In your opinion, did Gettysburg or Vicksburg have the largest impact on the Civil War?
Or are they inseparable in the outcome?
Vicksburg, and the opening of the Mississippi River to Union forces, was a disaster the Confederacy never recovered from. Vicksburg also destroyed an entire Confederate army. After Gettysburg the Army of Northern Virginia licked its wounds and was ready for another round in 1864.
That said, the four Union victories (Gettysburg, Tullahoma, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson) that consummated in the first ten days of July 1863 dealt the Confederacy a body blow form which it never recovered.
The Vicksburg & Tullahoma campaigns came to a conclusion when Bragg’s troops fled Missionary Ridge. In that respect, they are two halves of the same campaign.Tullahoma & Vicksburg resulted in losses from which the Confederacy could not live without. Both those campaigns embody the logistical sophistication that would provide the means for all that followed. Vicksburg, Middle Tennessee & Chattanooga were strategic victories of the first order. In comparison, Gettysburg was the turning back of a raid on a grand scale. Because Meade did not pursue Lee & smash what was left of the AOV, that battle was a tactical victory not a strategic one. Gettysburg resulted in nothing more than a return to the status quo ante. In terms of strategic importance, Gettysburg does not belong in the same category as the combined Vicksburg/Tullahoma campaign.
If Grant had failed at Vicksburg he certainly would not have become a Lieutenant General, ergo, Vicksburg was more important.
Vicksburg, without question. The Confederacy was irrevocably split and the Mississippi flowed “unvexed”, as Lincoln put it. Gettysburg’s impact was more nuanced and in the future – the ANV was so damaged at several command levels that it would never again be the offensive weapon it had become under Lee. Other than that Gettysburg lacked even the political significance of Antietam. I can’t add Tullahoma to the mix because of what ensued in that theater in September.
I’d say equally important.
Whereas Vicksburg ensured the split of the Confederacy the one thing we cannot be certain of had Lee won at Gettysburg would have been the political ramifications in the North of a perceived ‘large’ victorious Confederate army on Union soil. It is possible the initial reaction would be that Meade could have been sacked with another disruption to the Potomac Army, a retreat all the way back to Washington and a northern territory held by the Confederacy. Thus raising that question of negotiations between North & South.
In Europe we have a vast list of battles with ‘What Ifs’ . One thing is certain when two large forces meet and it results in a prolonged struggle over days there are always ramifications, maybe not in the next few days but in the months or even years down the line.
As someone who has always known much more about the battles in the east than those in the west, I really want to say Gettysburg. But my horizons and perspectives have expanded quite a bit in recent years, and I recognize now just how critical were the western battles. I’m going to say that these two are of equal importance really just because of the timing. If they weren’t literally one day apart, I’d say Vicksburg for sure. But I think the one-two punch of two major Union victories a day apart was a major psychological blow to the Confederacy–as well as a boon to the Union at a critical juncture. Perhaps we can all agree that July 3 and 4, 1863, were the TWO most important days of the war? I doubt I’ll get consensus on that…
We need to ask ourselves, and then give a well-thought out answer: What would have happened to the Union war effort if the Mississippi had not flowed unvexed to the sea? Granted that the taking of the Confederate Gibraltar was most desirable, would Confederate armies have threatened anything vital to the Union if Grant had not taken it? If the Union could make use of the river north and south of Vicksburg, would Pemberton’s success against Grant have portended a Southern victory in its war for independence? I think not. On the other hand, another Confederate victory at Gettysburg, following Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and near misses at Antietam and Murfreesboro, would have had very dire consequences for the North. These included, most importantly, a possible resurrection of Palmerston’s and Russell’s plan for British mediation of our conflict, which was put on hold after Antietam and which would certainly have resulted in a recognition of an independent Confederacy. Another consequence would have been the almost certain sacking of Meade (to be replaced by whom?) and devastation of the morale of the Army of the Potomac. Still another consequence would have been genuine threats to Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Washington itself, particularly if the A of P had been routed. Who was going to protect these cities? Still another consequence would have been the terrible effect the defeat would have had on public opinion, without which, Lincoln said, one could do nothing. Forces in opposition to the war were already strong and vocal–indeed, vociferous. The defeat might well have been the tipping point that Lincoln dreaded and sought desperately to avoid. Accordingly, I hold that Gettysburg was the more vital battle, but I hasten to add that in my judgment, the Confederacy was not irrevocably defeated until Spotsylvania.
