It is near universally assumed that the battle of Gettysburg determined the failure of the Southern War for Independence. But is that too facile and summary a judgment?

The battle may be considered something of a turning point, especially coming at the same time that Vicksburg was starved into surrender after an eight-month attack by superior numbers aided by heavily armed gunboats.

Lee’s army was damaged by the famous charge on the third day at Gettysburg. It had been hampered by the absence of Stuart’s usual perfect intelligence and Ewell’s failure to occupy high ground on the first day. But the Confederate army had things mostly its own way in the first two days, most of the time winning on contact and capturing many prisoners and much materiel.

Remember this was an outnumbered army on enemy soil, far from home. As Lee admitted, the Pickett/Pettigrew attack was a mistake.  But for Confederates it was so common as to have become customary to drive superior Union forces from their positions, and Lee’s hope overruled his usual superb judgment.  Lee hoped that a decisive stroke could bring peace. For him peace would be a boon to all Americans.  The other side considered only completion of their conquest.

A great Union victory? Most Union generals prevaricated about battle odds in self-justification of frequent defeats. The honest Northern general Don Carlos Buell said of Gettysburg that it was a battle in which 90,000 “barely withstood” an attack by 60,000.

Lee’s army withdrew back to Virginia with a 30-mile long wagon train—with its artillery, wounded, prisoners, a thousand African-American helpers, and herds of meat on the hoof. The usual military rule is that a victorious army follows up a defeated foe and finishes them off. The “victorious” Union army was not able do this. It was badly damaged.  Also hampered by Lincoln keeping large bodies of troops tied up to defend his capital from “defeated” inferior forces.

The only interference with Lee’s withdrawal were sporadic cavalry attacks, not of troops but of lightly defended wagons. The Confederates maintained their morale and did not act like a defeated army. The Army of Northern Virginia remained a magnificent fighting force for another 20 months.

In September the Confederates won the battle of Chickamauga.  After Gettysburg a Southern scratch force kept Florida free of invasion.  In 1864 Confederates continued to supply themselves liberally from Northern materiel and capture thousands of prisoners nearly to the end while destroying Union supply lines.  Forrest conducted several very successful blocking raids and small Southern cavalry  forces generally drove out Union raids  against civilians.  Early reached the outskirts of Washington. In 1864. Small Southern forces kept many thousands of U.S. troops tied down protecting Washington and holding down Kentucky and Missouri.  Raphael Semmes literally destroyed the Yankee mercantile fleet across the globe. Lee inflicted staggering casualties on Grant’s invasion of Virginia.  To near the end Mosby prevented Union control of Northern Virginia and Adam Johnson did the same in western Kentucky.

What foretold Confederate defeat was Sherman’s successful expedition against civilians, even though that did not destroy Southern morale.  Lincoln had doubts that he would be re-elected.  He won with the Army conducting the elections in the Border States, New York, and other places; great use of the patronage for high offices and lucrative contracts; the seizure of the telegraph; interfering with the mail of those merely suspected of “disloyalty,” and the ruthless crushing of dissenting speakers and newspapers. Some 45% of Northerners voted against him and for a candidate who wanted to return to “the Union as it was.”  It was the Republican electoral victory, guaranteeing the continuance of total war, that decided the South’s fate, not the battle in Pennsylvania.

It is far too simplistic to assume that the Confederacy was doomed by a glorious Union “victory” at Gettysburg.

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.


  • Billy P says:

    Well said, Dr. Wilson. Thank you for this insight. I always learn something from your writings.
    Gettysburg was certainly an important battle as they all tended to be, but it was not the end of the war as so many seem to believe. The union just saw that one as an antithesis to Fredericksburg, so they – maybe rightly so – take a lot of pride in it, hence the monuments on nearly every square foot on their side. My favorite monument on the union side is the NC monument 75 yards past that impenetrable rock wall, but I digress.
    My gg grandad was there with Heth’s division, with the 55th NC under Joseph Davis and was badly wounded on day one.
    My understanding is the same…days 1-2 favored the south, though like you stated, some valuable high ground was there for the taking and the opportunity was missed by General Ewell, to put it mildly.
    Having toured the battleground (as a reenactor, an almost required pilgrimage), I am still amazed at the bravery of the Texas and Alabama assault on Little Round Top. To see the view from Little Round Top to Devil’s Den…it was like shooting fish in a barrel for the union, yet the south still crossed that opening, went up that steep hill a foot at a time and at great cost…and their repeated charges pushed the 20th Maine to exhaust their ammo and resort to a bayonet charge. Even though I am a southerner and would have desired a different outcome, I admire Joshua Chamberlain’s solid leadership there as his men fought hard as well and he did his duty.
    One of the greatest honors of my life was to march silently in battle formation across the actual battlefield to the rock wall with my South Carolina and North Carolina brother reenactors. The reenactments (in this case the 155th) do not take place on the actual battlefield, so this was just something we wanted to do as a unit to honor our ancestors as many of us have several who fought there.
    We met at the NC monument and marched from the Confederate side all the way to the rock wall, where I freely and without shame admit the emotion of the moment got the best of me. I can’t fathom the courage it took to march across that open field to that position under the kind of fire they endured. Honestly, I was overwhelmed with the rawness of it, feeling completely unworthy to stand on the ground that our bravest fought so hard for.
    God bless my gg grandad for fighting for the state of North Carolina (First, Farthest and Foremost) and for all of those southerners who gave everything they had at Gettysburg.
    This nation has heroes that deserve to be remembered and their traits emulated and revered. If we forget them, then shame on us and we deserve what we have coming.

