University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: News

Civil War historian Bruce Levine

6/25/2013  8:00 am

The three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pa., which marks its 150th anniversary next week (July 1-3), was the bloodiest of the Civil War and often is referred to as the turning point in the conflict. But the surrender of Vicksburg, Miss., to Union forces the next day (July 4) actually had more immediate impact on both sides’ morale, and probably was more important in the long run, says Civil War historian Bruce Levine, the author most recently of “The Fall of the House of Dixie.” Neither Union victory should be defined as the turning point in the war, Levine says, since neither guaranteed or signaled the Union’s eventual victory. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Why was Gettysburg significant?

Bruce LevineGettysburg came at the end of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s most daring and potentially consequential raid into Union territory. Union victory there put an end to a string of battlefield defeats and thereby boosted Union morale considerably. It also cost the Confederacy thousands of casualties, including a third of Lee’s generals – losses that the South could afford far less than could the more populous Union. Those losses left Lee’s army unable ever again to mount strategic offensives. Thereafter, for military success he would have to depend entirely on inflicting heavy casualties on Union armies that attacked him.

Could the South have won the war by winning at Gettysburg?

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was not about to seize and hold any important strategic position in the Union and thereby “conquer” the North. But if it had managed at Gettysburg to severely cripple the Union’s biggest army (the Army of the Potomac), northern popular support for continuing the war would surely have plummeted. That, in turn, might have strengthened northern critics of Lincoln and the Union war effort in the fall of 1863. But whether that would have been enough to force the Union to sue for peace is another question.

Did the South lose the war at Gettysburg?

Many people today have an exaggerated notion of how much the Union victory at Gettysburg influenced the war’s outcome. They believe that Gettysburg, or Gettysburg plus Vicksburg, signaled the end – or at least heralded the certain doom – of the Confederacy. That’s not true.  Far from ending in July 1863, after all, the war continued for almost two more very bloody years. Nor was the Confederate cause by any means hopeless after Gettysburg and Vicksburg.  Southern armies could still hope to inflict enough pain and suffering on northern forces to break the spirit of the Union’s civilian population.

In fact, a year after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, in the summer of 1864, it looked very much like the South had achieved that goal. The Union army under Grant and Meade, after absorbing huge casualties in Virginia, appeared stalled there. The progress of Sherman’s army in Georgia seemed very slow.  Northern civilian confidence in its government fell, and Lincoln expected to lose the impending November 1864 presidential election.  An electoral defeat on that scale, in turn, might well have dealt the Union’s war spirit a mortal blow.

Vicksburg was part of the war in the West (“the West” being defined as mostly east of the Mississippi and west of the Appalachians). It’s the war in the East, however, including Gettysburg, that gets most of our attention. So why do you think the Union victory at Vicksburg – and victory in the West overall – was ultimately more important?

The Confederacy’s loss of Vicksburg, and soon afterward Port Hudson farther south, finally placed the Mississippi River completely in Union hands. Militarily, that achievement sealed off Confederate Arkansas, Texas and western Louisiana and all Confederate forces stationed there from any further significant participation in the war. Along with the fact that the South lost an entire army with the surrender of Vicksburg, this allowed thousands of Union troops to fight elsewhere in the western war theater – and eventually further east, too.

The completion of the conquest of the big river also enabled the Union, which was by now committed to emancipation, to consolidate its control of the Mississippi valley. That very fertile valley contained many of the South’s biggest plantations and largest concentrations of slaves – so Union control there accelerated the collapse of slavery overall.

These Union successes in the West paved the way for winning the war in the East.  By the late fall of 1863, Union forces had driven the South’s second biggest army, the Army of Tennessee, out of the western theater of war and during the next year pulverized it. That, in turn, allowed Sherman to conduct his famously destructive march – first through Georgia and then up into the Carolinas toward Virginia – virtually without opposition.

So victories over Confederate forces based in the western war theater allowed the Union in early 1865 to threaten Lee’s dwindling army at Petersburg and Richmond with overwhelming force, eventually compelling it to abandon those cities and then to surrender at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the war.