What if the South had won the Civil War? Hardly a new question, and it’s doubtless one of the most common counterfactual thought exercises in American history. It’s also already been recently asked—though not answered seriously—in the 2004 mockumentary, CSA: The Confederate States of America.
Nevertheless, HBO is turning to some of the folks who brought you Game of Thrones to develop a new series titled Confederate. The show imagines “an alternative timeline,” the network’s press release explained, “where the Southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.” And that’s not all:
The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.
HBO has chosen a particularly infelicitous time to unveil this project. After all, in the wake of the bitterly contested 2016 presidential election in large part waged and won on racial resentment and xenophobia, feelings are still raw over Americans’ ideological and partisan divide. Donald Trump’s triumph is not an aberration but the culmination of 50 years of Republican politics. So while some have called on HBO to abandon the series, one Trump supporter joked “they’re afraid that maybe the Confederacy will be shown in a good light.”
Yet the biggest problem with the hypothetical question behind Confederate is that it’s not so hypothetical at all. By all indications the show, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explained, “takes as its premise an ugly truth that black Americans are forced to live every day.” In a very real sense, the North won the war, but the South won the peace. Southern “Redemption” swamped national Reconstruction as an ivory curtain of white supremacy, intimidation, and violence soon enveloped the states of the former Confederacy. Northern exhaustion, complicity in the Johnson White House, and the entrenchment of a racist, conservative Supreme Court undermined the clear meaning and intent of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. In less than a generation, the institutionalization of segregation was complete.
As W.E.B. Dubois lamented, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” It took 100 years after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox for the civil rights movement to begin the demolition of the edifice of Jim Crow and with it, make possible the liberation of all Americans for all time.
All of which is why a far more powerful question for HBO to explore might be this: What if the North had won the Civil War much faster—and more completely?