Today we present a special Civil War commemorative edition of “What If,” that occasional feature in which my editor, Tom the Butcher, tries to stump me with supposedly unanswerable hypothetical questions. Because of the dignity of the subject, I urged Tom to stick to serious questions only.
What if Lincoln had just stayed home and tweeted the Gettysburg address?
We must first ask ourselves if the president would have sent out the entire 272-word text in 11 consecutive, tedious tweets of 140 characters each. Unlikely. Carpet-bomb tweeting is the surest way to lose followers, and a president at war needs all the support he can get. Lincoln could have tweeted a link to the full text, but any post requiring click-throughs risks significant loss of “eyeballs.”
Lincoln was a master of succinctness, so he most likely would have re-framed the whole thing in one tweet. As I once surmised in a column, he probably would have written: “@alincoln 87 years ago, our dads made us free. Yay! Still want free, but hard! Fighting, dying, burying! Need more fight tho, so dead be happy.”
The larger question is: Would his tweet have worked as well as the original?
On the downside, it is unlikely that this document would have been seen as establishing a clear, eloquent political rationale for continued prosecution of the war, dooming the conflict to continue in moral ambiguity at its most critical moment. On the plus side, it would have prevented several generations of pedants from smugly pointing out that the great Lincoln actually made a mistake when he said: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. ...”
So, pretty much a wash.
What if, in February 1864, the South had gotten the atomic bomb?
Getting the bomb, and using the bomb, are quite different matters. To make its mark on the world, an atom bomb, like a baby, must first be delivered. This is not easy: The Hiroshima bomb, Little Boy, weighed 9,000 pounds.
With harbors, train lines and rivers to the north firmly in Union hands by 1864, a parcel that weighty would have had to be transported to its Northern target largely overland, likely on a military supply wagon with stagecoach tires. Dragged over icy, inhospitable terrain by a lumbering, lurching team of 20 mules or eight oxen, this vehicle would have been bumping and jostling like a scrum of paparazzi at a Lady Gaga photo op.
Alas, Little Boy’s detonator — structured like a simple rifle that fired a uranium bullet into a uranium core to achieve critical mass — was made of cordite, a nitroglycerine compound that was notoriously unstable and subject to explosion through, among other things, concussive accident.
Most likely, a Confederate A-bomb assembled in Richmond would have detonated while still well within the rural South, probably in Spotsylvania County, on a berm outside Bumpass, Va., in the middle of 800 acres of farmland. Other than the soldiers in the bomb-delivery convoy, the deceased would likely have been limited to the landowners, Cletis and Luella, their kids, Opie and Luella Jr. and a few dozen sows. Rumors of a big blast would have trickled North, but with casualties roughly one-thousandth the size of, say, Gettysburg, no one would have paid it much mind. The war would have plodded on as if nothing had happened.
What if Grant had been drinking at Appomattox?
This is a trick question, Tom. As you well know, James Thurber once addressed this very issue in a famous essay. Confused by the effect of intoxicating spirits, Thurber concluded, Grant would have surrendered to Lee, instead of the other way around.
Thurber got it wrong. He fundamentally misconstrued the nature of drunkenness, which surprises me since Thurber himself was not unacquainted with alcoholic excess. He once wrote: “One martini is all right, two is too many, and three is not enough.”
If Grant had been drunk at Appomattox, he would have made it a condition of surrender that Lee sign the armistice with his underpants on his head. A proud man, Lee would have indignantly refused. We might still be fighting.