This past Sunday’s edition of The New York Times (June 30) ran a story called “A Favorite Son of Gettysburg” in the sports section – an appropriate feature the day before the 150th anniversary of the great Civil War battle. What stood out for me was the very first sentence that included the statement: “…the turning point in the Civil War….” about the 1863 battle around the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

According to this article, Gettysburg was the turning point, not just one of the important battles that eventually led to the North’s victory. I’ve seen statements similar to this about Gettysburg in other newspapers, in books and online and this assumption about Gettysburg is simply wrong.

I know, I know, it’s shocking that many professional writers do not do proper research before they communicate inaccurate information. It is just easier and simpler to say that Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War.

Gettysburg was an important battle, but it was not the turning point for the Civil War.

So what was?

I do not think that any one single battle or event can be designated as the turning point from which one side lost or won the Civil War. It took the cumulative effects of:

  1. Four years of many small and large battlefield victories by Federal forces, with the resulting loss of Southern territory;
  2. The blockade of Southern ports and destruction of the South’s economy;
  3. The overwhelming numbers of people and industrial advantages of the North;
  4. The political acumen of President Lincoln to create and maintain a coalition to pursue four years of bloody conflict and still win re-election in a Union of Northern states where war weariness and disaffection bred significant opposition to “Mr. Lincoln’s war.”

There were two important battles in the Eastern Theater, and in a series of two blog posts I will explain why I believe that Gettysburg is probably the most famous but not the most important.

From July of 1861 to June 1863, the primary U.S. field army in the East won only one major battle against its Confederate opponents – at Antietam (or Sharpsburg) in Maryland in September of 1862. Even at Antietam, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fought the U.S. Army of the Potomac to a draw before retreating across the Potomac River back into Virginia.

While Antietam was not a spectacular Federal victory, it was enough for President Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in states under rebellion (but not in loyal slave states), and allowed for recruitment of former slaves into the U.S. military (nearly 200,000 served).

Antietam therefore led to the greatest political advantage the North would attain as the Emancipation Proclamation effectively meant that Great Britain would not militarily intercede for the South (and without Great Britain, France also would not fight for slavery).

There were many people in the North, including a number of U.S. soldiers, who were not happy with the Emancipation Proclamation and did not want to fight to abolish slavery. However, while there was increasing political opposition to the “black” Republican administration of Lincoln, there were no large-scale desertions or resignations from the U.S. field armies due to the Proclamation.

Because of its political ramifications, Antietam is the most important single battle in the East because if Lee had won, it might have delayed the issuance of the Proclamation and perhaps obtained recognition of the Confederate States of America by Great Britain and France. This is a huge potential political swing because of victory or defeat in just one battle.

We’ll look more closely at Gettysburg in a separate post.

About the photo: Burnside’s Bridge over Antietam Creek saw the final Federal attack that nearly won the battle for the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s Confederate army retreated the next day, providing President Lincoln with a vital victory that enabled him to enact the Emancipation Proclamation.