TURNING POINTS OF THE CIVIL WAR
Copyright © Henry J. Sage 2006-2012

Antietam | Emancipation | Gettysburg | Vicksburg | Georgia

Many historians believe that the outcome the Civil War was more or less inevitable—that the industrial North with its vast resources of manpower, manufacturing, money and diplomatic relationships, was bound to prevail. As is suggested elsewhere on these pages, that view is not universally held, mostly because of the fact that the North and South had two very different objectives in war: the Union had to decisively defeat the South in order to bring them back into the fold; the Confederacy, on the other hand, could have won its objective of independence with a draw; in other words, what the South had to do was to keep the North from winning.

Three generally accepted turning points of the Civil War are three battles: Antietam, Gettysburg and Vicksburg. One might well add a fourth, namely, the Emancipation Proclamation, because it redefined the goals of the war for both North and South. A fifth turning point was Sherman's march through Georgia—a turning point only in the sense that there could be no turning back from that point forward—for either side.

Antietam

Military historians have concluded that the battle of Antietam was a tactical draw; neither side was driven off the field in disarray, and neither side could claim having dealt the other side a mortal blow. But the meaning of the battle for the course of the war was rooted in two events that occurred off the battlefield. First, in order for the South to have a significantly improved chance of winning the war, it needed foreign assistance. Just as the struggling 13 colonies, after they had declared themselves states, needed the assistance of the French to stave off defeat at the hands of the mighty British Empire, the Confederacy would certainly have benefited from the intrusion of Great Britain into the war. Had Great Britain intervened on the side of the Confederacy, it is quite likely that the Confederate States of America would have become a permanent political entity.

Not long before the Battle of Antietam it began to look as though intervention by the British might truly come to pass. In the opening days of the conflict the Union had suffered a diplomatic humiliation over the Trent affair, when Confederate agents were arrested while aboard a British ship, H.M.S. Trent. President Lincoln eventually apologized to the British, and the affair died, but about the same time Secretary of State William Seward had suggested that the president might want to provoke Great Britain and perhaps France into a conflict in order to reunify the country, an idea which wise Lincoln wisely ignored. The British were quite dependent upon Southern cotton to supply their mills, and there were other factors that supported friendly relationships between Great Britain and the confederacy. Thus, recognition and intervention on the part of Great Britain was no far-fetched idea.

Great Britain was not, however, quite ready to anger the United States government for various reasons diplomatic, political and economic, British intervention might even have led to a declaration of war by the United States. Nevertheless, as the early lack of Union success on the battlefields, especially in the East, opened the possibility of an eventual Confederate victory, Great Britain began to move in the direction of recognition of the South and perhaps a further involvement in the war on the Confederate side. But they needed a strong sign.

During the American Revolution, the French, after secretly aiding the colonies, had waited for an indication that the Americans might be able to win on the battlefield, and having seen that occur at Saratoga in 1777, France recognized American independence and formed a military alliance. In 1862 the British were looking for a similar sign of encouragement, and when Lee invaded Maryland's in September 1862, British leaders began to believe that a victory on Union soil might be what they were looking for. But although Lee's intrepid Army of Northern Virginia held its own against the larger Union force, largely because General McClellan failed to exploit his advantages, Lee was forced to retreat, and the tactical draw certainly did not equate to a strategic victory. The British hesitated, Lincoln acted, and the moment for recognition quickly passed.

Top

Emancipation

As President Lincoln himself said he had thought long and hard about the relationship between slavery and the Civil War from the very beginning of the conflict. When Horace Greeley challenged him in an open letter to state his intentions regarding slavery in the summer of 1862, Lincoln responded by saying that if he thought he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would do so. He added that if he thought he could save the Union by freeing none of the slaves he would do that, and then added that if he felt he could save the Union by freeing some of the slaves and leaving others in bondage, that he would do as well. In the end that is what he did.

Because several Union generals had jumped the gun, declaring slaves contraband, the idea took shape in Lincoln's mind. He decided to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, but he did not want to do so when Union military fortunes looked bleak, lest it seem like a desperation move. Although Antietam was not a decisive victory, it was close enough for Lincoln to use, since Lee had to retreat into Virginia. Thus President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation five days after the battle of Antietam, announcing that as of January 1, 1863, slaves in territory controlled by the Confederacy were to be forever free. He did not free all the slaves because he felt the did not have the constitutional authority to do so. Instead he used the Confederacy's own position regarding slaves against them: he counted them as property, property that had value in time of war and was therefore subject to being confiscated as contraband.

The battle of Antietam was a turning point in its own right, first because it demonstrated that Lee could not sustain an offensive on Union soil. Second, the battle was costly, the bloodiest single day of fighting in all of American history, and while the losses were approximately equal, the North could tolerate them far better than the Confederacy because it had a much larger manpower pool on which to draw. In that sense Antietam was militarily significant, if not a turning point in the military sense.

