Causality, Contingency, and Coincidence

People often underestimate the degree to which history is contingent, able to swing one way or another based on a chance occurrence or one the decision of a single person. In hindsight, unforeseeable events often seem inevitable.

Audiences, aware that stories are inherently fabricated, tend to be very hostile to the sort of coincidences that can drive history. This presents something of a challenge to authors looking at history for inspiration.

So let’s look at one of the great contingencies of history, that one time when the South could have won the American Civil War in 1862 were it not for a single dropped letter.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, 1863. Public domain image.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, 1863. Public domain image.

In the early fall of 1862, after defeating a Union offensive in the Seven Days Battles, Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to launch a risky invasion of Maryland.

Lee intended to defeat the Union on their own turf and possibly even force the evacuation of Washington, D.C. This would hopefully be enough to persuade the British Empire to intervene and force the North to negotiate a peace. The British, who were suffering from the Union blockade of Southern cotton, had been seriously considering intervention and Lee wanted to convince them that they’d be backing the right horse.

Lee’s army advanced in three separate columns, each about 20 miles apart. This allowed them to be more effective at pillaging the countryside but it went against the basic military doctrine to never split the party the army.

As Union troops began massing around Washington in response to the invasion, Lee recognized it was no longer safe for his army to be so spread out. He wrote a detailed letter to his commanders ordering them to regroup. The letter was wrapped around three cigars and given to a courier, who promptly dropped it.

Gen. George B. McClellan, 1861.

Gen. George B. McClellan, 1861.

The missing letter was discovered by a Union private who quickly shared it with his superiors. By nightfall it had reached the hands of General George B. McClellan, the commander of the Union army. Cautious and paranoid to the point of indecision, McClellan sat on the letter for several days before deciding it was genuine.

Had McClellan acted faster, he might have been able to destroy the Confederate forces piecemeal. Instead, Lee was able to assemble his full army at the rendezvous point just in time for McClellan to attack, resulting in the inconclusive slaughter at Antietam. Blocked from advancing on Washington, Lee retreated back to Virginia.

This was enough of a victory for President Abraham Lincoln to unveil his own plan to dissuade the British from intervening. With the Confederates now theoretically on the run, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to formally commit the Union to at least some degree of opposition to slavery. It was now morally impossible for the anti-slavery British to favor the South over the North.

Had the letter not been lost, there is a strong argument to be made that Lee would have been able to outmaneuver the perpetually outmatched McClellan and gotten the major Confederate victory he was looking for.

So, how would this go over in fiction?

On one hand, the courier dropping the letters is sheer coincidence, which is difficult to tolerate beyond the very start of a story. But on the other hand, Lee was ignoring basic military doctrine, which resulted in the need for the courier in the first place. And the discovery of the letters does not result in an overwhelming Union victory. McClellan’s indecisiveness allows the opportunity to end the war in 1862 slip through his fingers and he is ultimately only able to manage a stalemate.

I think the lost order is a permissible coincidence, so long as the narrative makes clear that it’s the temperament of the commanders–Lee’s recklessness and McClellan’s caution–that’s ultimately driving events. By this point, of course, Lee and McClellan should be established characters, having already tangled during the Seven Days. A scene in which Lee is warned that his decision to split the army is dangerous helps foreshadow the lost order, while after its recovery a scene in which someone tries to persuade McClellan to overcome his natural caution and act on the information could be quite dramatic.

This creates tension going into the battle: the South has lost its element of surprise, but McClellan’s hesitation squanders much of the Union’s advantage. There’s a real sense that the fight could go either way. But afterwards, when the Confederates are forced to retreat and Lincoln is able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s clear that Lee’s mistake was the costlier. Cause and effect is preserved, while the lost letter adds a bit of extra suspense to the proceedings.

The general rule is that the best place for a big coincidence is right at the start of a story (often the means to kick it off). But with care, plenty of coincidences can be integrated into the main body of the story while preserving the narrative causality that creates a suspension of disbelief.

Quick reminder to check out my writing contest, “What’s in the Box?” which concludes on August 31, 2013.


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