One of my favorite kinds of science fiction is a subgenre known as “alternate history.”  The authors of this sort of science fiction ask the “what if” questions of history: what if the North had lost the battle at Gettysburg?  What if the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had failed?  What if Hitler had developed the atomic bomb first?  The science fiction author Harry Turtledove has built his career on asking such “what if” questions.

            Turtledove was trained as a historian and received his PhD from UCLA in Byzantine History in 1977.   He’s written s such novels as Ruled Britannia, in which he assumed the Spanish Armada had not been destroyed in a storm and so had successfully invaded and conquered England.  What would England be like after that?  What might that have done to the kinds of plays that Shakespeare would write?  Historians call these sort of “what if” questions that Turtledove turned into fiction as “counterfactual history.”  That is, history that didn’t actually happen.  The value of counterfactual history in the academic setting of working historians is that it allows them to think carefully and deeply about the turning points in history.  There are many moments in our past, both recent and distant, where a minor change would have had profound repercussions.

            Although science fiction writers enjoy writing alternate histories where the Nazis won, professional historians who have examined the realities of the Second World War, for instance in the 1997 book What If? Strategic Alternatives of WWII,  conclude that there was really no possibility of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan ever winning the war in the long run.  Certainly battles could have ended differently, the war might have taken longer to conclude, but in the end, the overwhelming industrial strength of the United States ensured its ultimate victory.              Likewise, any examination of the Civil War shows the southern states inevitably losing, usually much faster than they actually did in the real world.  That the Civil War lasted as long as it did is primarily due to the combination of the superior talent of certain Southern generals combined with a string of incredibly incompetent Northern generals.  The only hope the South had for victory was if  England had joined the war on their side.  Although England  had no love for the United States and would not have minded seeing the union destroyed, England had even less love for the institution of slavery, making the southern cause very unpopular.

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            One of the most fertile fields for counterfactual history revolves around the American Revolution.  The victory of the Americans over the British was so very unlikely that every battle, every turning point, if altered even slightly, results in a British victory.  In point of fact, had not one very improbable event after another happened, the United States would have been stillborn.  That our nation exists as an independent republic is one of the most remarkably unlikely events in all of human history.



            To look at just one example: just as England was saved by the weather when an unexpected storm sent the Spanish invasion fleet to the bottom of the ocean, foggy weather saved the American Revolution.  The first major battle of the American Revolution, the Battle of Long Island, occurred at the end of August, 1776.  After defeating the British at the Siege of Boston on March 17, 1776, George Washington had brought the Continental Army to defend New York City.  At the time, New York City was located only on the southern end of Manhattan Island.  He established his defenses and then waited for the British to attack.

            In July, the British, commanded by General William Howe, landed a few miles across the harbor on Staten Island.  Over the next month, they slowly reinforced until by August there were thirty-two thousand British troops in complete control of the entrance to New York Harbor. 

            On August 22, the British landed on Long Island, across The Narrows from Staten Island and across the East River from Manhattan.  After five days of waiting, the British attacked the American defenses.  The Americans were doomed if they tried to stand and fight, and so Washington decided to evacuate his army of nine thousand soldiers on the night of August 29-30.

            Washington and his army were surrounded on Brooklyn Heights with the East River to their backs.  If the wind shifted, the British ships could have sailed up the East River and destroyed the Americans. 

            By about 9 PM Washington had begun the evacuation.  Artillery, supplies, and troops were all being evacuated across the river by boat but it did not go as fast as Washington had hoped.  The night dragged on and with many troops left in danger,  sunrise was fast approaching.  But then,  unexpectedly, just before the sun came up,  a thick fog settled in.  Thus, the rest of the evacuation from the British remained concealed.  

            As the morning wore on, the British became suspicious of the odd silence across the way.  The British finally sent patrols to search the area.  While they were arriving, Washington, hidden by the fog, stepped onto the last boat and sailed away.  By 7 AM, he and all nine thousand of his troops had been evacuated without a single life lost.  

            It had not been foggy the night before.  It was not foggy the night after. And it normally wasn’t foggy there that time of the year.  But when they needed it most, the fog rolled in.

            If not for the unexpected arrival of the fog, the American revolution would have ended that night and the Americas would have remained a part of the British Empire.  But Washington and his army escaped, so they could fight again another day. 


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