Was Gettysburg the Turning Point of the War? – Part 1

This informal essay on turning points in Civil War history will be presented in parts over the next week. A list of sources used will follow the final installment.

Historians have spent considerable time debating which event or events constituted the turning point of the Civil War. Many have looked for the “high water mark”, or the decisive battle on which the outcome of the war hinged. Though such debates have at times been heated, few scholars have attempted to define the meaning of these abstract concepts. Two historians who have wrestled with the concepts are Louis Snyder and James Rawley. According to Snyder, author of Great Turning Points in History, a turning point is an “event, happening or stage which thrusts the course of historical development into a different direction.” He concludes that it is a “great event with the explosive impact of altering the trend of man’s life on this planet.” In his book, Turning Points of the Civil War, James Rawley argued that turning points “suggest important junctures” where “force meets counterforce with such intensity as to make possible a change in the expected direction of development.” These descriptions are not only difficult to critique in any meaningful way, it is not even clear what it would mean for these explanations to be true.

The majority of historians who engage in such debates assume that the question has an answer – that there was, indeed, a turning point. William Davis argues for a tripartite distinction between turning points that are “real,” “perceived,” and “illusory.” In other words it is a real question whether Gettysburg or any other event between 1861 and 1865 constituted a turning point of the Civil War. I believe that this assumption is false. Turning points are subjective choices and are not part of what I will describe later as the objective side of historical analysis.

The battle of Gettysburg is commonly regarded as the turning point of the Civil War. According to James McPherson there were several turning points in the war, including Confederate setbacks in 1862 at Antietam and Perryville. However, the “crucial turning point,” according to McPherson was the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. According to the authors of Why the South Lost the Civil War, Gettysburg and Vicksburg had a “decided impact upon the will to win of the Confederate civilians.” They argue that on the road toward eventual defeat, “the fortunes of the war had turned” due to decreased devotion to the cause as a result of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. If the historical events of the Civil War are considered in their military and political context, then, according to Edwin Coddington, “the battle of Gettysburg seemed to have been a turning point in the course of the conflict.”

Not all historians agree that Gettysburg was the turning point of the war, and like McPherson, many argue that there was more than one. That historians disagree is apparent from a cursory glance at the literature, but what is not obvious is what the disagreement is about. And this raises the question of what constitutes a turning point.

Richard McMurry has come closest in capturing the concept of a turning point. In his view, a turning point represents a fundamental change in the course of events brought about by the event in question. The standard or traditional picture of Gettysburg and its consequences emerges from this analysis. Before Gettysburg and apart from Federal advances in the West, the North had little reason to hope for eventual victory, while in the South many continued to look to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as their best hope for independence. Roles reversed as a result of the battle, giving northerners their first taste of victory in the critical Eastern Theatre and reason to believe that they could sustain this positive attitude on their next march towards Richmond. Southerners now had sufficient reason to doubt whether they could continue in their quest for independence.

McMurry’s analysis also touches on another way in which historians understand or use the concept of a turning point. If Gettysburg or any other event was the turning point, or decisive event of the Civil War, then, according to McMurry “it must denote a battle that determined the outcome of the war – or a battle that at least put the conflict irrevocably on the path to its final outcome.” Describing an event as a turning point gives the historian a way of showing how a specific end, in this case Confederate defeat in the spring of 1865 came about without being committed to the stronger claim that the event in question is what caused Confederate surrender.

If the question of which event constituted the turning point of the Civil War has an answer, then the historian must be able to show why her favored explanation is better justified than competing explanations. And this is where the problem arises, since there is no way to rule out competing explanations purporting to show that a different event(s) constituted the turning point.

More to come. . .

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