Posted my answer before reading yours. We’re thinking along similar lines.
I couldn’t agree more with Mr Fazio and Mr Sterner. My thoughts exactly.
I’m in agreement with all of the points made by these two gentlemen; Vicksburg was more strategically significant and Gettysburg was more politically important.
It might be fashionable to play devil’s advocate and choose Vicksburg over Gettysburg, but the reality is that a loss at Gettysburg would have been far more devastating for the Union. Therefore, the battle of Gettysburg is more significant and had a greater impact.
From the standpoint of military strategy, without question Vicksburg was more critical. There’s no substitute for controlling the Mississippi, for both military and economic reasons. Normally, I don’t like counterfactuals, but….let me try this on for size and make the case that Gettysburg was more important politically.
Rightly or wrongly, the corridor between the capitals received more political attention and the conflict between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia became wrapped up with the popular measure of success or failure in the war. I think that’s part of the reason the Confederacy kept fighting, despite the massive loss of territory through ’64, but but Lee’s surrender sent the signal that it was time to lay down arms.
Imagine if Lee had won, and then gone on to tear up central Pennsylvania, threatening Philadelphia, Pittsburg, DC, or Baltimore. Draft riots in the streets of NY that followed victory likely would have been more intense and spread quickly to other cities in the wake of defeat. Could the Lincoln Administration have maintained a war effort when it was forced to use a larger portion of the Union Army to maintain domestic order and was incapable of protecting the mid-Atlantic’s major cities? In that case, the Confederacy might have been able to shrug off the loss of Vicksburg as a temporary thing, which it might have become.
Gettysburg also demonstrated to the North and the Army of the Potomac that Lee was not infallible and could be beaten, and that the Army of the Potomac was capable of doing it. Until then, it was easy to shrug off Antietam as a victory due to the horrendous losses brought home by casualty lists and Brady’s photographs, McLellan’s non-pursuit and subsequent replacement, and then the disasters at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. In that sense, Gettysburg gave the soldiers and general public a shot of needed confidence that helped sustain them during the inconclusive campaigns that fall and the nightmare of the overland campaign in the spring of ’64.
Anyway, thought I’d try that argument out for size just to see whether it starts a discussion.
Those are very fair points but I think you assume that Lee’s army would have been capable of far more after a sanguinary win at Gettysburg than it possibly could have been. In fact, much would likely depend on the next move by either army. There were substantial federal reinforcements available, while Lee had none remotely close. The army which actually did win the battle was itself not all that capable, having lost three corps commanders and innumerable lower-ranking officers, and it at least had the benefit of being in supply and on its home turf. In addition, the positive effect of Gettysburg already was starting to wear off by the time the NYC draft riots began and from 150 years of hindsight viewpoint the northern “will” seems to have been stronger than might have appeared to be the case at the time. Like Gettysburg, Vicksburg also gave the public a dose of confidence but, as noted, probably had more military significance.
Agreed. The post-battle status of both Lee’s and Meade’s armies would have been big ifs. It’s why I generally don’t like counterfactuals. The farther away you move from an event, the more speculative one’s assumptions and conclusions become. Still, they are fun! That said, once Vicksburg devolved into a siege, its fall was inevitable barring some outside act, whereas I think there is greater uncertainty about what consequences might have flowed from Gettysburg had the outcome been different. More rode on that roll of the dice, which I think supports the conclusion that it was more important that first week of July.
Eric and Conrad:
Thank you for your comments. Eric, your comment about the New York City draft riots in July, 1863, is especially pointed. These riots occurred in the wake of a Union victory! What would we have seen in the wake of another Union defeat? Not only in New York, but throughout the North, especially in the population centers like Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, etc. After the disasters of 1862 in the East, a Confederate victory seemed more than possible. “If there is a place worse than hell, I am in it”. “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky. I think to lose Kentucky is to lose the war. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri or Maryland. These all against us and the job is too large for us.” The victory at Gettysburg lifted Lincoln from the place worse than hell and likely had something to do with Kentucky’s pro-Union legislature deciding to stay in the fold.
As little as ten years ago nearly I believe nearly everyone would have said Gettysburg. And while Eric Sterner wrote a phenomenal “what if” piece on the loss of Gettysburg I ultimately have to agree with him and Mr. Kolakowski , the cutting of the C.S.A. in half, denying them imports/exports, the Union having free passage was a disaster so complete in was unrecoverable. In the long run perhaps more important with each attempt Grant grew and learned as a tactition and the man in the Whitehouse new he had a general who respected Lee but did not fear him or the ANV (Oh I am tired of hearing of Lee, some of you think he will do a somersault and land behind us and on both flanks, instead think of what were gonna do to Lee!)
