Gettysburg was the largest single battle fought on North American soil. More so, it is famous for supposedly being the “high point” of the Confederacy and the turning point of the American Civil War, thus making it the climax of the most bloody saga in our nation’s history. Today begins the 150th anniversary of the 3-day battle fought July 1-3, 1863, and is a good enough time as any to both remember the battle and seek to understand it’s importance.
I’ve been studying military history most of my life, and the Civil War has always had a special place in my studies. I’ve especially striven to understand the war at a strategic level. The individual battles have a romantic appeal but the truth is many of the bloody battles fought during the Civil War were inconclusive at the strategic level. In fact, despite the Union suffering numerous large-scale tactical defeats early in the war the Union strategy of blockading and wearing down the south remained intact and relatively unchanged throughout the war even if numerous attempts to end the war earlier by direct assault ended in dismal failure. By June 1863 the blockade was devastating the Southern economy, the Confederacy had lost much territory and manpower in the West, and the imminent fall of Vicksburg was about to sever the Western states of the CSA and secure the Mississippi river as a vital transportation conduit for the North. In this context, Lee’s invasion of the North leading to the battle at Gettysburg was hardly a high point; the South had been losing the war steadily for over a year already, with the showy Southern victories in the east merely ensuring the slow death of the CSA rather than a quick one.
Which then begs the question, just how critical was the battle of Gettysburg itself? If Lee had won a victory at Gettysburg, could the South actually have gone on to win the war? Or was the South’s defeat inevitable by that point regardless of the outcome?
These kind of “what if” questions are always difficult to answer since there are so many variables in military history that affect the outcome of significant battles. The answer of course would largely depend on what kind of victory Lee was able to manage over Meade’s larger army. In truth, victories in the black powder era were usually limited by the inability to truly destroy the enemy army. In cases where the enemy army could be surrounded and captured then significant victories were possible, but this was a very rare accomplishment and certainly would not have happened at Gettysburg; Meade was a competent enough commander who commanded enough troops to avoid outright disaster So a more likely scenario is that the Union suffers heavy losses and is forced to retreat, either to the North or towards Washington DC. Either way, DC is too heavily fortified for Lee to take. Lee’s supplies of ammunition would be limited and he didn’t have a true siege train allowing him to capture a significant city target. Lee might have roamed around and done significant damage foraging in the area, he might have even threatened or captured Baltimore, but fantasies of the Confederates marching into DC are just that. Meanwhile the North would have brought in reinforcements from the West (thus slowing or even reversing the Union offensive there) and rebuilt the Army of the Potomac yet again, with the very capable Grant in charge. In the long run, the South would have bought more time but would be unable to stem the tide.
For a slightly more detailed analysis, check out this nice 2010 post on the same topic from another WordPress blogger.
However, even if Gettysburg doesn’t truly live up to all the hype it has received over the years, there is absolutely no doubt that it was an incredibly important victory for the North. It vindicated Lincoln’s steadfastness and gave him the opportunity to deliver the stirring Gettysburg address. It shattered the best army the South had ever assembled, with Lee losing over 23,000 veteran troops that simply could not be replaced. It left the Union offensive in the West unhindered and free to continue it’s march to Atlanta the following year. And most importantly, it set up Grant as commander of the army in position to drive south to Richmond and bring an end to the bloody war. I said above many of the large Civil War engagements were strategically significant, but that was certainly not true of Gettysburg; it just likely wasn’t significant enough to swing the outcome of the entire war. Sadly, Gettysburg also marked a missed opportunity as Meade failed to aggressively pursue Lee’s army which could have led to it’s dissolution and an even more rapid peace.
As the war marches further and further away into history, and as the study of history in most public schools trends away from studying the reality of our wars and more into liberal arts favored political and societal issues, I fear that the true nature of Gettysburg will be somewhat lost and it’s status as “the battle that won the war” will become more cemented in many people’s minds. Thankfully Gettysburg is also one of the most studied battles of all time and hopefully writing like this blog post will help keep the context of the battle alive for future generations who will continue to be fascinated by this conflict.
If you are curious to read more there are of course numerous great books but for online reading the wikipedia article on the battle is a great place to start.
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