Question of the Week: 8/10-8/16/20

The theme for ECW’s Virtual Symposium is The War in the East.

What do you think was the most decisive event in the eastern theater of the Civil War?

22 Responses to Question of the Week: 8/10-8/16/20

  1. In May, 1864, at the end of the Battle of the Wilderness, the Army of the Potomac continues down the Brock Road, and marches towards Spotsylvania. Court House….and does NOT take a left hand turn at the intersection with the Orange Plank Road, to retreat across the Rappahannock River

    This is the turning point of the Civil War.

  2. Prior to the Firing on Fort Sumter, there was encouragement voiced by Southern interests that Maryland (believed to be a Border State that could be relied upon to “go South”) should demand the return of her territory gifted to the District of Columbia (as Virginia had done in 1846). A retrocession of Maryland territory would force the Federal Capital to locate elsewhere… even if Maryland remained “neutral,” once Virginia threw in her lot with the Confederacy. And the situation facing the Federal Capital would likely become untenable should Virginia AND Maryland join the Confederacy.
    Retrocession… encouragement for Maryland to join the Confederacy… these must have been in the mind of Brigadier General Benjamin Butler when he by-passed the embargo of Northern troops passing through Baltimore, and found another route for his troops to reach Washington: by sea to Annapolis; and by rail from there to Washington. Butler’s quick-thinking, and aggressive action in April 1861 may have kept Maryland in the Union; and saved Washington, D.C. as Capital of the United States.
    [Evening Star, FEB 2, 1861 page 2 col.1/2.]
    [Daily Baltimore Exchange, 16 FEB 1860, p.2 col.3 & 9 MAR 1860, p.4 col.1.]

  3. The 7 Days. It brought Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and stopped McClellan’s seemingly inevitable advance on Richmond, ensuring a much longer war.

    This is turn meant the outcome of the war would be more fundamental: the destruction of slavery.

    1. Every time I drive on Interstate 64 east of the Richmond Airport, I think about the small commercial area just north of the interstate which is the site of Johnston’s wounding. It is unmarked and unremarkable, but it is the location of a major turning point in American history. As stated by Matt, Lee taking command probably prevented McClellan from seizing Richmond and ending the Civil War much sooner. Who knows what the implications would have been.

  4. Lincoln’s selection of George McClellan after 1st Bull Run to command, organize & motivate the Army of the Potomac. He built the foundation of an army so resilient that it stalemated the East…including the Lee Jackson combination at its zenith as well as Lee for the rest of the war despite a series of mediocre Federal commanders. This situation allowed Grant & Sherman with the Western Federal armies to win the war by destroying the South at Ft. Donelson, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, & Atlanta…and then turning Lee’s Petersburg position by marching through Georgia & the Carolinas.

  5. Sherman’s operations in Georgia. Lincoln was thus helped considerably in his re-election campaign by that.

  6. If I had to pick one, I’d agree with the above comment that the “turn south” after the Wilderness is the best option. That said, I’ve find Bruce Catton’s assertions in Glory Road about the Army of the Potomac after Chancellorsville to be pretty compelling. He writes:

    “There was a turning point in this war, and the country had passed it. It had done so undramatically and without realizing it, and the turning point itself can hardly be identified precisely at this distance in time….Whatever it was, it had been there somewhere, invisible beneath the oratory and the headlines, the bloodshed and the suffering. Nobody had consciously made a decision about anything, yet here suddenly everybody was taking something for granted: that the war would be fought out no matter how many ups and downs it might have, that there would be no turning back..”

    1. You beat me to this one. I was going to mention Chancellorsville for a few reasons. First is the reason Catton used. Second, it was probably Lee’s most impressive victory but it came at a cost which forced him to reorganize, with the resulting problems that first surfaced at Gettysburg. Third, it appears to have induced Lee to undertake the unfortunate Gettysburg gambit and fed his accompanying overconfidence.

  7. I believe that the major turning point in the East was when Grant took command of all Federal armies, specifically overseeing the operations of the Army of the Potomac. While Meade was a very capable commander of the AOP, Grant made it a priority to keep the initiative, maintain pressure on the Army of Northern Virginia, and press south toward Richmond. He also acknowledged that the Confederacy’s center of gravity was the ANV by that point in the war. That mentality and change in strategy I think changed the game in the East.

  8. Locked up at Petersburg. Lee knew it, Grant knew it. Lincoln knew it. Just a matter of time.

  9. I’m going to go with the Seven Days too, but for a different reason. From “Fighting For the Confederacy” , The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander.

    “Gen Lee conceived the plan to bring Jackson down from the valley, swiftly and secretly, and having him surprise and fall upon the Federal right flank. Gen Lee’s best hopes and plans were upset and miscarried & how he was prevented from completely destroying & capturing McClellan’s whole army & all its stores & artillery by the incredible slackness, & delay & hanging back, which characterized Gen Jackson’s performance of his part of the work.

    But think of the moral effect on the country, & the world had he captured the entire Army of 100,000 men, with all its stores & arms & artillery. And this would have undoubtedly been done had the Gen Jackson of those 6 days been the same Gen Jackson, but a few weeks before, or the same who upon every other battlefield afterward………made a reputation unequaled in military annals.

    But never, before or after, did the fates put such a prize within our reach. Gen Alexander stated it was his individual belief that The Seven Days was one of only two occasions in the 4 years we were within reach of military successes so great that we might have hoped to end the war with our independence ……. ”

    The seven days occurred before Grant was hardly even noticed by Lincoln, and before the Union had fully mobilized all the men and resources at its disposal. It was well known even then that a long protracted war was severely detrimental to the Confederacy. With the 100,000 man Army of the Potomac completely destroyed, Lincoln would have had little choice but to negotiate a peace treaty.

  10. The intelligence that Elizabeth Van Lew, Richmond VIrginia high society Unionist, provided to General Grant to aid in his pursuit of General Lee to Appomattox Court House for their fateful 9 April 1865 appointment with destiny.

  11. I agree with Kevin. Grant, for all his tactical fumbling, had the instinct for the jugglar that he shared with Lee. No other commander would have been able to sustain the poundings Lee have him and still maneuvered forward.

  12. I don’t think there is a single decisive victory or event that is more weighty than another. Lee’s appointment to command, Chancellorsville, Jackson’s death, Gettysburg, Grant’s decision to turn south after Wilderness, they’re all valid. But the one that stands out to me is Antietam. Not because it’s the single bloodiest day in American history, but because it was the “victory” that gave Lincoln the green light to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It sent ripples throughout the north, south, and the world. It gave a new purpose for the Union soldiers, coupled with the “Save the Union” cause. It infuriated the Confederacy and had an equal affect on the morale of the army as it did in the north (for better or worse). It put the war in a new perspective for those overseas and ended the question of foreign intervention. I think if any event glared more brightly in the course of the war, it was this… Just my two cents 🙂

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