Question of the Week: 3/14-3/20/16


This week’s question comes from Phill Greenwalt: “Was the battle of Stones River more of a turning point than Gettysburg?”

9 Responses to Question of the Week: 3/14-3/20/16

  1. Stones River is no where near Gettysburg in importance in my opinion. There was a lot more at stake had the Union lost at Gettysburg. The political implications such as foreign recognition of the South and a rise in anti war sentiment in the North might have resulted in a permanent Southern independence. That was the only chance left for the South.

  2. Neither battle was a turning point; Neither was a Federal defeat, to be sure, but after neither was the Federal Army able to retain the initiative and do more than follow the Confederates into Murfreesboro or to the Rappahannock. After both a stalemate descended on the respective theaters for a half-year. Perhaps defeat at Murfreesboro, so soon after Fredericksburg, would have further depressed Union resolve (Lincoln seems to have thought so), but I do not think that the bottom would have dropped out of the war effort; the Congressional elections had already taken place, the Emancipation Proclamation had already been announced.

  3. I agree, pretty much, with David.

    The dreams of Jefferson Davis and many of his generals, most notably RE Lee, that the South could successfully invade the North were fantasies. The South just didn’t have the manpower and other resources for any longterm incursions into the North. In fact, Lee was lucky the Army of Northern Virginia wasn’t destroyed during his two bloody and unsuccessful forays into the North.

    The real turning point during the Stones River-Gettysburg period, December 1862-July 1863, was the capture of Vicksburg. Of course, everyone knows that this Union victory split the South and gave the North control of the Mississippi.

    But more important, Vicksburg finally resulted in Union officialdom in Washington realizing that its best general was US Grant. After his followup victory at Chattanooga, Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and came east. Lee finally faced an opponent who was even more aggressive than he was. With Grant’s accession, the South’s dream of dismantling the United States and creating a slavery republic was doomed.

  4. I concur generally with the comments about Stones River. It’s hard to see that as marking much other than the conclusion of the CSA’s unsuccessful fall, 1862 offensive in the western theater. In fact, the next significant combat was 9 months later and was a Union debacle mitigated only by “it’s Bragg, after all.” Chattanooga was much closer to a “turning point” – Bragg routed and finished, Grant ascendant, and Tennessee set up as the launching pad to invade Georgia. I dislike labeling “turning points”, by the way. That’s generally 20-20 hindsight and usually over hypes a significant step which, however, did not render the ultimate result inevitable. I call it “Midway Obsession”.

  5. As a contemporary counterpoint, I offer this assessment from Lincoln to General Rosecrans in August 1863: “I cannot forget, whilst I remember anything, that at the end of the last year and the beginning of this, you gave us a hard-earned victory [Stones River], which, had it been a defeat instead, the nation could have scarcely lived over.”

  6. I’m not convinced Stones River was a turning point at all, actually. The war is not significantly different afterwards than it was before. Yes, the Union scored a victory after a string of losses, but the army was so beat it up it couldn’t move for months. Meanwhile, Grant remained stalled outside Vicksburg and Lee slapped Hooker around at Chancellorsville, so there was no major momentum shift at all. SR consummated the Emancipation Proclamation with a military victory, but Lincoln still signed the document before the outcome of the battle was decided, so the E.P. was happening either way. Lincoln successfully made political hay out of the S.R. victory-by-default, so in retrospect it looked more like a turning point than it really was at the time, but that was Lincoln’s skillful political doing, not the Army of the Cumberland’s.

    Of course, I don’t think Gettysburg was the turning point, either. That notion was just a skillful P.R. campaign by John Bachelder!

    1. Chris: I agree completely. I think that Abe’s August, 1863 “evaluation” was a gentle prod to Rosey (who seemed to have McClellanitis when it came to perceiving “enemies” in Washington), uttered in the post-Gettysburg/Vicksburg euphoria. SR was little more than avoidance of a sweep in the Fredericksburg/Stones River doubleheader. I do think that you’re giving too much credit to Batcheldor, however. After all, as we’ve heard for years from the Chamberlain Cult, the “turning point” of the “turning point” was the stand of the 20th Maine on July 2.

  7. All military action is a means to a political end. Robert E. Lee understood this. After several Confederate victories, he commented about his disappointment and frustration that these victories did nothing to change the political outcome of the war.

    In 1863, northerners were growing weary of the war. In Pennsylvania especially, there was a growing frustration with the war and a desire to negotiate a truce with the South.

    If the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania had continued, or if Lee had avoided the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederates would have remained to terrorize the North. It is highly likely that public outcry would have placed tremendous pressure on Lincoln to negotiate peace. This was Lee’s goal.

    Stone River did not have either a political or strategic significance.

    Vicksburg was of strategically importance but was not politically significant.

    In this context, the Battle of Gettysburg was both tactically and politically significant. It was the turning point of the war.

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