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    Many “ifs”. The “slavery” war was not fought by the British Empire…instead, slaves were purchased from their masters in 1834 and peace reigned.

    No one disputed the chain of command in the British Empire…in the united States, if you read Thoreau, writing in WALDEN, you will find he speaks thusly, “the united States ARE preparing to go to war”…after the war, it was “the United States IS preparing to go to war”. The war had to be fought to destroy the power of the States…the federalists had great plans…the anti-federalists insisted on the Bill of Rights…which is why globalist politicians controlling the United States call the Constitution a “scrap of paper”.

    By the time Gettysburg was fought, the United States (minus the Confederate States) had passed railroad legislation that would give railroads the equivalent acreage of the entire State of Texas in payment for laying track. This in addition to generous payment per mile of track laid. The Morrill Tariff was prepared to continue the process of skimming from the “slave” States. The Homestead Act was used to buy votes by further allocating public lands to those who would go improve these lands and bringing in tens of thousands of military-aged immigrants to fight the empire’s war. The war wouldn’t have ended with a Southern victory at Gettysburg. The northern congress would have just given away more land…they could always get the land back in the future after they had created the Federal Reserve.

    BTW, Colonel Oates took Big Round Top. Lee’s plan to enfilade the yankees from high ground could have started there…

    • Billy P says:

      Spot on, William. Could add that it was the clash of Hamiltonian vs Jeffersonian government. The United States ARE vs IS….the verb change alone is very telling as to the purpose/result of that war.
      And, today, globalist, Marxist politicians sitting in Washington DC (R’s and D’s!) regard our constitutional rights as outdated, a white colonial’s obstacle in the way of progress, as abhorrent to their goals as the “scrap of paper” they were written on. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a non-stop battle for first and second amendment rights, just one example. Most of these politicians do not possess the IQ levels or basic brain functions to make laws or lead the country. When I see them being rolled into a vote and told what to say, it’s an embarrassment that we allow this. Term limits are badly needed.
      As far as the tariffs, US tariff rates when graphed shows the very clear spikes in the late 1820’s and early 1830’s (tariffs of abomination) and in1861 with the Morrill Tariff. The former nearly spurred secession halted only by John C. Calhoun’s efforts, but the Morrill tariff and the inability for the south to contend with it led to secession. Even today, all of the money eventually goes north if not directly to New York or Delaware or DC, then indirectly through Atlanta. The career politicians (aka masters) there decide who gets what after taking more than their fair share – and maybe some for the “big guy”.
      Power and money. Some things never change.
      Winning Gettysburg would have been better than losing it, but I don’t know that it would have led to the goal that Lee was hoping for, and I don’t think it would have changed the end result because I believe the south underestimated the lengths Lincoln was willing to go in order to keep his revenues.
      A steady stream of European revolutionaries (many Germans in the mix) fit for service in blue (here is your rifle, go shoot southerners) and a stranglehold on our trade would more than cover a union loss at Gettysburg. Those revolutionaries comprised 30% of the union Army. Many would go on to march with Sherman to shell, burn, loot, rape and steal, crimes that if the result had been different would have been charged to them along with their president.
      Southerner defenders were more of a finite number dealing from local stock (our own families), and they were steadily wearing themselves out killing Yankees. 🙂 God bless them all and God bless the south.

      • William Quinton Platt III says:

        Perhaps a jury system of picking representatives would be acceptable. Term limits just limit the amount of time a crook has to line his pockets. No right to vote if a person is on the public dole…you’re not going to vote more money out of the working man’s pocket.

  • David LeBeau says:

    I love to read what Mr. Clyde Wilson has to say. I’m currently reading his book titled “Defending Dixie.” It’s a collection of his articles and essays on the South. I am really enjoying books that are just a collection of essays. I must admit that I am not up to speed on battles of the War to Prevent Southern independence.

