Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Two Turning Points In The American Civil War

For History 207A with Dennis Judd

My entire adult life I have been haunted by, amongst other things, turning points and final stands. I expressly do not believe in reincarnation, but if I did not know better I'd probably believe I have been a warrior many times throughout history in many different turning points and final stands, only to die and be reincarnated in another time and place as a warrior in yet another conflict's turning point or final stand. What I believe is really occurring within me is that I have an intense soul and strong intellect (I'm not egotistically declaring myself to be smart but merely that my mind is unusually active) which allows my mind to wrap itself around concepts and personalities and events and grasp not only the details but the emotions and overarching gravity of these things. This allows me to connect with them as if I had been there in those events and/or interacted with those people.

As with all conflicts, the American Civil War (which I consider to actually be the Second American Civil War after the American Revolutionary War) contained a turning point, or rather two of them. One of these turning points was the Battle of Gettysburg which it seems everybody has heard of and most people seem to know something about if for no other reason than there have been some notable Hollywood movies made about it such as the 1993 movie "Gettysburg". The other turning point in the war was the Battle of Vicksburg, or more accurately, the Siege of Vicksburg. The siege began 47 days before the city finally fell and just as the Battle of Gettysburg likewise concluded. In fact, one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's reasons for initiating the campaign that resulted in the Battle of Gettysburg was to divert Union focus away from beleaguered Vicksburg, Mississippi. However, no memorable movies devoted to Vicksburg were filmed and given America's propensity to learn more from television and cinema than from books and schooling few Americans know much about this chapter of the war.

For me personally, Vicksburg has personal meaning as according to family oral tradition one of my ancestors from my mother's father's side of the family fought for the Confederacy at Vicksburg and survived. Union General Ulysses S. Grant while orchestrating the North's western theater of operations pursued Confederate General John Pemberton into the Southern stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. However, two direct assaults across the Mississippi River were unsuccessful due to terrain advantages for the defenders. Hence, a resourceful Grant looked for another avenue of attack and headed south down the west bank of the Big Muddy and crossed it at Bruinsburg and then headed northeast to Jackson, MS, taking. He then headed back west to Vicksburg, MS, where he laid siege to the city entrapping General Pemberton and his rebel army which he had foolishly neglected to evacuate prior to Grant's approach. Pemberton's army had experienced horrendous losses fighting Grant prior to Vicksburg but was pretty much finished off by the privation of the Siege of Vicksburg. The city fell on July 4, 1863, and the heinous memory of that siege and its privation for soldier and citizen alike led to the city refusing to celebrate Independence Day for the following century.

The immediate consequence of the fall of Vicksburg was that the Union now controlled the Mississippi River. This in turn allow Union forces out west to more quickly and liberally resupply their forces. More strategically, this resulted in splitting the Confederacy into eastern and western pockets. As a result, food and other supplies that came into the Deep South from places like Texas would no longer be available to the Confederacy. This in turn deepened the starvation already setting in there. Even had Robert E. Lee won at Gettysburg it is not certain the Confederacy could have won the war as result of what happened at Vicksburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg occurred as a result of Robert E. Lee's machinations and initiative. He had multiple objectives at stake in undertaking this bold move. As previously stated, he hoped to relieve Vicksburg by diverting Union forces away from it by striking deep into Union territory as up to that point most of the fighting in this conflict had occurred south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Unfortunately for the Confederacy that fact would not change after the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee also hoped to put on a strong enough show to impress Union politicians to sue for peace and/or for foreign powers in Europe to side with the Confederacy. In fact, British military observers were embedded behind Confederate battle lines in order to make this very determination on behalf of their government. A final and logistical motive for this maneuver was to obtain food from foraging Union farms as well as shoes for his Southern army from a shoe factory in Gettysburg, PA, (let the Southern jokes begin).

Heading into the Gettysburg Campaign General Lee had the advantage of a better army as well as a large enough army to wage offensive warfare. He also faced an Army of the Potomac that had just experienced yet another leadership change a few days prior when General Joseph Hooker was replaced with General George Meade. On the down side, General Lee in the previous major engagement, the Battle of Chancellorsville, lost Confederate General Stonewall Jackson who was mistakenly killed by one of his own sentries. In response to this Lee stated "I have lost my right arm." Also, as previously mentioned his army was hungry and also suffered from the perennial of  Southern problems, a dearth of shoes.

On the eve of the battle, two more factors entered the equation that would cripple any hope of victory for the Army of Northern Virginia. J.E.B. Stuart and the cavalry he commanded went off on a shopping spree for free Union wagons and disengaged from direct contact with the enemy as well as lost contact with his own chain of command. This was done despite the fact cavalry in that day and age were not only a strike force but also an instrument of reconnaissance without which Lee had no idea as to the strength and disposition of Meade's forces. This would prove fateful as Lee would soon be caught off guard by the size and disposition of Meade's approaching force. Another unfortunate factor for Lee was the fact that he made a grave tactical error in rejecting General James Longstreet's sage counsel that the then-unfolding battlefield favored the enemy and needed to be moved elsewhere. Lee rejected this advice as he wanted to defeat the Army of the Potomac deep in Union territory and in a fair fight. As Sun-Tzu suggested in the Art of War and W.C. Fields rephrased "Never give a sucker an even break."

