Historical Context

In the early years of the Civil War, the North (United States/Union) struggled against the South (Confederate States). Battle after battle was lost to the South, despite the North's superior firepower, industry, population, etc. What caused this loss is debated by historians constantly, we just know that it happened.

But what if it didn't?

Until around the middle of the war, Lincoln's newly formed Republicans were the quintessential Free-Soiler party. This means that they were not dedicated to the eradication of slavery, but rather containment: new states admitted to the Union would be free, while the south could retain their slaves (with the idea that slavery would eventually die out). At the aforementioned middle of the war, Republicans became galvanized to the point of accepting slave emancipation in the south. A cause (whether it was the primary one can be debated) was consistent loss, which forced northerners to harden their ideals into a specific, achievable goal. This goal was the eradication of slavery.

The generally accepted point when the Republicans transferred from Free-Soil to Abolitionist (freeing of slaves) was the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It freed the slaves in states that seceded, despite the lack of Union authority over them- the premise being that they would be freed as the Union army progressed.

But if the north was more successful at war, winning as swiftly as their material advantage implied, the Republicans would not be galvanized to abolition. This would (likely) result in southern states being returned with slavery. This leads to my question. What would the US's attitude toward slavery look like with a drastically shortened American Civil War?

The important historical differences are as follows:

  • The first few months of the war are along the lines of current history
  • Confederacy overrun by brilliant tactician at 1st Manassas
  • Battle of Wilson's Creek is won by Union, who push into Missouri, recapturing much of the state
  • Battle of Missouri (fictional) occurs where a last ditch Confederate move to halt the Union advance partially succeeds, giving the Union Missouri, but blocking further Union advance (Sept 1861)
  • Battle of the Keys (fictional) secures northern blockade of Floridian coast (Oct 1861)
  • Battles of Charleston and Wilmington (fictional) expand bock across east coast (Feb 1862)
  • Massive northern incursion takes Confederacy by surprise in Apr 1862, north advances all the way to Atlanta and Charlotte
  • Last ditch Confederate effort stifled in Jun 1862, peace declared June 18th, 1862

Note- there is none of that, this, none of those, and DEFINITELY none of this tomfoolery

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    $\begingroup$ Questions asking "What is the effect of X on society?" are often closed as too broad. If you edit the question to be more specific the question is likely to stay open. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 13 '17 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings I will edit it, thank you. I will get more explicit than socially. $\endgroup$ – Imperator Dec 13 '17 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Stephan As far as I know [history] doesn't do alternative histories. Creating an alternative history is a form of worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 13 '17 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Stephan Most questions on the site don't imply that they are creating a world. What's special about this question? Any good alternative history needs a good understanding of the real world timeline. Are we to not support worldbuilders who are creating alternative histories? $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 13 '17 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Stephan I originally included a timeline, but accidentally edited it out with the clarification edit. Give me just a sec to edit it back in. $\endgroup$ – Imperator Dec 13 '17 at 21:19

As you mentioned opinion over historical interpretation runs heavy in this subject

It is in my opinion that it was the very act of session that expedited emancipation proclamation.

At the time, the nation was grappling with whether to allow slavery in the new territories and had just elected an anti slavery president. The slave holding states in protest over losing some of these policies decided to secede from the nation.

In my opinion the reason they were just focusing on the new territories was to just incrementally phase out slavery as a compromised approach knowing full well the slave holding states would never outlaw it outright.

Heres the kicker:

By withdrawing their representation from the democratic system in open conflict, they in effect consolidated the anti-slavery perspective in the legislative body of the land.

Under those circumstances it is of no surprise that they would just expedite their party's ultimate goal.

Furthermore, by initiating war they inherently demand moral justification of that war. For the south their justification was the over reach of the federal government into states rights. The North however needed a morale excuse to invigorate its army, how about the liberation of all men.

