producing an unending cascade effect of cumulative transformation.

In the same sense that the market represents today’s cumulative microtransactions, a day in history represents an unrolling of uncounted, untold myriads of individual decisions. Nicholas Taleb (right) speaks of a trading outcome being enveloped in a host of choices not taken and outcomes that “cascaded” from innumerable contingencies. At the same time, he has his eye out for the appearance of “black swans,” events that confound all models, paradigms, and assumptions.

I love "black swans" - I look for them in Civil War history constantly.

Traders build mathematical models to understand the cascading effects of innumerable decisions and events (see Monte Carlo systems, for instance). Civil War writers pick and choose contingencies that will get the story to its predetermined ending.

Traders are oriented towards unknown outcomes and open-ended results. Civil War writers are oriented on Appomattox.

Traders constantly revisit decisions, assumptions, and alternative models of events. Civil War writers generally look to retell the same story in approximately the same way.

Traders re-evaluate paradigms based on new information. Civil War writers use new information to illuminate corners of their existing paradigms.