How important was the Battle of Gettysburg?

There are several candidates for the status of ‘turning point battle’ in the US Civil War. The Battle of Antietam, for example, was famously enough of a victory to push back the South and enough of a defeat not to make the Emancipation Proclamation look desperate. Cold Harbor, at which Grant displayed a determination finally to use the North’s overwhelming power regardless of losses might similarly qualify. The outcome of the Battle of Atlanta sealed Lincoln’s victory, which sealed the War, and the Anaconda Plan—itself a strung-out series of naval skirmishes—suffocated Southern trade.

Gettysburg was certainly one of the most bloody of the Civil War battles. It did not inaugurate the era of modern war, and was not the moment when informed Americans realised that they were in a war so bad as to be comparable to the Crimean campaign of a decade before. What Gettysburg did do was show that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could be defeated, and it also represented the last serious Southern incursion into Union Territory (later raiding parties notwithstanding).

An argument can be made that Gettysburg resolved one issue of what the Confederacy was, whilst opening another. Between 1860 and 1861, for instance, there were individuals such as Clement Vallandigham in Ohio who were open to the idea of a Northwestern Confederacy which could conceivably join the South in a new United States. Whilst individuals such as Howell Cobb and Robert Barnwell Rhett had always argued for a purely Southern Confederacy, Robert Lee and Jefferson Davis were much more conflicted. Such individuals were drawn in the initial months of the Confederacy to the idea that it would essentially be the USA without New England. For that to happen, Washington DC, the border South, and the copperhead Northwest, plus New York City, would have had to have ‘gone’ or been made Confederate. Though this nearly happened, the outcomes of Gettysburg and the New York riots put paid to the idea.

A purely Southern confederacy, however, was immediately faced by the tension between Southern nationalists, such as those who envisaged a ‘Golden Circle’ expansion into Mexico and Cuba, and State nationalists such as Governor Joe Brown of Georgia, who resisted Richmond, the CSA draft, and Jeff Davis with great stubbornness. It also raised the question of whether the South was fighting for nationality or slavery, and as a consequence of what the role of slave labour, in the context of a military effort, could be. This argument, essentially about whether to arm slaves or restrict the white draft so that whites could oversee slaves at home, was one that by 1865 split Lee and Davis from other Confederate elites.

Gettysburg brought more mundane if deadly consequences. The battle made clear that the South could not win a war of attrition, given the losses Lee sustained. It also showed, in such instances as Pickett’s Charge and Little Round Top that the Union was more than capable of motivating men beyond life in its defence. Many historians have written that the ‘rebel yell’ tactics of the South, in which storming of defences was preceded and accompanied with psychological intimidation of the Northern forces, broke down at Gettysburg, never to be fully revived. In so breaking the South (which suffered 50% casualties at Pickett’s Ridge) it also broke Robert Lee’s air of invincibility and the absolute devotion of his commanders, let alone the fears of his opponents. From there, it was a short but bloody step to Ulysses Grant’s grim determination, which Meade, McClellan, Burnside and Hooker had not shared, that the South could be crushed regardless of its great Commander.

However, Gettysburg did not proved decisive, much to Abraham Lincoln’s disquiet. This was because northern Commanders did not follow up on their victory for the rest of 1863. Vicksburg, which cut the South’s arterial line of the Mississippi and allowed for Sherman and Sheridan to deplete the Western part of the confederacy as Grant later trapped and destroyed the East, was arguably more important. (Given their proximity in time, however—Vicksburg came the day after Gettysburg) the combination punch may be seen as the beginning of the end for the Confederate experiment.

History is paradoxical, in that the historian is asked to put himself in the shoes of others whilst knowing, as they do not, what would become of them. We know that the battle of Gettysburg did not end the War, and that the distance from Gettysburg to Appomattox—and even more to the Pettus Bridge—was very far. As the numerous ‘key moments’ of the Civil War go, however, Gettysburg, especially alongside Vicksburg, the failure of the New York Draft riots, and the arrest of Clement Vallandigham under General Order 38, was perhaps secondary only in significance to the Emancipation Proclamation itself.