-its hard to win a war when you cant explain to your people why you are the "good" side

In conclusion

I don't believe the duration of the war had any effect on the expedition of freeing the slaves as it was going to war in the first place that expedited the subject.

  • $\begingroup$ Great answer, thank you so much! But why would the Republicans abandon their Free Soil ideals for full on abolition if they had plenty of morale- boosting victories? $\endgroup$ – Imperator Dec 13 '17 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ As I said I am of the opinion full abolition was their ultimate goal, the free soil approach was a progressive compromised approach to incrementally reach abolition against the democratic opposition of the southern states. By removing themselves from democratic representation they removed their democratic opposition thus allowing them to expedite the ultimate goal of abolition. $\endgroup$ – anon Dec 13 '17 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ Basically, if we are supposed to agree as a group to split money and I propose I get 60% and you storm off in a fit of rage, I then purpose I get 100% of the money and you aren't there to object. $\endgroup$ – anon Dec 13 '17 at 21:51

Perhaps one of the biggest "what if's" of the entire Civil War has to do with General-in-Chief Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan". Scott, a professional soldier with pretty impeccable credentials developed the plan with a clear strategy and timetable in mind, but the idea of implementing the plan was swept aside in the war hysteria caused by the outbreak of hostilities.

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The Anaconda Plan as depicted in contemporary newspapers

While the Anaconda plan may not have led to as swift an end to the Civil War as you envision, it surely would have led to a much lower cost end to the Civil War than actually happened in history. Frontal assaults like Cold Harbour or massive Union armies marching through Georgia would not be needed if the Anaconda Plan had been implemented, and the war would be a series of smaller actions as secessionist states gradually collapsed due to economic strangulation. Southern armies would never be very large (since there was no imminent threat of large Union forces advancing, but rather the more distant threat of blockading ships and the reality of shorter and shorter rations and smaller paycheques. Southern States, never a truly cohesive "nation" in the Confederacy, might have started defecting or even fighting amongst each other as the belt got tighter and hardships more intense.

Military activity would be much more focused on raiding and counter guerrilla activities, while the true nexus of the struggle: should the American centre of power be the agrarian Southern States or the industrial Northern States would play out to the devastating conclusion that the South is economically and politically a spent force.

In terms of post war conditions, there would be long term resentment by the Southern gentry that their political power and wealth was gone, and a seething sense of resentment from the middle class and poor that their economic fortunes had been overturned and their futures shattered without a seeming shot fired. Because there was little physical destruction, there would be no seeming need for "reconstruction". Although some of the evils like "carpetbagging" would also be missing, the overall sentiment would still be anti Union, and low scale insurgencies would continue to fester (with no beloved figure like Robert E Lee reaching the position of prominence to tell the South to lay down arms and make it stick, there would be nothing to stop people from heading to the hills to bushwhack some Yankees). A large exodus of southerners would also take place as they sought new lands and opportunities in the opening West. Since most of these southerners would not have been slave holders in pre war times, they would not take slaves or import the institution of slavery, although they might still carry some of the social attitudes and class segregation of pre war Southern society with them.

The United States itself would be a naval power, since the large and efficient naval actions to enforce the blockade and take the Mississippi River from the Confederacy would be seen and understood as the true war winning measure. American land forces would be more like the US Cavalry of the "wild West" era, given to covering vast tracts of territory seeking out raiders during the war and continuing on in the Indian Wars era (which, due to the larger size and more skilled and aggressive nature of the US Cavalry, would also be over more quickly).

Oddly enough, this would hardly change the Northern attitude towards slavery at all. Abolition was a very noisy minority movement; almost as large was the Democrat Party "Copperhead" movement. The Copperheads advocated for compromise on slavery before the war and for allowing Confederate secession during the war.

Most northerners had no contact at all with negro slaves or even freemen, and if their attitudes would seem casually racist today, for the most part the issue would be under the radar for the average American of the era. The issue might even be mooted, since removing the slaves would strip a large financial asset from the Southern gentry, and Lincoln was known to have given consideration to a plan to ship the slaves back to Africa, greatly reducing the numbers of negros in America overall.


