It's the age-old query of the historian. And, through its lens, one can view any war and the subsequent history.
What if the Moors had won the battle of Tours? What if the Allies had been turned back at Normandy? What if Robert E. Lee had broken through the Union center at Gettysburg?
This week America honors the 150th, or sesquicentennial, anniversary of the bloodiest battle in its history — Gettysburg. It was fought over a three-day period, July 1 to 3, 1863.
Fifty years ago I was an 18-year-old college freshman during the centennial celebration of the battle. I'm ashamed to admit that at the time I knew precious little of the war.
Then, the only exposure I'd had to the "War Between the States" — other than a lecture or two in a history class — was Stephen Crane's novel, "The Red Badge of Courage." But, long after high school graduation — and some necessary oak-barrel aging — I began to develop an appreciation for history.
I was introduced to the Civil War three decades ago while taking an ad hoc battlefield tour in Manassas, Va., I squeezed in a self-guided tour while on a Washington, D.C. business trip. Manassas — close to D.C. — was the site of two Civil War battles.
I was hooked.
I've since read dozens of books on the war, attended classes and lectures, and walked countless battlefields. I'm currently reading Allen Guelzo's new book: "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion." It's probably the 10th or 12th volume on Gettysburg I've read. My Gettysburg education began with Michael Shaara's fine 1974 novel, "The Killer Angels."
I've visited Gettysburg six or seven times, and have walked Pickett's Charge on multiple occasions. The nearly mile-wide piece of real estate, from Seminary Ridge on the west to Cemetery Ridge on the east, was the focus of a fateful Confederate charge on the afternoon of July 3, 1863.
Though the small stone wall in front of the Union line was briefly breached by the graycoats, the charge was repulsed. Scarcely half the nearly 14,000 Confederates who made the charge returned safely to their own lines.
I've lingered in front of that wall, facing the now silent Union batteries, and thought of the boys whose bodies were reduced to pulp by canister shot from the cannons. Lives were ended that day before they'd begun.
On the second day of the battle, Lee concocted a brilliant echelon assault strategy for his Confederates against Cemetery Ridge. It faltered, however. Why? One of my Civil War professors insists Lee made a tactical error in probing the Union center rather than rolling up the flanks.
Here's how amateur military "historian" — and former Florida State football coach — Bobby Bowden might describe it: "The Rebels lost because of their failure to open up the dadgummed defense by busting the corners with sweeps and sideline patterns. The Confederates failed to get physical at the point of attack!"
As Jackson might add — Keith, not "Stonewall" — the Union Army's defense at Gettysburg "packed nine in the box" and dared the Rebs to run up the gut. Coach Lee obliged.
Many historians have labeled the Civil War "the first modern war." At its outset, the two sides were satisfied to assemble before one another and slug it out. Many, in its early days, thought the war would last no longer than three months.
The bloody internecine conflict went on for four long years, and claimed 750,000 lives.
As combat dragged on, inventive practices for digging in and defending territory were conceived. Many defensive measures developed in the Civil War were used in World War I.
Due to geopolitical realities, the bar for a Northern victory was decidedly higher than that for Southern success. The Union was forced to invade the South and conquer territory in order to win the war. The South needed only to erode Northern resolve.
Lee's goal was to exhaust the North and cause Lincoln's defeat in the 1864 election, then sue for peace. He darned near accomplished that goal.
On this 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, we still play the "what if?" game.
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.