I recently listened to Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (audiobook version; Vintage Civil War Library, 2014), and in following his account of this bloody battle, you can’t miss that it illustrates the role of contingency in historical study. That is, history is marked by asking the question, how would things have turned out differently if this or that event had not happened?
In the case of the battle at Gettysburg, the question often goes like this: what needed to happen in order for the Confederates to score a victory at Gettysburg? If only Stonewall Jackson had survived the friendly fire that wounded him two months earlier at Chancellorsville; if only J. E. B. Stuart hadn’t taken so long to get to Gettysburg and provide screening for Lee’s movements; if only Lieutenant General Dick Ewell had pressed forward on July 1 and taken cemetery hill; if only Lieutenant General James Longstreet had started his assaults on July 2 and 3 earlier in the day; if only George Pickett had received the cover he needed to conduct his charge; if only General Lee had pushed his generals to take more initiative or had backed away from a general engagement in early July to find better ground. If only.
Another way to ask the question is, who should take the credit or blame for Gettysburg? One of the fascinating aspects of Gettysburg that Guelzo highlights is that the Union’s Major General John Reynolds played a key role in engaging General Robert E. Lee before he had gathered all his forces together at Gettysburg. In fact, General George Meade, who had just days before been appointed head of the Army of the Potomac, preferred a defensive strategy. But Reynolds believed it best to find and fight Lee, and though Reynolds lost his life early on in the battle, his action on July 1 in many ways forced Meade’s hand to engage the enemy and enticed Lee to pursue a winner-take-all battle with his grand visions of a victory in Northern territory. If Reynolds had delayed his approach, what then might the battle have yielded?
All these “ifs” and “if onlys” represent an exercise in counterfactuals. If any number of historical events had occurred or not occurred, the battle—and perhaps the entire Civil War—could have turned out drastically different. Counterfactuals speak of what might have been, of a different world that could have resulted if only one or a few moments had transpired differently. Counterfactuals highlight the reality of contingency in history and in life.
Yet such contingencies also raise questions about the hand of providence in human events. How much of what looks like contingency from the human perspective is merely the accomplishment of God’s divine will? Christian historians have offered varied responses to this thorny question, and this helpful post by Justin Taylor features six such approaches to providence in historical interpretation.
While I aim not to answer that question fully here (it could easily take up a lengthy tome), I think we do well to remember that as it is in theology, so it is in history: we must hold in tension the impact of human choices with the mystery of God’s sovereign control over human events, which result in the fulfilling of his ultimate purposes.
This tension in no way relieves humans of their responsibility. And as historians, remembering the role of contingency helps us understand not ultimately what might have been, but why what was indeed was.
In the end, Guelzo shows how Gettysburg marked a turning point in the Civil War—not a military turning point that shifted the balance clearly into Northern hands, but a psychological turning point that made a Southern invasion of the North untenable and boosted Northern support for the war at a time when Northern enthusiasm was flagging. And though the Americans would see two more years of bloody conflict, this battle played a key—though perhaps not decisive—role in turning the tide. The ultimate result was a restored union and the abolition of slavery.
The North may have achieved these results through other means, but it almost lost its chance to do so at Gettysburg. With all the possible outcomes of this battle, we can look back and see that Gettysburg—which could have ended quite differently than it did—made the actual outcome of the war possible at a time when it was appearing less plausible. Christian historians can and should recognize the impact of human decisions on the battle’s outcome even while they consider how God’s unseen hand worked with and through human actions to accomplish his inscrutable will on the grander scheme of human history.