Here's one way it could play out:

Background assumptions:

  • No Reconstruction. No 13/14/15th Amendments
  • Fairly rapid readmission of states with their pre-war political class reasonably intact
  • Congress continues to be deadlocked by Pro/Anti slavery compromises
  • Transcontinental Railroad and Western development delayed by southern opposition to development of Free areas.

The original question is "What would the US's attitude toward slavery look like with a drastically shortened American Civil War?"

In the North, anger and frustration that slavery was not abolished. While Lincoln didn't explicitly promise to abolish it, his campaign sure implied it!

Anger and frustration with the continuing horror (and sin) of chattel slavery in the face of unified civilized opposition, matched by the apparent political impotence of north (thought they had won!) to prevent interference in the west.

Cells of (relatively unfocused) violent opposition would continue to grow.

In the South, a reinforcing of entitlement ("It's the natural way of things") among the wealthy and powerful since the existing social and political order had not been overturned. This is encouraged by the political fight to maintain slavery at any cost, emphasizing loyalty and unity.

This causes a hardening of attitudes, a demand for acquiesance or acceptance by northerners, and ruthless (occasionally violent) internal enforcement of this developing caste system.

Those two attitudes were originally incompatible (that's one reason there was a Civil War), and they haven't changed too much...so another Civil War seems pretty likely a generation later.


Lincoln Assassination

I would look into the whereabouts of John Wilkes Booth, but I don't believe that Lincoln's assassination would have occurred if the war had ended so quickly.

Additionally, Lincoln suspended the writ of habaeus corpus in 1863, which was a controversial move for his presidency. I think that in your scenario, Lincoln may live on.


If Lincoln lived, reconstruction would have gone differently. Johnson was not interested in pursuing a lenient policy against the South. And while Lincoln was not looking to do so either, he had a more forgiving approach. Here's an article that talks about what Lincoln wanted to do.

Southern Attrition

Part of the reason the South lasted so long was because they were dedicated to their cause. The attrition of supplies and people in the South is part of what finally led to their defeat. If that attrition doesn't happen as badly as it did in the real Civil War, there could be pockets of people who still don't want to surrender. Or another civil war could break out.

A great example of this in history is World War I. At the end of the war, the Allied forces did not go into Germany and Berlin and take over the German people. They agreed to a treaty because the German government could no longer go on. However, the ambiguity of not having the Allied Forces march through Germany allowed people like Adolf Hitler to rise to power a few years later and start World War II. Much of the Nazi's rhetoric in the lead up to World War II was about how the government during World War I gave themselves over too easily and quickly to the Allied Forces and that doubt fueled the rage that led into World War II.

TLDR: You might have a Civil War 2.0 on your hands or at least separatist groups that don't think the North won.

  • $\begingroup$ Vice-President Andrew Johnson was put on the ticket precisely because he wanted to pursue a lenient policy against the South - he was a Copperhead Democrat before he joined the "Union" party, and was needed to keep Lincoln in the White House for a second term. The reason Reconstruction during his presidency was so harsh was because Congress consistently overruled him after he pardoned one too many Confederate Loyalists. $\endgroup$ – No Name Feb 24 '19 at 16:50

Probably not much different

Slavery is largely a cultural problem. Some people believe that other people should be treated a certain way and the target people accept that treatment (to one degree or another). There's huge economic incentives to keep that arrangement in place but it's perpetuated between generations by the transfer of culture from parent to child.

A faster win by the North wouldn't solve the slavery problem. If anything, it will make it worse. More of the ruling class in the South would still be alive to perpetuate the racial inequality. More of those who think that owning slaves is their natural borne right will survive to nurture resentment at losing their birthrights. There will be more of the highly motivated people to give teeth to the phrase "The South will rise again!"

