1863 Confederates Fear Union Will Conquer World by 1963
What a reconstructed Union might be like a hundred years after Gettysburg
As the month of July in 1863 drew to a close, the American Civil War had reached its mid-point. The most dramatic events of the war (prior to the final surrender at Appomattox) had occurred in the first few days of that month, and the Confederacy was reeling. Not only had Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, but the South's greatest hero, General Robert E. Lee, had been compelled to retreat from Pennsylvania after his Army of Northern Virginia suffered a devastating defeat in the battle of Gettysburg.
As news spread of these reverses, a rising tide of despondency began to grip the minds of many Southerners. To combat this growth of discouragement on the Confederate home front, the Richmond Dispatch newspaper published, in its July 30, 1863 edition, an editorial designed to encourage its readers that the recent disasters to Southern arms did not portend the ultimate defeat and dissolution of the Confederate States.
Why Confederates expected European intervention to save them
The point of the article was that the “Western Powers of Europe” would never permit the reconstruction of the Union, because they understood that a unified America would become an unstoppable force that would eventually rule the world. In attempting to make its case on this point, the Dispatch laid out a fascinating vision of what a reconstructed American nation could become in the next hundred years.
Basing its deductions on census figures and previously observed population trends, the Dispatch projected that a reconstructed United States could achieve a population of 200 million by 1932 and double that figure by 1963.
The Union at the last census, (1860) to the best of our recollection contained about 28,600,000 of inhabitants. From the time of its establishment it had always doubled its population every twenty three years. Supposing it to have 25,000,000 now, (which is a moderate estimate) in twenty three years from this time — that is to say in 1886, it will number 50,000,000, in 1909, 100,000,000, and in 1932, 200,000,000. Only think of a single nation of 200,000,000 of men, descendants of Europeans, and civilized after the European fashion! The bare array of figures makes the brain reel.
A reunited US would be literally too big to fail
In 1863 the prospect of a single nation reaching a population of 200 million, especially when that nation was comprised of people the writer considered to be racially superior because of their European heritage, was an amazing and alarming possibility. The Dispatch editorial writer had no doubt that “the resources of the country would be fully adequate to the enormous population it would contain in the next seventy years.” But his concern was with the military implications of the existence of a unified government with such boundless resources at its disposal.
The first of those predicted implications was that by 1932 this unified country of 200 million inhabitants would field the greatest standing army in the history of the world.
In France the proportion of the standing army to the population is one to fifty. The proportion would not be less in this restored Union, and the world would behold the astounding spectacle of a standing army reaching the enormous figure of four millions of men — What power could resist such an army. What nation would dare to assert its most indubitable rights in (the) presence of it?
Once such a force was available, and given what it considered the power-hungry nature of the United States government, the Dispatch was in no doubt of that army being used.
It must be recollected, too, that from this time forward the policy of the Yankee Government is to be highly aggressive. It designs to go on conquering until nothing shall be left for its arms to be tried upon ... Let the Union be restored, and France will be driven from Mexico, while Great Britain may (find) it impossible to hold Canada. ...
Let the Union be restored, and let it exist seventy years and it will have conquered and possessed every foot of land from Hudson's Bay (to) Cape Horn. Its population of 200,000,000 and its army of 4,000,000 will call for a fleet of at least 10,000 steamers. What, then will become of British India, of China, of Asia down to the Dardanelles? What will become of England herself, of France, of all Europe, one century from this time, when the Union if allowed to be restored and to run its natural course will have 400,000,000 of inhabitants.
Based upon these seemingly reasonable projections, the Dispatch anticipated that by 1963 a reconstructed Union would become an aggressive and unmanageable behemoth that, by pure military might, would be the unchallenged ruler of the entire planet.
Of course, the Dispatch writer’s purpose in projecting such a future for the United States was not to celebrate American Manifest Destiny. Rather, his intent was to reassure his readers that in light of these possibilities, there was absolutely no chance that Europe in general, and France and Great Britain in particular, would ever allow a nation of such irresistible might to come into being.
It is true that such a civilized nation as that we have just depicted never has existed yet and never can exist. ... Now here is a nation promising to number 400,000,000 in a century, all under one Government, and speaking one language. It evidently cannot hold together — The thing is preposterous. It has already been broken in fragments, and England and France will take care that the fragments shall not be united. One hundred years is scarcely a day in national life, and they see what a nation this would be in one hundred years and how completely it would rule the world.
Where the predictions went wrong
Looking at these predictions with the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, it’s easy to see where the editor of the Dispatch went wrong. First of all, his article was written with a particular political agenda in mind, and that always tends to distort any analysis of current or future trends. His aim was to reinforce the widespread belief among white Southerners that as soon as it became apparent that the South was about to be overwhelmed by the admittedly much greater military might of the North, European nations would intervene in the war to prevent the reunification of the nation. Thus the writer had an obvious reason to be biased toward seeing the reconstructed US of a century later as being as big and as threatening to other nations as possible.
More importantly, the Dispatch article is an example of the dangers of straight-line predictive thinking, which simply extends current conditions into the future.
Since the Civil War, has the U. S. become the nation the Dispatch predicted?
For example, the article’s population projection for 1963 was off by more than 100%. Rather than 400 million, as a straight-line analysis would imply, the population of the US as reported by the 1960 census was just over 179 million. The US military reached a maximum of about 12 million in uniform at the end of WW2, three times what the Dispatch considered to be an unimaginable force. Yet no government in the world, including our own, believes that the idea of the US ruling the world by virtue of its military might is a reasonable possibility. And the prediction that the US government would pursue a “highly aggressive” policy in the 20th century would surely sound strange to anyone able to anticipate the tide of isolationism that would engulf the country prior to its entrance into both WWI and WWII.
What the Dispatch got right
And yet, the editor of the Dispatch did capture something real about what the United States could become. His article reflected the unshakeable faith that animated most Americans in the 19th century, both North and South, that their country was fated to lead, if not to rule, the world. That its destiny was to set a standard of freedom and prosperity that the rest of the world would aspire to reach. And even today, almost 150 years after the Richmond Dispatch encouraged Southerners to persist in their efforts to break apart the country into separate and competing nations, that vision of a transcendent United States still animates and motivates many of the citizens of a united American nation.
- Richmond Daily Dispatch
Civil War editions of the Richmond Daily Dispatch online
© 2011 Ronald E. Franklin