While popular history tells us that Gettysburg marked the turning point of the American Civil War—“The High Tide of the Confederacy”—most people don’t realize that story evolved as a shrewd marketing ploy to promote the town of Gettysburg as a tourist destination. Located near many of the major population centers of the eastern U.S. (Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh), Gettysburg provided a convenient place for veterans and their families to return to relieve the glory one of the North’s very few victories in the east. It became the turning point in retrospect only.
The real turning point of the war came in May of 1864 in “the dark, close wood” of the Wilderness, at the intersection of the Brock Road and the Plank Road. The Army of Northern Virginia had severely bloodied the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness, but instead of retreating, the new commander of all Union armies, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, decided to try and outmaneuver the Confederates. His decision changed the war.
If the Confederates had a “High Tide,” it was also there in the Wilderness a year earlier, in May of 1863 at the battle of Chancellorsville. There, Confederates scored a victory against overwhelming odds against a Union foe bigger and better equipped. That stunning win ensured that the Battle of Chancellorsville would go down as Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory. It came at a steep cost, though: the loss of Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, whose “name alone is worth ten thousand men,” said one Union soldier.
While it’s impossible to speculate with any accuracy what the outcome of the war would have been had Jackson survived, one fact remains indisputable: After Chancellorsville, the Army of Northern Virginia never again achieved an offensive battlefield victory, though the war went on for two more years.
Chancellorsville represented the peak of Confederate success—and as such, represented its high tide.