The “turning point” of the war is one of the more common subjects found in the volumes lining the bookshelves of the Civil War history section of any library or book store. Some historians simply love to define “turning points” and those that study the Civil War are no different. They seek to define the single moment or the one pivotal event which made the eventual outcome of the war inevitable. At first glance, some readers may think that, in the case of the Civil War, that is obvious because they learned in high school history class that Gettysburg was the turning point of the war. Although that has long been the popular pedigree of that monumental engagement, in actuality, that is far from true.
In fact, I would argue that identifying a single event which determined fate, and made the outcome of the war an absolute, is an almost impossible exercise. War is just too complex and is composed of far too many variables. I would, however, be willing to agree that, in most cases, the closer the supposed turning point is to the end of the war, the more likely it is to be credible. Of course, typically, these turning point hypotheses involve choosing events further and further from the eventual conclusion, which seems to be seen as somehow making the chosen event even more dramatic. To be sure, drama and controversy sell books and get the writer invited to speak at various symposia, so I doubt we will see the trend of selecting earlier and earlier events in the war as turning points change anytime soon. Now, let’s examine a few of the noteworthy events sometimes defined as turning points.
Since it is mentioned so often in popular media as the turning point of the war, Gettysburg certainly deserves some discussion. First, let’s look at what it was, and then what it was not. Gettysburg was a major defeat for Robert E. Lee and it, perhaps, forever tarnished the Army of Northern Virginia’s reputation as “invincible.” It blunted Lee’s invasion of the North and dashed his hopes for a major, decisive defeat of the Army of the Potomac on their own home soil. However, it did not result in the destruction of Lee’s army and, even though Lee would offer his resignation to Jefferson Davis, it did not even lead to a change in command of that army. Furthermore, the war would last for 21 more bloody months, during which the war’s destruction and carnage would reach new and even more unthinkable levels. During that time, there would be several more events upon which the course of the war would not so much turn as evolve, with the outcome still very much in question. Therefore, Gettysburg was clearly not the turning point.
Vicksburg is also often mentioned as the turning point in the Civil War, especially when considered from the point of view that the strategic city fell to Grant only one day after the culmination of the battle at Gettysburg. Advocates of this turning point usually refer to the Confederacy having been split in two by the loss of control over the great Mississippi River. However, this is a rather specious argument because there was little in the way of men and material flowing between the Trans-Mississippi region and the major theaters of operation east of the river. Had that region been a major source of manpower and supplies for the Southern armies fighting in the eastern half of the country or had the major focus of the war been west of the river, that contention might hold some merit. However, that was not the case.
To be certain, Vicksburg was a major Union victory. It was the result of a masterful campaign by Grant and it took an army of 30,000 Confederate soldiers out of the war. Plus, its fall, when combined with the defeat at Gettysburg, could not help but be symbolic of a reverse in fortune for the Confederacy. From that point forward, there would be few significant, outright victories in the field for any Confederate army. However, again, the path to the end of the war was still very lengthy and there would be many more opportunities for the outcome of the war to change.
Another popular tuning point is Antietam. Here, in a battle James McPherson calls the “crossroads of freedom,” there is more evidence supporting its case as a true turning point in the war. The evidence lays not so much in the battle itself as in its aftermath. The battle was, essentially, a horrifically bloody draw, and a lost opportunity for the North. Had he chosen to do so, George McClellan might very well have destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia. But, he chose not to do so. Instead, he held back a corps in reserve, A.P. Hill arrived in time to blunt Burnside’s flank attack, and Lee escaped safely across the Potomac. However, the fact that Lee left the field to McClellan and abandoned his incursion into Maryland was enough for the Union to declare a victory. More importantly, that victory allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
The impact of the Emancipation Proclamation was far reaching. It altered the very foundation of the Union cause. A war that began purely as an effort to restore the Union now had a deeper meaning. To be sure, that new meaning caused a backlash in the North and even within the army itself. However, the effects of that backlash were somewhat muted when McClellan was dismissed as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The strongest and most ironic impact of the proclamation, meanwhile, was made across the Atlantic. It was ironic because one of Lee’s purposes in invading Maryland was to garner formal recognition and support from Great Britain following a defeat of the Army of the Potomac. As it turned out, the exact opposite would occur. Union forces denied him victory and the Emancipation Proclamation would prevent the British government from coming to Confederacy’s aid, as it would have been political suicide to support the South once Lincoln formally made freedom and the eradication of slavery a national war aim. Without that foreign support, it would be more difficult for the South to win the war—more difficult but not impossible. Hence, Antietam did not make the outcome of the war inevitable, and, therefore, it cannot truly be called the single turning point of the war.
