INTRODUCTION by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White
Chris Kolakowski, Chief Historian, Emerging Civil War
ECW’s Turning Points of the American Civil War examines several key turning points of the conflict. Fine writing by some great historians explains each turning point while the introductory essays provide some good overall perspective. This approach highlights an important fact: great historical shifts don’t necessarily turn on a single moment, but instead are the culmination of myriad events and factors acting upon each other.
First: What is a turning point? British historian H.P. Willmott, writing about World War II’s Battle of Midway, gave a superb answer when he defined turning point as “a signpost that marked a parting of the way.” It is a noticeable course change, frequently thought of as a discrete event that can be measured in days, hours, or sometimes even minutes.
But some turning points resist such a simple and narrow definition because they have such a wide effect and sometimes take a long time to develop. For example, the Civil War itself, as the United States’ defining event, meets Willmott’s definition. Thus the entire war, from 1861 to 1865, qualifies as a critical turning point in the overall scope of American history. World War II (as was recognized at the time) also falls into this category in terms of world history, in that the fighting from 1939 to 1945 remade the world in ways that still loudly reverberate today.
Since the Civil War and World War II were such turning points, how can we make sense of the events contained within each? Just as these large conflicts involved significant impacts on places and people, they also resist easy identification of a so-called “decisive” moment. Rather, each offers plot twists and swings of fortune that finally reach a final trajectory rather late in the story. A comparison of each shows a general trend of events into three phases:
I. The Beginning: Defining the Terms of the Conflict
This phase establishes the lineup on each side and their respective political and military policies and objectives – essentially, the terms under which the war will be fought. In the Civil War, this is broadly encompassing the period from Fort Sumter to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. In World War II, this is from the invasion of Poland in 1939 through the German declaration of war on the United States in December 1941.
II. The Middle: The Struggle for Supremacy
This phase encompasses what are popularly termed “the decisive battles,” as both sides try to gain the overall advantage. It covers the Civil War from January 1863 to the spring of 1864, a key period that saw the Union gain supremacy over the Confederacy and the strategic initiative for 1864. In World War II, this period is from December 1941 through the spring of 1944, in which the Allies won ascendancy over the Axis on all fronts after a series of intense campaigns.
III. The End: Defining How the Conflict Will End
This phase generally starts with events popularly termed “the beginning of the end.” The ascendant side prosecutes the war to successful termination, often fending off desperate and dramatic counterblows as the other side tries to swing the balance back in their direction. In the Civil War, this is May 1864 to the last Confederate surrenders in 1865. In World War II, it is June 1944 to the war’s end in August 1945.
Within each phase there are many turning points resulting from both sides’ actions, but the major ones are those that either end each phase or propel the war into the next segment.
The events highlighted in the essays all figure into this framework and meet Willmott’s definition of a turning point. Keeping these facts in mind will help with understanding the many shifts and nuances contained in America’s defining event, and how all these turning points help create the Civil War’s outcome.
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Chris Brenneman, co-author of
The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas
and Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg National Battlefield
Was Gettysburg the turning point of the Civil War?
Many books and articles have been written debating this topic, but the argument still continues. In my opinion, Gettysburg combined with Vicksburg was the turning point, but there are many valid arguments that stress the importance of other battles. Factors such as logistics, the possibility of foreign intervention, and the psychological effect on the troops and civilians must be taken into account. However, the key factor that I use in making my judgement is the reactions of the veterans in the years after the war. After all, aren’t the men who actually fought in the Civil War the ones who should determine when the real turning point took place?
I think the Gettysburg Cyclorama helps to prove my point.
In the mid-to late 19th Century, the cyclorama craze swept Europe. These giant painting were the movie theaters of their day. In Europe, most of the scenes were battles from the Napoleonic Wars and the Franco-Prussian War. In the 1880’s a Chicago businessman named Charles Willoughby hired the French artist Paul Philippoteaux to paint the first American-themed cyclorama. In order to attract as many visitors as possible, Willoughby wanted to pick one of the most memorable events in recent United States history. It is clear that, in his mind, Gettysburg was most momentous occasion in recent memory. Not only did they choose the Battle of Gettysburg, Willoughby and Philippoteaux chose the exact moment of “The High Water Mark” to be the focus of the painting.
The Gettysburg Cyclorama was such a big hit, it started a cyclorama craze in this country. Willoughby eventually commissioned Philippoteaux to create three more copies of his great painting. The four copies were shown in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Eventually, millions of Americans and tens of thousands of veterans would view these massive paintings. I have not seen any records of veterans complaining about the selection of Gettysburg as the most momentous battle and the first to be documented in cyclorama form.
Eventually, other artist went on to make copies of the Gettysburg Cyclorama. At one point, there could have been ten of these amazing painting in the United States. The sheer popularity of the Gettysburg scenes helps illustrate my point. As the cyclorama phenomenon grew, there were scenes of other battles, but no other scene was as popular and successful as the Gettysburg paintings.
To learn more about the Gettysburg Cyclorama:
· check out The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas by Chris Brenneman and Sue Boardman.
· read ECW’s review of the book here.
· get a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cyclorama with Chris and ECW correspondent Liam McGurl here.
Turning Points of the American Civil War represents one of the most collaborative projects Emerging Civil War has ever undertaken. Essay collections, by their nature, require a lot of collaboration, but because of the additional online materials we’ve assembled to supplement the book, as well as the nature of our partnership with our friends at Southern Illinois University Press, we really drew on the expertise of dozens of people.
Along with those we acknowledge in the book, we would like offer additional thanks to those colleagues who assisted with on-line content to help supplement the book.
ECW’s chief historian Chris Kolakowski and “Engaging the Civil War” Series co-editor Brian Matthew Jordan both offered thoughtful commentaries to further illuminate each of the book’s essays.
Sarah Kay Bierle, Chris Brenneman, Sean Chick, Doug Crenshaw, Dan Davis, Bert Dunkerly, Jon-Erik Gilot, Kevin Pawlak, Dave Powell, Dan Vermilya, and Lee White carried the conversations started in the essays into posts and writings of their own.
ECW’s co-managing editors Dan Davis and Sarah Kay Bierle had their hands full scheduling content that coincided with the book’s roll-out.
We also thank Rob Orrison and Dan Welch, the coordinators of our Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge. The Symposium for 2018 borrows its theme for this book, and Rob and Dan have worked hard to ensure strong ties without extraneous repetition.
At Southern Illinois University Press, we wanted to offer thanks to Linda Buhman, whose work, patience, and creativity designed a cover not only for the book but a look for the series that is sharp, smart, and distinctive. We are extremely proud to have our names on that cover. We also work regularly with Amy Etcheson, and so single her out with our gratitude, but there are so many other people at SIUP whose work made this book possible, too—thank you.
Most of all, we again thank Sylvia Frank Rodrigue, executive editor at SIUP and the person who had faith enough in us to make the “Emerging the Civil War” Series possible in the first place. Thanks, Syl!