Many historians still claim that Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War. I was taught this all of my life. It was the largest battle of the war and was fought over three days beginning on July 1, 1863 and lasting through July 3, 1863. There were 51,112 total casualties on both sides. This was killed, wounded, captured, and missing. The Confederates lost 28,063 out of 75,000 men. The Union lost 23,049 out of 82,829 men. In my opinion Gettysburg was a very important battle but it was definitely not the turning point of the Civil War. There were several battles that were greater turning points in my opinion than Gettysburg. If McClellan had been a bolder and more aggressive General the war in the East could have been over at least two years earlier than it was but Lee's victory in the Seven Days battles and subsequent victory at Second Bull run was a turning point that prolonged the war. Lee's defeat at Antietam and Bragg's defeat at Perryville, taken together, were the real turning point of the war. These twin victories gave Lincoln the justification for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
This war measure was brilliant on the part of Lincoln. Constitutionally he had no legal right to end slavery on his own. It would take constitutional amendment to do that. Since the southern states were in rebellion he felt justified to confiscate the rebels property as contraband of war. Technically it didn't free a single slave because it only applied to those states and areas that were not under Union control. For example slave states like Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri were not affected by the proclamation. Much of Tennessee had been captured by the Union prior to the proclamation but Andrew Johnson, the Military Governor had exempted Tennessee until much later in the war. This provision of the proclamation is the most criticized aspect of the measure by historians and many modern day black people. These people are very shortsighted because they fail to see the brilliance of the proclamation. Lincoln knew that there were many loyal slave owners in the loyal slave states. Confiscating or freeing their slaves would not have been smart politically. The real intent was to deprive those slave owners in rebellion, not loyal slave owners. Lincoln knew that it would deprive the south of their greatest asset, free labor. Slaves were digging fortifications that freed up Confederate soldiers for front line duty. They were planting and harvesting crops which allowed southern planters and farmers to fight without worrying about the welfare of their families. Since most Confederate soldiers didn't own slaves this only affected a small but significant number of soldiers. Most whites that did own slaves owned 5 or less. It was an even greater sacrifice for the poor white soldier to fight who had no help at home. The Union armies were like magnets to those slaves who were able to leave their plantations and farms and claim protection of the army. Or for the black males who enlisted in the Union army, which freed white soldiers to fight. Most black soldiers would pull duty guarding forts and rear areas, or they were building fortifications and performing manual labor. Many blacks would fight and die for the Union in battles like Ft. Wagner, the Battle of the Crater, and the battle of Nashville. They were also used as spies which provided valuable intelligence. The war started out as a fight to preserve the Union. Many northerners had never seen a slave or experienced what it was like to live in a slave society.
Racism was rampant in the north. Especially in the Midwest where states like Indiana and Illinois had laws that banned blacks from even moving into their states. Slavery had existed in all of the original thirteen colonies. It had been legal as late as the 1840's in the other northern states. The plight of the northern free black was worse than the slave many times because the slaves were fed and had shelter. Free blacks in the north were denied jobs, civil rights and the right to vote. As the Northern armies moved south many soldiers were shocked by what they saw. They were turned off by slavery and when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued they began to understand that they were not only fighting to preserve the Union but the war had become a fight for human freedom. The abolitionists had always consisted of a small part of the northern population, primarily in New England, but they had great power and influence, especially in Congress as part of the radical Republicans. The Emancipation Proclamation helped to make the abolitionist more enthusiastic about the war although they felt that the measure didn't go far enough. Last but not least the North worked tirelessly to influence the British and French to stay out of the war. The South was working just as hard to influence the British and French to intervene on their side. The aristocracy in England and France were inclined to favor the Southern cause. This played into the Southern strategy of winning a great battle on Northern soil in order to convince the governments of Britain and France that helping the South militarily would work to their advantage. Much like the American victory at Saratoga in the American Revolution influenced the French to ally themselves with the Colonial cause. The South felt that their trump card was cotton because English and French textile mills were very dependent on Southern cotton. This caused the Confederate government to make a critical mistake that would come back to haunt them. Because cotton was so valuable in Europe the South placed an embargo on their cotton hoping to influence Britain and France to intervene in order to guarantee the free flow of cotton to Europe. In much the same way as we fought the first Gulf War in order to guarantee the free flow of oil to world markets. The embargo backfired because Europe began looking for cotton elsewhere. They found that Egyptian cotton was as good as southern cotton. The South denied themselves valuable revenue because when the northern blockade began to take hold they were not able to sell their cotton on the world market in large enough quantities to buy weapons or supplies in any great numbers. They would have been better off selling off cotton rather than embargoing cotton. The brilliance of the Emancipation Proclamation was that it insured that Britain and France would not intervene on behalf of the South. When the common people in Europe heard about the Emancipation Proclamation they realized that the northern cause was now about a fight for human freedom. Europe was undergoing a social revolution of it's own. The common people that were working in the textile mills and other industries were enduring their own form of slavery by living in abject poverty, horrible working conditions, and misery. Communist and Socialist influences were everywhere. After the Emancipation Proclamation it was not politically feasible to support the South. So by the time the battle of Gettysburg was fought any chance of European intervention was long gone. It was destroyed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
Historians have always used the term invasion to describe Lee's Antietam campaign in September 1862. The term invasion was also used to describe the Gettysburg campaign. These were not invasions. They were elaborate raids. An invasion is when a country has the means to enter another country or region and stay there for an extended period of time. The North invaded the South because it had that capability. The South did not have the logistics or means to stay in the North for any real length of time. Even if they won a decisive victory at Gettysburg or captured Washington as a result there is no guarantee that the North would have surrendered or even asked for an armistice. The Colonial capital during the American Revolution was at Philadelphia and it was captured and occupied by the British. Washington was captured and burned by the British during the War of 1812 but in both cases the Americans did not surrender. Jefferson Davis and many in the South were operating under the illusion that one great victory could determine the outcome of the war. Many historians will argue that Gettysburg was the turning point because it ended once and for all the chance of European intervention and Lee was never able to go on the offensive again. I have already shown how the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished that months before and the reason Lee was not able to go on the offensive was because of Lincoln's decision in March 1864 to place Grant in command of all Union armies. This was another turning point because Grant's strategy unleashed in May on a broad front insured that Lee would never again go on the offensive.
On July 4, 1863 Vicksburg fell to the Union Army. This was a more decisive victory for the Union than Gettysburg. Because of Vicksburg the South was cut off from the Trans Mississippi Department which comprised the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. They were unable to receive significant supplies of men, food or supplies from these states after Vicksburg. In addition northern commerce was reopened on the river. The fact that northern farmers and manufacturers could not get their goods to overseas markets was causing problems for the Lincoln administration that were beneficial to the South. This frustration was generating some anti-war sentiment. Finally the battle of Gettysburg would provide the platform for Lincolns greatest speech. The Gettysburg Address. Lincoln defined in a few short words what the war had become. When John Locke said that all men were created equal in his Second Treatise of Government he did not include chattel slaves. However Thomas Jefferson did include slaves when he plagiarized Locke in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson realized that all men were created equal but his society wasn't ready to grant that equality just then. It would take a generation other than his own to fulfill this vision. This is what Lincoln meant when he talked about a "new birth of freedom".
|General Joshua Chamberlain|
|Confederate prisoners captured at Gettysburg|
|Lincoln after the conclusion of the Gettysburg Address|