The Emancipation Proclamation, however, fundamentally altered the goals of the conflict for both sides. Lincoln's first concern was to save the Union; and although,Lincoln abhorred slavery, ending the “peculiar institution” was secondary to him. (Those who believe that Lincoln cared more about saving the Union than about ending slavery miss the point: If the Confederacy had won the war and become independent, Lincoln could have done nothing about the status of slavery in North America. And it is clear from the Confederate Constitution and the prewar political rhetoric, not to mention feelings and attitudes that had evolved in the South over 200 years, that slavery would have continued for a long time after the end of the conflict, perhaps even into the 20th century.)

If the Union were to prevail, however, after the Emancipation Proclamation it was fairly certain that would be a Union in which slavery would no longer exist. So from merely saving Union, the goal for the North became to save the Union without the institution of slavery. It is interesting to note that by the end of the war in late 1864-early 1865, the Confederacy had apparently changed its goal in the war as well, which had been to preserve Southern society with slavery intact. Instead their goal became to gain independence, even if they had to give up slavery in order to get it. in December 1864 Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin sent a secret delegation to Great Britain to plead one last time for their assistance in becoming independent, in exchange for which they would voluntarily end the institution of slavery. It was too late for Great Britain to intervene, however, but not long after that the Confederacy decided to arm the slaves in order to help them become free, a move which certainly would have tended to undermine status of slavery in the South. But the war ended before that happened, and the Confederacy lost its bid for independence, and slavery ended with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

Top

Gettysburg

Despite Antietam 1862 ended badly for President Lincoln. True, General Grant had won significant victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh, but he seemed bogged down in his campaign along the Mississippi, apparently unable to get a stranglehold on the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg. Furthermore, the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13 had been a disaster, as the Union army suffered horrendous casualties in its attempt to storm Marye's Heights. Lincoln then turned to General Joseph Hooker, but Hooker's fatally weak leadership at Chancellorsville led to what some call Lee's finest victory. As Lee prepared once again to invade into the North, the only ray of hope came from a little-known cavalry battle at Brandy Station, in which Jeb Stuart's Confederate horse soldiers were fought to a standstill by much improved Union cavalry under the command of General Alfred Pleasonton.

General Stuart, having received from Lee orders which to him were apparently vague, set off on his own northern invasion, one that kept him detached from Lee's army for days while Lee advanced into Union territory without his “eyes and ears.” Quite by accident Lee found the Union Army without Stuart's aid near the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Beginning as an encounter which was not planned by General Lee, nor by General George Meade, who had been in command of the Union Army of the Potomac for only a few days, Gettysburg turned into the biggest battle of the war.

From July 1 to July 3, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia kept Meade's Army of the Potomac fighting for its life. Having driven the Union through the town of Gettysburg on the first day, Lee attempted to turn both flanks on the famous fishhook position occupied by the Union along Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. On the third day, after a furious artillery barrage, General George Pickett's division, some 15,000 strong, assaulted the center of the Union line and was thrown back with horrendous casualties. Once again Lee marched his broken and bleeding army back to Virginia.

Gettysburg thus became another turning point, Lee's last offensive campaign of the war. It was also the first battle he had lost, and the first battle he had fought without his most trusted lieutenant, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who had been killed at Chancellorsville, at his side. In fact, although Lee's army continued to fight valiantly against the Union forces eventually commanded by General Grant, Lee never won another battle after Jackson's death.

Gettysburg is known as the high water mark of the Confederacy, for if they had broken through, as could have happened, it might well have spelled the end of the Union. Shortly after the battle, five regiments were rushed from Pennsylvania to New York City to put down some of the worst race riots in American history, when working class Irish and others viciously attacked African-Americans in protest against both the draft and the Emancipation Proclamation. They saw the war as “a rich man's war in a poor man's fight,” and that the draft, which allowed wealthy gentlemen to purchase substitutes for $300, was patently unfair. They also felt that emancipation could only threaten them economically, as thousands of freed slaves were bound to come north seeking economic opportunity.

In that last sense, Gettysburg was a turning point because of what did not happen. Lee did not win a decisive victory on Union soil, Washington was not directly threatened, and the Army of the Potomac felt it had wrought revenge upon the enemy for the defeat at Fredericksburg. Gettysburg was not the end, however, and a battle of greater military significance was going on at the same time in the western theater.

National Park Service Virtual Tour of the Battle of Gettysburg

Top

Vicksburg

For military historians, Vicksburg was the great turning point of the war. Back in 1861 the aging General Winfield Scott, who was later rudely nudged out of office by the ambitious young General McClellan, had outlined a strategy to bring the Confederacy to its knees. The so-called “Anaconda plan” was designed to have Union forces surround the Confederacy, isolate, divide and then conquer it. Scott's idea eventually won the war.

