and the Twelfth New Hampshire Volunteers
By Rudy VanVeghten
PART 10: The What If Game
Historians almost unanimously caution against asking “What if?” Ironically, most historians ignore their own advice and go ahead and play the game anyway. In the case of Chancellorsville and the 12th N.H. Regiment, it is not only tempting, but locally important for the Meredith-Laconia-Pittsfield area to ask, “What if the Mountaineers had not successfully delayed the Rebel offensive on the morning of May 3, 1863?”
Consider the alternative. Graham’s brigade, pretty much the last resistance to the Rebel advance, had collapsed. Had the 12th not been at hand, or if the Granite State contingent had not been successful in plugging the breach, Lee and Stuart would likely have succeeded in realizing Jackson ’s strategy of blocking the Union’s path of retreat back across the Rappahannock. Hooker, even if he hadn’t been knocked temporarily senseless at the Chancellor Inn, would have had two options: 1) stand and fight or 2) surrender.
Consider first option 1. Hooker had demonstrated three times (at least) an unwillingness to fight. He had failed to counterstrike against Lee on May 1, despite pleadings of his generals to the contrary. He had inaccurately, perhaps stupidly, talked himself into believing that the May 2 Rebel troop movement was a retreat. And he had abandoned the key strategic position of Hazel Grove. Battle analysts ever since have variously concluded that had Hooker made other choices in any of these situations, the outcome would likely have been a Union victory and perhaps even led to the collapse of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and a drastic shortening of the war.
As for option 2, the outcome could have been far different with a Union surrender than it was with a mere Union defeat in the battle. Had Hooker surrendered the Union Army of the Potomac to Lee, the fallout both militarily and politically would have been disastrous. Militarily, it would have left the Atlantic theater open for Lee to capture the Union capital of Washington and continue moving the war into the North. Successful Union forces further west along the Mississippi front would have been unable to remobilize to the east quick enough to prevent further Confederate successes.
Politically, Lincoln in 1863 was already engaged in a desperate effort to convince the Federal states and citizens of the need to fight a war at all, whether to preserve the Union or to emancipate the Southern slaves. Democrats of Lincoln’s day, led by his former general George McClellen, were no less vitriolic than are his counterparts in 2005 in criticizing George W. Bush for his war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Union surrender at Chancellorsville would have further eroded Northern war support and likely led to a treaty recognizing the Confederate States of America as a new sovereign country. Where that would have left our national identity, as we understand it today, is anybody’s guess.
Globally, the big loser in a Union capitulation would have been the institution of democracy, what United States citizens were still calling “the great experiment” four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence. Without the American model of government, would future democracies have sprung up around the world as they have?
So go ahead and play the game. Ask yourself, “Did the Meredith men from Company I and other area units from the Lakes Region of New Hampshire play a role in deciding the outcome of the Civil War, the future of their country, and the growth of democracy worldwide?”