May 19, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The Turning Point of the Civil War

6 min read

Aftermath of Battle of Gettysburg Photo by famous Civil War photographer, Timothy O'Sullivan

While historians will argue as to what was the actual turning point of the Civil War, most won’t argue about the date. (If you are not aware of what the Civil War is, or just want to refresh, click here to start from the beginning.) On July 4, 1863, two separate Confederate armies forfeited; one of these was in the form of retreat, the other was a surrender. While either of these events could have single-handedly brought the Confederate States of America crumbling down, combined, the two battles shattered the confidence of the Confederate’s troops and supporters.

As covered in the last entry, the Siege of Vicksburg was Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s attempt to defeat the Confederate troops controlling the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. As General Grant had recently taken Memphis, Tennessee, and Flag Officer David Farragut had taken the Port of New Orleans, the only stronghold that the Confederate Army had along the Mississippi River was the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Since I know you already read the last entry, I will just skip the details and announce that on July 4th, after a six-week attack on the city, the Confederate Army surrendered to General Grant.

At this point, both sides had lost battles, so why was this one so important?

The Siege of Vicksburg accomplished several things for the Union Army. As a condition of surrender, General Grant would receive 50,000 rifles and 172 cannons. The other condition was the surrender of 30,000 men. As far as I can determine, the loss of these 30,000 men would be the largest loss of fighters during the Civil War. No battle would claim more than the 30,000 men “lost” at the Siege of Vicksburg. The capture of the Mississippi River would also prove beneficial in many ways. As the Confederates could no longer use the Mississippi River, Arkansas and Texas were cut off and were unable to provided men or resources to the Confederate armies. The Mississippi River had also been a fast trade route. The South could quickly ship troops and supplies up and down the river to replenish as needed. Now that the North had control of the river, their fast trade route was cut off, which also completed the quarantine of the CSA, now making importation impossible. The last accomplishment was the complete obliteration of the South’s morale. The southern most states had taken a severe beating at the hands of General Grant. Most of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana was now under control of the Union Army and the citizens of these states had lost hope.

Battle of Gettysburg: Deadliest Battle of the Civil War

The other great battle that ended on July 4th, was the Battle of Gettysburg. The Battle of Gettysburg is one of the most dissected battles in America’s history, definitely in the Civil War. This would also be the battle with the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War. I could write twenty blog posts just covering the three-day battle, but I will try to just give you the bullet points.

As General Lee defeated the Union Army at Chancellorsville, Virginia, he planned what would be his largest and last offensive campaign. Starting in May, General Lee would start what would be known as the Gettysburg Campaign. There are many battles and skirmishes that would take place on the way from Chancellorsville, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but again, you don’t want this to end up a twenty page entry. General Lee hoped that several goals would be met with this campaign: 1) he hoped to crush the Union Army and move further north, 2) allow his men to live off the land and food of the northern states, 3) relieve Union pressure on previously mentioned Vicksburg, Mississippi, and 4) give the land of Virginia a break, for it had seen several battles and taken quite a beating.

As of June 30th, parts of both sides had arrived to battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It is important to understand that on the first day of battle, July 1st, each side only had about 20,000 troops a piece. By the next day, those numbers would have more than tripled. It is also important to understand that with so many troops and so much land to fight on, the armies of both sides had been divided and split into several different parties. (So if I say that a side was here, then there, then it probably wasn’t the same platoon or unit.)

On July 1st, just before day-break, the Confederates started to move in on the Union soldiers’ defense line. This was ill-advised and against the orders of General Lee, but Generals Hill and Heth believed that the Union’s numbers were small and advanced anyways. It was also on the first day of the battle that General Lee sent orders to General Ewell to take Cemetery Hill, if it was “practicable.” To the dismay of many historians today, deciding that taking Cemetery Hill was impracticable was a substantial mistake and a missed opportunity. By nightfall the remaining soldiers had arrived on both sides and the next two days would prove bloody and brutal.

Joshua Chamberlain

The second day commenced and already the Confederates were off to a rocky start. Before the battle began, on June 30th, General Lee had given General J.E.B. Stuart permission to take a portion of the cavalry army and attempt to go around the eastern flank of the Union Army. Here on the second day, no one had heard from General Stuart. Without these additional men, the Confederate Army would be missing a large percentage of its warriors. General Stuarts continued absence, in addition to some faulty intelligence, compounded with poor management skills at the attack of Little Round Top would quickly diminish the Confederate’s spirits. It was here at Little Round Top where the famous downhill bayonet charge, led by Joshua L. Chamberlain, took place. At the end of the second day, General Lee had been unsuccessful in breaching the Union’s defensive lines.

On the third day, General Lee decided to attack right in the middle. Having spent the last two days trying to attack the sides, the Confederate soldiers were all gathered together and advanced down the middle. The deafening defeat by cannon would be the last thing that these men would remember. As 12,500 men, stretching a mile in length, would march to attack the Union, only 50% of them would survive.

Around 3 p.m., the cannon fire subsided, and 12,500 Southern soldiers stepped from the ridgeline and advanced the three-quarters of a mile (1,200 m) to Cemetery Ridge in what is known to history as “Pickett’s Charge“. As the Confederates approached, there was fierce flanking artillery fire from Union positions on Cemetery Hill and north of Little Round Top, and musket and canister fire from Hancock’s II Corps. In the Union center, the commander of artillery had held fire during the Confederate bombardment, leading Southern commanders to believe the Northern cannon batteries had been knocked out. However, they opened fire on the Confederate infantry during their approach with devastating results. (Wikipedia)

Pickett's Charge
Pickett’s Charge

As part of this attack, the Confederates broke down part of the Union’s defensive line and this would be the furthest advance made by the Confederate Army. This would be known as the “High-water mark of the Confederacy”, and would stand as the closest that the South came to achieving independence. The next day, July 4th, General Lee defeated, retreated back to Virginia. As some historians debate the true victor of the battle, saying that Gettysburg was a “strategic loss for the Confederacy”, it goes without saying that the loss was, if not entirely to blame, then greatly to blame on Lee’s subordinates.  All of General Lee’s four high-ranking commanders made poor choices. James Longstreet did not attack when commanded to by Lee and argued continually with Lee. J.E.B. Stuart took cavalry and disappeared for two days when they were needed the most, and by doing so robbed Lee of intelligence that would have ensured the Confederates victories. Richard Ewell did not take the opportunity to take the high ground when instructed. A.P. Hill prematurely started the war, before all Confederate parties had arrived, making the Confederates fight an up-hill battle.

As you can see, there are many to blame for the loss, but a loss it still remains. Between the loss here and the loss at Vicksburg, Confederate armies and supporters were dismayed with the idea of the Confederate States of America. This led to loyalty changes and broken soldier. The Confederate Army would never again lead an offensive attack on the United States.

Check out my analysis of the Gettysburg Address: Gettysburg Address, Poetry.

7 thoughts on “The Turning Point of the Civil War

  1. Even though Rosecrans was driven back into Chattanooga after Chickamauga, the valuable farmland that I mentioned in my post was still not available to the Confederacy. That was the point of my comment. Armies that cannot eat, cannot fight.

  2. Gettysburg was an “accident”, which I think at least partially explains Lee’s loss. Stuart was off raiding / scouting and so Lee had lost his intelligence. When one Confederate division went to Gettysburg to find shoes, they ran into Union cavalry. Instead of retreating, the Confederates called for reinforcements, and so the Union cavalry did too and and what should have been a skirmish became a battle which Lee never planned on.

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