For generations, schools have taught that the turning point of the American Civil War was the battle of Gettysburg, that titanic clash in southeastern Pennsylvania where the Army of the Potomac under Meade and the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee fought for three days to decide the fate of a continent.
Sounds romantic, don’t it? Too bad it just isn’t true.
Turning points are handy for teaching history because they give a certain sense of being somewhere in what may otherwise be a dreary time line. Unfortunately, outside of a teaching environment or some dramatic exposition, they don’t make a lot of sense because there just aren’t that many of them that are that distinct.
By the 19th century, war had become a very complex matter, where events on the battlefield were often eclipsed by events in the halls of government, the trading floors or in the hearts and minds of the populace (yes, it did matter, ‘60s cynicism aside).
In the case of the Civil War, what happened in Pennsylvania in the first three days in July of 1863 was indeed a large battle, but it was pretty irrelevant to the war as a whole. For two years the two principle armies of the Union and the Confederacy had been glaring at each other between Washington and Richmond, fighting occasionally, maneuvering up to Maryland and down into the Wilderness, but mostly just glaring and camping. In the 90 miles of space between the two capitals there was a marked dearth of real activity for months at a time.
However, in the West (which was anywhere west of the Appalachians) a typical army (there were four principal hosts and several others in the theater) covered 90 miles every quarter and fought at least one major battle every third month. One reason for this was that there was so much more war to fight out there, with more critical objectives and three times the space. One fact that most people don’t appreciate is that it is a greater distance between Chicago and New Orleans than it is between Berlin and Moscow.
While most of the population and a large percentage of the manufacturing and dairy production were in the east, most of the grain, cotton, lumber, niter, salt, mules and horses, not to mention specie, were not. Armies by the 19th century traveled not just on guns and butter, but on wood and iron, on fodder and wheat that had to be paid for with gold and silver, not IOUs as they are today. And, in the west was the great Mississippi River, which made nearly all the other rivers on the continent pale in comparison not only for sheer size, but for its value as a transportation axis.
The fighting for control of the Mississippi River was far more crucial for the success and failure of the war than was who controlled the capitals. The free flow from the grain silos, lumber yards and steel mills of the Midwest to the markets of Europe and Latin America was crucial to the success or failure of both causes. Further, the flow of gold and silver from California, which the South could never affect and seemingly never seriously tried, ensured that, baring disaster, the North could buy an army if it needed to.
The blockade of the Southern coasts, dreary and relatively uneventful as it was, had global importance few nations appreciated at the time. After the Declaration of Paris in 1858, the ability for a nation to control its own ports determined who could recognize them as a political entity, and thus whether or not they were a country at all. As long as the South couldn’t permanently open their ports, their legitimacy as a country was doomed by international law. The South would have had to have open-water warships capable of consistent operation in all weathers to break the Union blockade, something they never came close to having.
On top of all this, there was the slavery issue. Chattel slavery had largely vanished from the major powers of Europe, where all the money and manufactured goods were, and when Russia freed the serfs in 1862 all the Great Powers were, theoretically, free societies. As the Confederacy insisted that their “peculiar institution” was critical to their existence, so too would most of Europe insist that slavery was an abomination that was anathema to the rising trade union movement, let alone the waves of liberal social reforms that were transforming the industrialized world.
You could make convincing arguments for Champion’s Hill that slammed the door on Vicksburg and was the penultimate battle for control of the Mississippi as being the turning point of the Civil War . You could also, given the nature of war in the Industrial Age, argue that Fort Sumter was the turning point for, as soon as the South started the war, they started to lose, because they never had a chance for a military, diplomatic, or economic victory.
So, if you’re looking for a single event that changed the destiny of the Civil War, Gettysburg surely isn’t it. I’m not quite sure that there was one.