Friday, October 30, 2015

American History 101: The Turning Point of the Civil War - Gettysburg and Vicksburg

In the annals of American history, there are a number of events that stand out as decisive and game changing.  One of those "game changers" is the Civil War.  America as we know it today was defined between 1861-1865 in many ways that most Americans will never know, and possibly never understand.  The Civil War has shaped who we are as a people in regards to civil rights, taxation, how active the federal government is in our everyday lives and so many other facets of our lives.  The war itself is a complex organism to study from causation to events to reasoning to the tragic number of lives lost.  Historians for the last 150 years have been trying pin point the moment... the event... or even the battle that signified the difference between the Union beating down the traitorous rebellion and the Confederate States of America successfully taking its independence from its oppressive overlords without much success.  One of the more popular events that historians and the general public consider as the turning point of the war is the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place between July 1st and July 3rd in 1863.  And while I agree this was an important event, and a step in the right direction in the war, there is more to that first week in July of 1863 then just Gettysburg that finally turned the tide in the bloodiest conflict ever to demonize American soil.  During that first week of July, the Siege of Vicksburg finally came to a close at almost the same time the Lee's troops were turned back at Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg represented the final effort of General Robert E. Lee to invade the north.  He knew that if
Battle of Gettysburg
he could win major battles on northern soil, that the Confederacy would gain legitimacy and respect while damaging the Union resolve to fight.  What he did not know was that the war effort was not, generally speaking, going well in the north and that the Union victory at Gettysburg would embody everything Lincoln and his generals needed to keep pushing at the Confederacy.

After his success at Chancellorsville, lee led his army through the Shenandoah Valley to continue his invasion of the north.  His army was confident and ready to fight.  Feeling that he was on a roll, he was trying to shift focus off the war ravaged southern states onto northern turf to pressure the politicians in the north into a negotiation to cease the war.  His plan was to push to Harrisburg -- or even as far as Philadelphia if he had to to make that happen.  President Lincoln responded by sending General Hooker up against Lee, and then three days before hostilities began he replaced him with General Meade and his army.  Lincoln had been losing confidence in Hooker by mid-1863, and Meade's army was larger.  This gave Lincoln the excuse he needed to oust Hooker from this pivotal engagement.

The Dead at Gettysburg
After three days of battle that saw Lee's army enjoy early success, but Meade's army still holding its ground, the ill advised assault by 12,500 Confederate troops upon Cemetery Ridge (known as Pickett's Charge) was the straw that broke the camel...errr...rebels back.  The Union line held while pushing the Confederates back, and the Confederates suffered severe loses.  The loss at Gettysburg represented more than a simple failure.  It represented the first major defeat of Lee on northern soil.  While the losses were fairly even, 23,055 for the north and 23,231 for the south, the losses on the Confederate side were devastating to the Northern Army of Virginia at a time when the south could not replace its dead soldiers effectively.  And in response to the defeat on July 3rd, Robert E. Lee's army would not mount another major offensive during the Civil War -- even thought the war continued for almost two more years.  Essentially, Lee turned tail and ran.  This certainly sounds like a decisive victory, if not a decisive moment.

However, over on the Mighty Mississippi, General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army had made an effort to take the fort at Vicksburg that defended the river in April of 1863.  The Confederate forces led by General Pemberton put up a strong fight and stood their ground.  As Grant's men continued to peck away, they laid in siege cutting off the area from any communication of resupply, fighting a war of attrition.  And on Independence Day -- July 4, 1863 -- a week after Union troops blew apart the Confederate line with an underground explosive under the 3rd Louisiana Redan which devastated any chance the Confederates had at winning the battle, General Pemberton officially surrendered his 30,000 starving and sickly troops.
Vicksburg, 1863

The victory at Vicksburg significantly impacted the Confederate's ability to maintain any war effort.  This Union victory gave the north control over the Mississippi River and made the victory at Champion Hill possible.  The victory at Champion Hill stopped all southern traffic on the river for the balance of the war.  The ceasing of this main avenue of supply put a strangle hold on the Confederate war effort.  This, in combination with the thrashing General Lee had received the previous day at Gettysburg, was the writing on the wall.  And while the Civil War would continue for two more years, it would not rage on.  It would whimper into submission as these events created the stage for which Generals Grant and Sherman would march through the south and leave in their wake no doubt that the south and its dreams of an independent nation were indeed defeated, and dead.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel -- with a new book, Learn the Basics: Digital Forensics, due soon. 

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