Was Gettysburg the Turning Point of the War? – Part 2

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Historians often justify their preferred turning points with letters, diaries, and other sources. Upon hearing the news of Gettysburg and Vicksburg from London, Henry Adams reported that “any idea of [foreign] intervention is at an end.” In New York, George Templeton Strong wrote that “the results of this victory are priceless. The charm of Robert Lee’s invincibility is broken.” On the other side of the Potomac, Confederate War Department clerk John B. Jones bemoaned the defeat at Vicksburg, acknowledging that it produced “a terrible blow, and has pronounced much despondency.” On hearing the news from Pennsylvania he went on to write that “This [is] the darkest day of the war.” Josiah Gorgas, chief of Confederate ordnance summed up the sentiments of many southerners: “It seems incredible that human power could effect such a change in so brief a space. Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success-today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.”

Though the above selections support the conclusion that Gettysburg was the turning point, the Civil War has left us with a written record running the entire spectrum of human sentiment and can be used to justify an argument or narrative supporting just about any conclusion. Calling on voices to justify our carving of the historical timeline into discrete sections should be done with one eye on the selectivity involved. William Davis has stressed the importance of selection:

A human experience like the Civil War in which millions of men and women participated, and from which innumerable letters, diaries, and memoirs have survived, naturally offers the selective student the opportunity to find somewhere all of the statements and citations necessary to assert just about any theory, whether right or wrong, no matter how profound or absured (and some get pretty absurd). But a random sampling of a dozen or so such expressions, out of a pool of millions of participants, hardly offers a base for meaningful broad conclusions.Casting our net further into the written record reveals a very different picture of how individuals reacted to events in the summer of 1863.

Lincoln himself became “distressed immeasurably” after Gettysburg and blamed Meade for “prolong[ing] the war indefinitely” as a result of allowing Lee’s army to escape across the Potomac. Other leaders echoed Lincoln’s distress, concluding that Lee had “really won,” [the battle!]. “We are too victorious,” wrote Senator Charles Sumner. “I fear more from our victories than from our defeats.”

Though many in the South became despondent over the news from Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia remained optimistic. It had secured a decisive victory on the first day of fighting and came close on the following day. Though the divisions of Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble were repulsed on the third day, Lee’s army retreated from the field on their own terms and with their army intact and ready to fight again. The Army of Northern Virginia retreated safely to Virginia, where it had secured its most decisive victories prior to Gettysburg and felt confident that it could repulse any future Federal advance. “I cannot say with truth that they desire a fight,” wrote a sergeant in the 12th Virginia, “but all express determination to do their utmost when it does come and have confidence in the protection of Providence, their Leader, and themselves.” Reuben A. Pierson of the 9th Louisiana grieved over the news from Vicksburg, but remained steadfast in his conviction that “if the yankees advance upon us wel will give them a dread of the hardy boys of Gen. Lee’s command.”

Historian J. Tracy Power has recently argued that even in the trenches around Petersburg during the summer of 1864 – a point after which most historians conclude the turning point of the war had already passed – “it was clear to most of Lee’s soldiers that the end was nowhere in sight.

Though Lee certainly grasped the implication of a long siege, he also knew-even if he did not often publicly or privately acknowledge it-that the same field fortifications that he resented as an obstacle to his preferred method of waging war were also a formidable obstacle to an enemy hoping to destroy his army. Many of Lee’s officers and men believed that every day the Yankees sat across from them looking longingly toward Petersburg and Richmond was another day closer to the time when Grant, Lincoln, and the Northern people would decide that they could not take those cities and could not win the war.

Implied is the belief that many in the Army of Northern Virginia, including Lee, did not regard Gettysburg or any other event up to that time as constituting a turning point of the war. From the point of view of many in the ranks, camp life, according to Power, remained close to what it had been from the beginning, a “routine in which they spent most of their time watching and waiting.” This conflict between the perspective of the historical participants and the historian is clearly reflected in Alan Nolan’s treatment of Lee’s military strategy and his responsibility for Confederate defeat.

Stay Tuned. . .

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