The climactic sesquicentennial moment has come and gone, and the Civil War world seems to exhale as the triumph of the Gettysburg 150th passes. Tens of thousands of people trekked into Pennsylvania, eager for programs, pictures, tours, reenactments, and once-in-a-lifetime memories. They journeyed to Gettysburg because, as we are often told, Gettysburg is the turning point of the Civil War, the high water mark of the Confederacy and the moment the Union is saved.
And yet, there comes a certain point, I believe, in which the realities of the war are lost among the myth and mania that shrouds that three day battle in Pennsylvania. Gettysburg proved to be a turning point in the war, yes, but not, I think, the turning point. If we are searching for a moment when the war was permanently won or lost, the candidates are endless and our search would be infinite. The war was full of turning points.
Take, for example, Antietam, fought nearly ten months prior to the showdown at Gettysburg. As some of my prior posts have explored, British and likely French intervention in the American conflict seems to have hinged upon the outcome of the fighting along that little Maryland creek. The Union’s victory at Antietam, however marginal, was a tremendous blow to the Confederacy’s dreams of foreign aid. Lee’s repulse bought the Union precious time, time Abraham Lincoln used to author and execute his emancipation proclamation. Transforming the Civil War into a conflict explicitly fought over slavery, chances of European aid to the Confederacy vanished. Since we in the present have the gift of hindsight, and we know the South lost the war, can we not point to Antietam and mark those hallowed fields as the place where the Confederacy’s best chance of independence died? Should not Antietam be the pivotal moment of the war, the high water mark of the Confederacy?
Or fast forward from Gettysburg, to the summer and fall of 1864. Despite Lee’s defeat in Pennsylvania, Southern dreams of victory remained firm. A viable path to independence still existed for the Confederacy. “We should neglect no honorable means of dividing and weakening our enemies,” penned Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis. “It seems to me that the most effectual mode of accomplishing this object…is to give all the encouragement we can, consistently with the truth, to the rising peace party of the North.” Lee’s thoughts, though penned in 1863, held just as true in 1864. If the Confederacy could ratchet the war’s cost skyward, perhaps an increasingly war-weary North would repudiate Abraham Lincoln in the November elections and usher in the Democratic Party, peace plank and all. Yet Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and Sheridan’s Shenandoah victory at Cedar Creek emboldened the Northern public to the thought of more conflict. Maybe it is Sherman and Sheridan to whom we should be singing our praises, and Atlanta and the Valley to where we should be planning our pilgrimages.
Of course, countless more moments throughout the war are worthy of consideration. Maybe the self-imposed Southern cotton embargo of ’61 prevented the nascent Confederacy from converting bales of cotton into much needed guns, supplies, and machinery—all things that could have tipped the balance. Or perhaps the decision of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware to not secede deprived the South of the men, material, and territory needed to successfully gain independence. Maybe the thousands of slaves who grabbed freedom at the first opportunity perilously weakened the Confederate economy, mortally rotting the South from the inside. Possibly the deciding moment of the war did come in July of 1863, just a thousand miles west of Gettysburg at Vicksburg, where thirty thousand men surrendered and the Confederacy was torn in two. Grant penning Lee down in at Petersburg in ’64 could also be the pivotal fight, boiling the war down into an ugly attritional trench battle. Even Lee’s surrender could be the most important moment, for if his men had scattered to the wind instead, we could still be fighting the war today.
My point is that the war was not decided at Gettysburg. Indeed, if time moves in a linear fashion, Gettysburg could only exist via turning points that came before (Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville), and the scale of Gettysburg’s importance was largely shaped by what came after. Gettysburg marked a huge turning point in the war, yes, but it ultimately exists as merely one turning point among many. While we rightfully honor those who fought at Gettysburg, and while we strive to learn and understand what they fought for, it is just as important to remember to place Gettysburg into the larger context. The American Civil War was shaped and decided by an infinite number of actions and outcomes, all worthy of attention, study, and remembrance to some degree.
So. Don’t let Gettysburg satiate your lust for the sesquicentennial. Don’t begin and end with those three horrific days in Pennsylvania. Continue to trek for more programs, pictures, reenactments, tours, and memories at other places. Because there is more, at all the other turning points of the war.
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©