Was Gettysburg the Turning Point of the War? – Part 3

Read Parts One and Two

Alan Nolan argues that somewhere “between mid-July and mid-December, 1863, . . . Lee was aware that the cause was lost.” In other words, Lee believed that the battle of Gettysburg or some other event shortly thereafter proved to be decisive or constituted a turning point from which the Confederacy could not recover. He justifies his conclusion by quoting from Lee himself, who at different times conveyed grave pessimism. Just prior to Gettysburg, in a letter to Jefferson Davis, he wrote that “We should not, therefore, conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing, and the disproportion in this respect between us and our enemies, if they continue united in their efforts to subjugate us, is steadily augmenting.” “Without some increase in strength” he wrote at the end of August 1864, “I cannot see how we are to escape the natural military consequences of the enemy’s numerical superiority.” In a letter to the secretary of war on February 19, 1865, two months before Appomattox, Lee wrote, “I fear it may be necessary to abandon all our cities & preparation should be made for this contingency.”

Though the above selections referred to by Nolan point to a sentiment of gloom, we can still cast doubt on whether lee acknowledged at any point, apart from when he surrendered his army on April 9, 1865, that he believed the cause was lost or that he regarded a specific event as decisive or a turning point for his Army of Northern Virginia and/or the Confederacy. Even though Lee expressed doubt as to the Confederacy’s prospects for independence at various times, especially after Gettysburg, he could not have known how or when the war would end. In fact, as Nolan himself acknowledges, Lee did appear hopeful at a number of points throughout 1864 and the beginning of 1865, which included prospects of a Lincoln defeat during the November elections and even at the very end on the road to Appomattox where he hoped to break through Union lines and link up with Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina.

If the concept of a turning point represents a moment where the “course of the war” changed, or refers to a time where Confederat surrender was in sight, then it is not surprising that the written testimony of Lee and others does not point to any one single event as the crucial moment. The reason is that the historian knows how past events unfolded, whereas the historical participants can only speculate on the significance of events in terms of what they might lead to.

We know that the importance of Gettysburg as the turning point, decisive event, or “high water-mark” of the Confederacy was, in part, constructed during the post-war years. According to Amy Kinsel, Gettysburg came to embody a “complex set of meanings” that could be used to justify the involvement of both sides and the morality of their respective causes. Post-war interpretationsn stressed the heroism displayed on both sides, which provided a focal point for reconciliation during reunion ceremonies and statue dedications. For “Lost Cause” writers, Gettysburg represented a missed opportunity, not because of any failure on the part of Lee, but because of the actions or inactions of others.

Of course this does not fully capture the attention paid by historians to the battle; they may acknowledge this post-war construction, however, they argue that the battle’s real significance lay in the facts of the three-day conflict. Gettysburg resulted in roughly 45,000 casualties for both sides. The Union stopped the furthest Confederate advance north of the Mason-Dixon Line, leaving Lee on the defensive for much of the remainder of the war. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg also forced the Confederacy to reevaluate its belief that both he and his Army of Northern Virginia were invincible.

It is important to remember that the issue is not whether historians agree on the relevant facts surrounding the battle and its consequences; rather, it is the inference that based on certain facts a specific event constitutes a turning point. The question implies whether there is a single criterion by which the historian can judge if an event – based on the facts involved – qualifies as a turning point and as a result rules out others.

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