A major step in the plan was to divide the Confederacy along the Mississippi River and to restore the Mississippi to Union control. The key to that objective was the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg, Mississippi. following general grants victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh, he began to focus on Vicksburg. capturing the fortress city would be a monumental challenge, and four in addition to its state-of-the-art fortifications, Vicksburg stood on high ground and was bounded on the north by swampy terrain and on the south by steep bluffs. Grant first attempted to take Vicksburg from the east but he found his supply lines repeatedly harassed as he headed south from Tennessee into central Mississippi.

In early 1863 Grant tried a series of plans to get at Vicksburg, which even included included an abortive attempt to reroute the Mississippi River. Grant finally came up with a winning strategy, which was to take his army down the west side of the Mississippi, cross over south of Vicksburg advance to the northeast in the direction of the capital of Jackson, and then attack Vicksburg from the land side. in executing this plan Grant broke some conventional rules of warfare: he cut is off Army offer misapplied base he advance into hostile territory completely out of communication with his superior headquarters and placed his army between two Confederate armies, one commanded by General John Pemberton in Vicksburg, the other commanded by General Joe Johnston in the vicinity of Jackson. Grant also used the cavalry of Colonel Benjamin Grierson to disrupt Confederate communications, tear up railroads and generally cause confusion in the area between the two Confederate armies.

As Grant turned west from Jackson, General Pemberton went out to meet him, but Grant's army was too strong, and Pemberton was forced to withdraw inside the fortress city. General Johnston, whose forces were even smaller than Pemberton's comment decided not to join the fray, feeling that he lacks sufficient strength. by the time he decided to assist Pemberton, it was too late. Vicksburg was too strong to be taken by frontal assault, so Grant established a siege around the city, digging trenches in order to get closer to the Vicksburg lines while bombarding the city virtually around the clock with artillery and gunboats on the Mississippi. after 45 days Pemberton finally surrendered on the Fourth of July, 1863, 1 day after Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. in the words of President Lincoln, “the Father of Waters once again flows unvexed to the sea.”

The fall of Vicksburg was crucial. Up to that point the Confederacy had been able to get supplies in through Mexico and across the border with Texas as the Union Navy tried to patrol the entire Confederate seacoast from the Virginia capes to the Río Grande. Lee's army in Virginia had been supplied with Texas beef and other goods that crossed the Mississippi at Vicksburg and made their way to the Army of Northern Virginia. With Vicksburg fallen the western part of the Confederacy—Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and parts of Missouri, were no longer relevant to the main course of the war. Since the Union had taken in New Orleans in 1862 and had advanced down the Mississippi as far as Memphis in the same year, Vicksburg was the key to the center of the Mississippi; now the Union could use the mighty river for its own purposes. Since blockading the Texas coast was no longer important, the Union was able to tighten the blockade from New Orleans around to Virginia, making it even more difficult for blockade runners to slip through the cracks with weapons and supplies for the South.

President Lincoln, recognizing Grant as the most successful union general following his conquest of Vicksburg and his later victory at Chattanooga, promoted Grant to command of all Union forces in early 1864, and Grant spent the remainder of the war tangling with Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Grant's chief lieutenant, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, was left in command of the Army of the Tennessee in Chattanooga. Grant's plan for the war was to turn Sherman loose in Georgia while he held onto Lee in Virginia.

Sherman in Georgia

It is interesting to note that Karl Marx, who had always exhibited a great interest in United States, which was fast becoming the world's foremost bastion of capitalism, took a great interest in the American Civil War. During the war he wrote articles that appeared in New York newspapers, and in 1862, writing in an Austrian paper, he declared that the key to the Union winning the war was to divide the South along the Georgia line, which Sherman's accomplished with dispatch after he had captured Atlanta in September of 1864. Sherman's march to the sea was devastating; by his own reckoning he did $100 million worth of damage. But just as remarkable was the fact that he faced virtually no resistance, even when he finally reached Savannah in December 1864. Being able to move virtually unopposed through the South conveyed to Sherman, if to no one else, that the war was all but over. Following his march through Georgia, Sherman turned north to link up with Grant, but before that event could occur, Lee had been forced to surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

Sherman in Georgia had an impact on Lee in Virginia, for although Lee's men continued to fight bravely and well, the idea of a Union Army marauding behind them deep in the South was bound to undermine morale. Desertions rose to the point where General Lee wondered one morning whether there was indeed anyone left in his army. Sherman's march was proof that the Confederacy was out of options; when Lee was finally forced to surrender because General Sheridan had wrecked his supply train, and he found himself surrounded, the war had to end. With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, it was over.

Since President Lincoln had never recognized the Confederacy, except as a belligerent entity, there was no formal surrender, no peace treaty, nothing left but to finish burying the dead, caring for the wounded and the widows and dealing with the huge problem of Reconstruction. Lincoln, of course, did not live to see that.

Top

Civil War Home Civil War Introduction Background 1850s Civil War 1860-1862
Decisive Year 1863 Civil War 1864-1865 Turning Points Updated December 9, 2013