Merely beating the South wouldn't change the prevailing culture since so much of the machinery of economy and culture are still intact.

Perhaps, combining a rapid victory for the North plus a few additional super destructive marches like Sherman’s March to the Sea across other areas of the South would cause enough of a cultural and economic break that slavery and racial inequality would finally die.


A short Civil war would have two effects that would change the future for slavery.

  1. Pro-unionists would still exist in the south. Many regions of the south opposed secession, but later fought hard as their lands were invaded by Union troops. Even Southerners initially opposed to secession came to hate the Union and so come together as the war wore on. Nothing unites like a common foe. With a short war, there would not be the bitterness and there would not be the solidarity as a region on the part of the South.

  2. More wealth remaining after the war. The war was expensive for the Union, but devastating for the South, which was totally crushed economically and did not recover for at least a generation, with antisouthern bias on the part of the North slowing development for generations more. Without these expenses b both sides would be well positioned to chart a different path forward.

In this scenario of a rapid Union victory, anti-secessionists (industrialists and middle classes without wealth tied up in slaves) would publically pin the disaster of secession and war on the slave holding elite. These non-slave holding whites would be the real winners in the South, and the short civil war represents the overthrow of the previously reigning slave-holding aristocracy. This spin on the reasons for the war would be backed by the Union. The victorious North would appoint governors from these factions who would then appoint new senators and representatives.

At this time the French sugar colonies were in the process of freeing their own slaves. Pointing to the French model (the French New World colonies had more slaves than the US) and the Brazillian (we do not want to be like the slave-holding Brazilians) the US would free their slaves. The expenses of a long war had not been incurred and both South and North have money. Former slave owners, now out of political power, would be paid compensation for their slaves by the federal government. This would ease the transition and also the bitterness of the former aristocracy, which still had money and which would be important to the south in years to come.

The real postwar South used race politics to assuage the economic pain and anger of white voters. This very effective strategy has today spread to the rest of the country. To this day, US politics play off racial identity, appealing to poor whites on the basis of race and portraying blacks as the enemy, when actually the economic interests of poor whites and blacks have often been more closely aligned. Without the bitterness of a long war, economic collapse and occupation under Reconstruction there would be less ambient bitterness to channel into racial politics and less need to do so.

In our timeline, the artificial alignment of the interests of workers along racial lines rather than economic or class lines is one explanation for why the socialist movement of the late 1800s / early 1900s was weaker in the US than in other countries. White workers in the US identified with the white upper classes, because they hoped to someday move into those upper classes. Foreign communists and socialists did not understand this, and expected that the US would lead the way.

From http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/l/lipset-here.html

The British Marxist H. M. Hyndman noted in 1904 that "just as North America is today the most advanced country economically and socially, so it will be the first in which Socialism will find open and legal expression." August Bebel, the political leader of the German Social Democrats, stated unequivocally in 1907: "Americans will be the first to usher in a Socialist republic." This belief, at a time when the German party was already a mass movement with many elected members of the Reichstag, and the American Socialist party had secured less than 2 percent of the vote, was based on the fact that the United States was "far ahead of Germany in industrial development." Bebel reiterated this opinion in 1912, when the discrepancy in the strength of the two movements was even greater, saying that America will "be the first nation to declare a Cooperative Commonwealth."

Needless to say the socialist republic did not happen in the US, or at least not in the way these people envisioned.

However, in this alternate timeline there is an allied (and increasingly mixed) white and black working class willing to pursue their economic interest. Ideas about workers rights taking hold in the South find ready acceptance among disenfranchised factory workers in the North. There is not a revolution because in a democracy, there does not need to be. In 1904 the Socialist candidate for president is voted into power along with many in the congress, beginning the transformation of the US to a socialist republic.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer, this one is significantly less depressing than the others. Interesting how these things pan out. $\endgroup$ – Imperator Dec 18 '17 at 12:28

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