About Vicksburg, as a big fan of the battle and the huge impact it had why are there so few books and there nearly all 300pgs roughly. The many attempts by Grant and the ensuing consequences or battles cannot possibly be covered in such a short book. With all the “definitive” books coming out (Powell, Hartwig and Carmen on Antietam, Timothy B. Smith on Shiloh, Corinth, Forts Henry and Donelson) does anyone in the “know” hear anything about a new COMPLETE work on Vicksburg being worked on? While I have nothing but respect for Mr. Bearss his volumes are very rare and way out of most peoples price range. A lot of new letters and information has come out since his editions. Please let me know if anyone has heard anything and what your favorite Vicksburg book is, maybe I missed one. Happy 4th everyone and please be safe and God Bless
I have a great deal of trouble grasping exactly what ‘Confederate victory at Gettysburg’ would actually have amounted to. Lee would have found himself bereft of logistical support, tens of thousands of wounded, his animals dropping dead in the traces & 40% of his army dead, wounded or missing. The men in the ranks were no better of than the animals. The roads were lined with men who were unable to keep up. Win or loose, Lee was out of ammunition, no hope of reenforcement, no remounts (cavalry used up horses at an astonishing rate)… it was return to Virginia or starve.
What is not being considered here is that Gettysburg was a battlethat lasted a few days. Vicksburg/Tullahoma were campaigns that encompassed a year. Where as Lee’s logistics logistics echoed Repubican France, depending on foraging, the combined armies of the Cumberland & Tennessee fed hundreds of thousands of men& tens of thousand of horses millions of pounds of rations week in week out. That is how Chicamauga became nothing but a tactical setback, as opposed to the disaster that was Gettysburg.
Comparing Vicksburg/Tullahoma campaigns with Gettysburg is not an apples & oranges comparison; it is a bushel of apples & a grape.
I failed to add a visual reference that illustrates my point exactly. Place a map of the Vicksburg/Tullahoma campaign on an 8 1/2 ” X 11″ mailing envelope, put a stamp in the corner. That is an exact visual representation of a map of the Gettysburg Campaign & the entire operating area of the AOP, AOV through out the war. I think it puts this discussion into its proper perspective.
The visual was a superb way of putting things in place, I had not thought of it in such contrasting terms, great job!!!
Thanks, wish I could recall who first used the postage stamp simile. One reason the Tullahoma Campaign is so little understood is its vast scale. Rosecrans’ front on day one was 55 miles wide. The advance was the debut of repeating rifles, combat engineers, fully integrated & functioning signal system, extremely accurate maps that could be updated & distributed overnight, a logistics network that kept the 240,000 (not a misprint) men in the Department of the Cumberland fed & fit despite everything man & nature threw at them. You don’t just take a day long staff ride to tour the Tullahoma Campaign, it is a three day bus tour covering hundreds of miles. Unlike Lee’s army, the Army of the Cumberland could withstand a tactical setback at Chickamauga & still hold their ground. Months long, encompassing thousands of square miles, the Tullahoma Campaign does not fit into a nice neat little box the way Gettysburg does.
Worth giving a thought to is the condition of the Army of Tennessee after their victory at Chickamauga as it relates to the theoretical Confederate victory at Gettysburg. It was not just Bragg’s command paralysis that kept him from moving aggressively. Had Bragg moved across the Tennessee River, his army would have starved to death. He had no hope of logistical support of any kind. That is exactly the position Lee found himself in after the second day of Gettysburg. He could fight one more day. Win or loose, he was going to have to return to Virginia or starve. There never could have been the grand raid here & there, Lee’s army was physically incapable of doing anything but what they did.
I’m so thankful the Gettysburg/Vicksburg question was asked, reading the replies is definitely educating me on many different levels. You guys are definitely out of my league, I’m really enjoying reading the different replies, in fact my book hasn’t been touched today!!! Question is when is someone with the knowledge everyone is displaying gonna write a updated version of the ENTIRE Vicksburg Campaign in a nice SavasBeatie trilogy so we get pictures of everyone being discussed and so many beautiful maps we can follow the action down to the regimental level!! Great discussion everyone
Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
Join 3,418 other subscribers
Sign me up!
Like Us on Facebook