However, at the same time, there are also some other overlooked aspects of Antietam that are worth noting to support the claim that it was the turning point. First, the Emancipation Proclamation also was the first step to a point of no return in the war. McClellan and others in both the army and the Congress had hoped to win a few minor victories and draw the South back into the Union, which required that slavery be preserved. Lincoln had now begun a process that would make that impossible. As a result, only a complete and total military victory over the Confederacy would end the war, and the only way to do that, as Lincoln now began to see, was to utterly defeat the South’s armies. That, in turn, meant that the conflict must be fought using what was then called a strategy of “hard war,” one of uncompromising ferocity and brutality. All Lincoln had to do was find someone who could successfully execute such a strategy.
That’s why Grant’s appointment as General-in-Chief is sometimes cited as the turning point. From that point forward, the war would be fought with an almost continuous fury, as Grant assaulted the South militarily, economically, and psychologically. His strategy would make use of the North’s vast advantage in resources and, simultaneously, take advantage of the Confederacy’s lack of manpower and materiel. Further, the unrelenting pressure he placed on all the South’s armies prevented them from using their interior lines of communication to support one another, as they had in the past. While this strategy would, indeed, doom the South, it did not entirely seal their fate.
Grant’s inability to bring Lee’s army out into the open where he could destroy it, combined with high Federal casualties increased a feeling of war weariness that was rapidly spreading across the Northern states. As the 1864 presidential election approached, Grant was stationary, staring Lee’s army down across entrenchments outside Petersburg, and Jubal Early’s army was safely encamped near Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, having threatened Washington DC itself in July. Lincoln was not confidant of his ability to defeat his old nemesis, George McClellan, in the November election. In fact, he began to discuss the transition process to a new administration with his staff, and, worse, developed plans for concluding a peace with the Confederacy following his electoral defeat. That defeat truly would have been the turning point of the war.
Then, in the space of a few weeks, everything changed. On September 2, the city of Atlanta fell to General Sherman. With that, not only had a key Southern city and industrial center fallen into Union hands, the door to the Deep South was now open to invasion. The North rejoiced at this news and, while Lincoln’s reelection was not assured, his chances looked much better. Next, within three weeks, Phil Sheridan smashed Jubal Early’s army at Winchester and then again at Fisher’s Hill. A month later, he would finish Early for good in a dramatic “snatched from the jaws of defeat” victory at Cedar Creek.
Now, as the election neared, Lee was pinned down in the trenches at Petersburg, unable to support Confederate forces in Georgia, who were just as unable to come to his aid. Further, he could not disengage from Grant and maneuver as he might have liked, because to do so would ensure the fall of Richmond. The army he had sent into the Shenandoah Valley in an effort to relieve pressure on his own had been driven from that valley and, with that, he had also lost his best source of food for his almost starving army. For the North and for Lincoln, the picture was bright and Lincoln was reelected. So, could we say that the fall of Atlanta was the turning point or, perhaps, even Sheridan’s victories in the Shenandoah? Maybe we could or, maybe, we can say that Lincoln’s reelection finally was the single event that sealed the Confederacy’s fate. That might be closer to the truth.
War is a complex undertaking and attempts to identify the single seminal event that made the outcome inevitable are fraught with risk. Further, attempts to designate one event that occurred months or even years before the conflict’s eventual outcome as a single turning point are foolhardy and, in my opinion, have little merit. One might examine a phase of the war or a series of events that were crucial, but picking a single moment, a single day, or even a single week is not a worthwhile endeavor. Besides, isn’t the real challenge to be found in examining the people, the personalities, the decisions, both large and seemingly small, upon which events turned and how those events all merged with others to produce the eventual outcome? And, after all, isn’t that where we learn the real lessons of this war and of history itself? I think it is and that is why it can be such a fascinating and rewarding endeavor.