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Was Gettysburg the only and main definitive turning point of the Civil War?

Although the battle of Gettysburg has become a central symbol in the American historical consciousness for a sort of “breaking point” in the Civil War, cold historical evidence enables the studious observer to realize that the battle of Gettysburg, although a highly significant event during the course of the American Civil War, was neither “the” changing point, nor a battle which spelled the immediate doom of the Confederacy.

Although the battle of Gettysburg did spell the end of Lee’s invasion of the North and it certainly put Lee’s army on a nearly-permanent defensive footing, the battle hardly signified a point at which the tide of the war turned irrevocably away from the South. Even though Gettysburg was a terrible loss for the South, “There were still good opportunities for the Confederacy in 1864. Lincoln’s re-election in November 1864 very much depended on (belated) military success[… ] In short, the Confederacy was not inevitably a ‘Lost Cause’. ” (Farmer, 2005)

Significantly enough, Grant’s successful conquest of Vicksburg, which was completed militarily on the same day as the final day’s battle of Gettysburg, can be demonstrated to have played a much larger role in crippling the confederacy and spoiling its chance to gain foreign recognition and foreign intervention which might break the Union naval blockade which was enacted at the war’s beginning as part of the Union “Anaconda” strategy. The blockade and the Northern control of the Mississippi river proved devastating to the Confederacy:

Because the US Navy prevented coastal shipping at least as efficiently as it interdicted foreign shipments, the South lost one of its major antebellum transportation assets. An underdeveloped rail system could not handle the demands of a wartime economy and simultaneously absorb the increased burden formerly borne by inter-coastal shipping. (Bartholomees, 2003) In order to find a successful conclusion to the war, the South was required to do more than simply defend itself, it must: “wear down Northern will. A long bloody war was the best way to do this. The war was long and bloody but Northern will endured.

” (Farmer, 2005) The problem that faced the South was less one of military capacity, but of material and time. These factors contributed, no doubt, to Lee’s decision to bring the fight to the Union, to invade the North, and to attack Meade’s line at Gettysburg. In retrospect, the attack, by Lee, at Gettysburg seems foolhardy and many writers have expressed just this opinion. However, Lee knew that the Union must be made to feel the way, to suffer, or its natural advantage in wealth and industrial capacity would win out over Southern determination and resourcefulness.

In fact, Lee had already reaped great success at the battle of Chancellorsville when he had attacked a larger, better equipped, and ostensibly better trained army with his own divided force, and achieved a brilliant victory which spelled the high-water mark of the Confederacy: “After Chancellorsville, strong hopes of peace were entertained in the South” (Henderson, 1902, p. 468) To this end, and hoping to find a similar success at Gettysburg, “On July 3, Lee attacked the Union center[…

] The gallant charge was repulsed with terrific losses. When July 4 dawned, Meade considered his army to be too used up to counterattack, and Lee began his retreat. ” (Basler, 1967, p. 101) Both Lee’s failed assault and Meade’s incapacity to pursue the beaten Confederates simple reinforced the hopeless, static feeling about the war that was beginning to coalesce on both sides of the conflict. Among those who were fighting the war and leading the two nations, the battle of Gettysburg was not felt as any kind of turning point. (Ades, 2001).

Instead, Gettysburg was looked at by Lincoln as evidence that he did not have at his disposal, Generals who could take the fight to the enemy and bring the war to a close. The battle, looked at from the perspective of the South, proved to be a deathblow to the notion of Southern invulnerability, but even the most Lee-admiring Southerners must have realized that the successful capture of Vicksburg, by Grant’s army, threatened the livlihood and war-making capacity of the South far more seriously and with a longer lasting consequence than Lee’s military blunder at Gettysburg.

What reverberated out of the battle of Gettysburg for the North was not yet the myth which the battle has become for modern readers. It is well-known, for example, that Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” was received pretty dully by his contemporaries and the myth-inspiring stories of the 20th Maine and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had not yet been penned by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and so were not in the public’s mind as we understand them in the North or the South in the days and months directly following the battle of Gettysburg.

