Who Won The Overland Campaign?
Last night Gary Gallagher addressed the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable. His topic was the Overland Campaign and the more specific question of which side could claim to have come out ahead by the beginning of the siege of Petersburg. Gary has been a guest every year, even going back to when he was teaching at Penn State before he moved to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. Not surprisingly he gets a large turnout every year. I’ve read most of Gallagher’s scholarship and am rarely surprised by his topics or conclusions. I enjoy watching him engage the audience and the chance to share what many of us know to be his great passion in life. He’s got a real knack for combining a serious interest in the war with an entertaining speaking style. His criticisms are typically couched in a dry, but serious wit. At the beginning of his talk he criticized his own colleagues in the academy who teach or study the war without any reference to the military side. Most of the audience enjoyed this little swipe at the academy, but Gary was quick to counter with the fact that most of the people in the audience study nothing but the battles and have little or no appreciation for the broader issues. "Somewhere between both of these approaches," Gallagher concluded "is where the real Civil War resides."
I am not going to go through Gallagher’s full presentation; those of you familiar with his books and edited collections know where he stands in terms of the broad outline. While he admitted that it is easy to conclude that both armies had reasons to be optimistic about the way the campaign evolved, Gallagher seemed to tip his hat to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. And the main factors involved had to do with the campaign’s political ramifications. Gallagher argued that morale was actually higher in the Army of Northern Virginia at the beginning of the Petersburg Campaign compared with the Army of the Potomac. Based on my reading of the manuscript and other primary sources in reference to the Crater I have to agree. I was very surprised by how Confederates and those on the home front responded to the Confederate victory on July 30, 1864. It rallied both soldiers and citizens around the belief that Grant’s army could be dealt with successfully at least until the fall elections. And the presence of black soldiers reinforced for many white Southerners just what defeat would involve. Gallagher was careful to emphasize the steps that the Democrats and "Copperheads" took to win the presidential election. I highly recommend Jennifer Weber’s new study of the Copperheads. She argues persuasively that we have not fully appreciated their growing influence in the North and especially in states like Indiana as the Overland Campaign and engagements around Petersburg left horrendous casualties and a sense that the war was not close to being won. The Copperheads exercised tight control on the Democratic Party platform which was formulated in August 1864 and even managed to get one of their own on the ticket with McClellan. Weber does point out that the Copperheads’ fatal flaw was in never presenting a reasonable alternative to seeing the war to a successful conclusion through military means; they failed to answer important questions about the legality of secession and emancipation (slavery). This oversight alienated most of the soldiers in the army and guaranteed their support for Lincoln and even led to violence against individual Copperheads while on leave.
What I was most struck by was the sharp change in public opinion regarding the Democrats following Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September 1864. Support or interest doesn’t gradually decline, it disappeared throughout much of the country. Gallagher compared this sharp shift with the summer of 1862 and Lee’s successful defense of Richmond and offensive that culminated at Antietam. It is clear to me that the fighting around Petersburg did not guarantee Lincoln’s re-election; in fact it threatened it. It was the capture of Atlanta that brought about the dramatic change in the political climate of the North which guaranteed Lincoln’s re-election. A good case can indeed be made that as late as mid-August 1864 Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had the advantage.