The catalyst for the battle was a Union cavalry contingent crashing a Confederate shoe-hunting party titled "Johnny Reb & The Shoe Factory" located in Gettysburg as there was a shoe factory located there (okay, I'll stop). Although no major fighting resulted from that encounter it did result in forces on both sides pouring into the area and Day One starting on the morrow. Day One saw the Union forces ejected from areas north and west of Gettysburg and chased right out of town to the south and forced back into more defensible positions. It is from these more defensible positions that the Union forces would hold the line and be victorious. Notably, Confederate forces on this day failed to take Cemetery Ridge before it could become an established defensive position for the Union. Day One was a round won by the Confederacy.

Day Two saw most of the remaining forces that would be engaged in this battle by both sides having done so by this morning. The Union forces enjoyed a 2-1 numerical advantage in defense. Traditionally, an attacking force should enjoy a minimum of 3-1 numerical superiority for it to have any reasonable chance of success. The Confederate forces attempted to envelope the Union salient by flanking maneuvers on both the left and right flanks. The right flanking maneuver was to be a diversion and hold in place Union forces while the left flank was the primary target. It was on this flank the effort came the closest to success where Confederate forces attempted to take Little Round Top at the south end of the Union's "hook-shaped" defensive salient. They hoped to completely turn the Union flank and transform the salient into a pocket and that pocket into a death trap. This did not succeed as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment along with an ad hoc collection of other smaller units held onto Little Round Top at the extreme southern end of the Union flank. At the climax in true Hollywood movie-style, a bayonet charge necessitated by running out of ammunition succeeded in forcing not mere retreat but in some cases the surrender of the attacking Confederate forces. Day Two was a round won by the Union.

Day Three saw Lee get a bit more forceful (desperate?) and throw all that he had against the Union defenses in a reprise of the previous day's general plan. This time he intended for amongst other things, General George Pickett's division along with two other divisions commanded by General Johnston Pettigrew and General Isaac Trimble to slam into the center of Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. To call this attack "Pickett's Charge" as it is commonly known is perhaps a bit inaccurate as a result of this fact as all three division generals were equals who were in turn subordinate to General Longstreet who opposed the attack and only reluctantly gave Pickett at best a tepid indication to commence the attack. "Pickett's Charge" was preceded by possibly the largest artillery barrage of the entire war, especially in light of the fact Union big guns joined in response albeit with fading intensity over time to intentionally mislead Confederate gunners into believing they were knocking out Union guns when they were in fact not. This soon became apparent as the three divisions of "Picket's Charge" containing anywhere between 12,500 and 15,000 men began spreading out across the 3/4 mile deep and mile wide "kill zone" in which they endured not only catastrophic artillery fire but also withering rifle fire from rifles with both long range and great accuracy. For a short time one small part of the attack did penetrate Union lines in what have been called the "high-water mark of the Confederacy" but that was soon repulsed and the charge degenerated into a virtual route.

The immediate consequence of this fiasco was that General Lee immediately went on the defensive after losing half of that day's attacking force and 23,000 more casualties overall for the entire three-day FUBAR. Although the Union suffered about the same number of casualties they not only possessed a large force to begin with but could replace their losses much more readily than the Confederacy could replace their's. Lee immediately took responsibility for what happened and realizing his tenuous tactical position retreated south back to Virginia. He was followed by a very tepid pursuit initiated by General Meade who allowed Lee to get away without trying to annihilate him while he was vulnerable and away from his home turf. This failure allowed the war to continue another two years. Hence, both commanders failed to deliver a knock-out punch to end the war immediately as they both could have done. However, Meade won a strategic as well as tactical victory that indeed turned the tide of the war.

Henceforth the Confederacy would lack the troop strength to engage in offensive operations but instead merely react to Union depredations led by up and coming Union Generals U.S. Grant and W.T. Sherman over the course of the following two years down the stretch run of the war. Futhermore, following this debacle no European nations had any interest, most notably England, in getting involved in a war on behalf of slavery which was unpopular in England. Obviously, the outcome of this battle had the opposite effect as was intended by General Lee of encouraging Union politicians to sue for peace. On a final note: the Army of Northern Virginia failed to gain appreciable food supplies as hoped and about those shoes they came to Gettysburg to get, well, they now had plenty of shoes they could strip from their dead.


  1. Kim, aside from a few grammatical errors (please forgive me-I'm an English prof), I would be in awe to have such a student as you. I am overwhelmed at the amount of detail and motivating factors you have provided in this paper. The paper is so thorough and well thought out that I would not be able to stop myself from slapping a big fat "A" on it. You have a wonderful gift.

    My hope, my wish for you is to continue to grow within this gift and to be ever mindful that you are here for a specific purpose. Everything within me is shouting out that you must complete that purpose.

    From one warrior spirit to another, battle on!

    1. Dear Professor Kerns,

      Thanks for the kind words and I'm glad you spotted the grammatical errors as I embedded them in this piece on purpose to test to see if you would notice them and you passed the test. That's my story and I'm sticking with it. ;-p

      Seriously though, thanks for the kind comments and affirmation.

      Battle on!

      Your Writing Padawan

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