The later interpolation of these mythic stories and historical romanticism in the popular consciousness is probably the single most vital reason why some people might consider the battle of Gettysburg to have been the true turning point of the American Civil War. It is much easier to understand specific, microcosmic example which seems to illustrate an historical climax than it is to understand the complex historical truths that actually predicated historical events.

The true turning point of the war, ironically, was not so much a single military engagement or a tactical decision, but an overall evolution of vision which was learned through bitter, bloody experience by both sides, but was only “usable” by the North once realized, because only the North had the manpower and industrial capacity to wage what would later become known as “total war. ” What “total war” meant was the “ability to crush Southern military resistance. Defeat caused defeatism, not vice versa.

A people whose armies are beaten, railways wrecked, cities burned, countryside occupied and crops laid waste, lose their will–and ability–to continue fighting. ” (Farmer, 2005) It was Sherman, perhaps, who first understood the underlying economic nature of the war, realizing that the Union with its superior material and financial power would ultimately prevail. However, his conception of how to convince the South of this truth was founded on a concept of “total war,” a strategic approach first used on the famous “march to the sea.

” During this late period of the war, Sherman envisioned a “dazzling campaign– to march his army across Georgia to the sea, tearing the Confederacy asunder, and destroying everything in his path. ” (Ades, , 2001, p. 226) The ensuing destruction wrought havoc and despair on the civilian population of the South and undermined the South’s economic and psychological ability to survive. The idea of war as a psychological tool of destruction was both new and devastatingly powerful.

Sherman’s troops “looted houses, stole food and burnt rebel supplies “like Demons. ” It turned out that the Georgia countryside had an abundance of supplies for Sherman’s 62,000 strong army. And what they did not eat, they destroyed. ” (Ades, 2001, p. 227) Few observers at the start of the American Civil War imagined the ultimate de-evolution of the war from its psuedo-Napoleonic beginnings with armies in formation maneuvering along classical military lines to achieve a tactical advantage.

Because so many of the generals on both sides of the war derived their knowledge of battlefield tactics from the same sources, particularly Jomini, and also because many of the generals on either side received training at West Point, the war’s beginning gave but a small hint of the “total war” which would be achieved by the close of 1865. In fact “high spirits and overconfidence on both sides fostered the popular belief that the war would be short and glorious” (Ades, 63). The realization that much more than battlefield victory would be necessary to put down the Southern rebellion was slow to be reached by Lincoln’s generals.

The impact of “total war” in the North included the raising of African American regiments and the deployment of black troops in combat. In the American Civil War, approximately one-hundred-eighty-thousand African American soldiers and seven thousand white officers in one-hundred sixty-six Union regiments served in four hundred and forty-nine battles. Thirty-seven thousand of these soldiers perished in the war. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” in the North was subsequently followed by a desperate measure on the failing Confederacy’s part: the partial emancipation of their own African American slave class.

Black regiments were soon formed, but “it was too little too late. ” (Ades, 235) Meanwhile civilians in the South including women were subjected to continued deprivation, violence and fear. In conclusion, Sherman’s commitment to “total war” along with the naval blockade and the capture of Vicksburg and the Mississippi were far more instrumental in breaking the Confederacy’s will to fight than Lee’s dramatic but survivable loss at the battle of Gettysburg.

The key to the success of “total war” lay not only in its demoralizing of the enemy (and simultaneous morale boost for Union loyalist and troops) but in its ruinous economic impact on the South. By late 1864, supplies of “food, equipment, arms, ammunition and men were all running dangerously low. The Confederate dollar was plummeting in value, sinking to less than two-percent of its original value” (Ades, 2001, p. 230) which, of course, spelled the end of the war regardless of battlefield victories which continued for Southern troops right up to the war’s true end.

References

Ades, Harry. (2001).The Little Book of the Civil War. New York; Barnes and Noble Books. Bartholomees, J. B. (2003). Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War. Parameters, 33(3), 161+. Retrieved September 27, 2008, from Questia database: http://www. questia. com/PM. qst? a=o&d=96834657 Basler, R. P. (1967). A Short History of the American Civil War. New York: Basic Books. Farmer, A. (2005). Why Was the Confederacy Defeated? Alan Farmer Explains Why the North Won the American Civil War. History Review, (52), 15+. Henderson, G. F. (1902). Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War (Vol. 2). London: Longmans, Green.

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