  • Ross Massey says:

    Gettysburg is greatly overrated for being a turning point. Lee brought back those herds and it was 10 months before the U.S. launched the Overland Campaign (wilderness, etc.). I believe there was a latent turning point after Murfreesborough. The Yankees ran at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Perryville, and Murfreesborough, and ran their navy on the western theatre rivers.
    Lee’s limited theatre was easier to control. After Murfreesborough it was time for terrorism (burning U.S. cities). You have to hurt your enemy. Bravery was not enough for us.

  • Great piece. Several points if I may:
    1. If a history department was still interested in history, an aspiring PhD could research the letters of Confederate soldiers through November 1864 and see that they didn’t know they had lost the war – yet.
    2. The Industrial Era of Modern War started in 1862, following the Gunpowder Era 1608-1862, which changed strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare.
    Strategically, the South was likely to lose from the start. The manpower, industry, rail infrastructure, etc. indicated the South would lose. The same math applies in WW 1 and WW 2 when Germany attempts a two-front war.
    Operationally, the South lost the war in Kentucky. Lee held the East spectacularly. There wasn’t enough manpower to have an Army in the Mississippi Valley and another in the Central West. If the South could have taken Kentucky, a single Army could use interior lines to challenge multiple crossings of the Ohio and Mississippi River. Also, if the manpower distributed across the forts around the coast could have been used for a “mobile” (by train) force to meet, overwhelm, and repel any incursion from Texas to Norfolk.
    Tactically, the South did well. No one can fault the courage of the soldiers. Lee looked for a decisive battle, but never had the additional forces or tactical mobility to utterly destroy the enemy at 2nd Manassas or Chancellorsville. Or Johnston at Chickamauga.
    3. Scott Bowden (we share a GGG-Grandfather) wrote “Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign about the near misses at Gettysburg. It was a near run thing.

  • scott thompson says:

    not a military historian, but i had read somewhere that one of the Confederate generals was regular in saying something akin to ” defending the interiors” as a ‘broader’ strategy of wearing down the north and making them want to give up….anyone recall who that might have been?

  • Billy P says:

    Probably right on term limits, but it is still a good start. At least they would be less likely to amass a $200M personal wealth statement (Nancy Pelosi). Secondly, we should use the Confederate government’s design for the presidential term. One term, 6 years, none of this re-election chaos. With roughly 70 years of experience, the Confederate government flushed out a lot of flaws in the US design, adding line-item vetoes and truth in legislation (no oddball riders).
    And yes, no right to vote if you are taking government assistance. Makes perfect sense.

  • Dg Tyler says:

    I enjoyed your article. I only differ with you on one word and that is “for.”

    It was not The War “for” Southern Independence, but “of” …

    The CSA was a sovereign country when the invasion began.

    There’s a huge difference between for and of.

  • Gettysburg.
    Someone wrote about that famous charge up the hill. The Scotch-Irish way of fighting seemed to be more of the “grand Charge”, echoes of the age of the Knights in Shinning Armor, and Idealism in fighting. To me, This charge spoke from the heart, the Soul.
    The Northern troops, with their newly invented industrial assembly line, made, machine guns, merrily just mowed the advancing Southerners down!

    The dawn of the industrial “mind’ times had arrived and from then on, “mind” won over the heart.

    To me, from then on, the “Dammyankee” mindset appeared. “fast quick in out” instead of sitting at the counter talking with your buddies over the morning coffee, grits, and eggs.
    Or worse: buy 200 acres of land and then bulldoze this land down to subsoil then put in cheap cookie-cutter homes. Do not adapt to the nd the land. Do not place soul, beauty, and quality, first!

    The capitalistic phrases,
    “the customer comes first”.
    “the customer is always right”!
    —-these here voices grow now ever the fainter as big tech and big money rule ever the more.

    Mind now rules. The pundits of Mind look forwards to food pills, long life at any cost [95% of all southern food would then be banned!], AI instead of human face-to-face, and eventual mind-computer melding!

    For years now, I feel more and more like those Native Americans looking from the ridgetop at the advancing settlements of the white man!
    The new white settlers have arrived! They are those urban black-suited people with ink for blood and a shrunken heart and a shrunken Soul.
    —Thus, to me, the Civil War is still ongoing!
    Not only being fought in the South, either!
    Some Southerners have switched sides, and some urban Northerners also have switched over to the Southern side of the battle line.


    • Mark B says:

      Yes, the growing centralization begun with Lincoln, the Great Centralizer, has continued full speed ahead with Marx in the Democratic Party.

  • Mark B says:

    I recall that the charges up Little Round Top were accomplish by dehydrated forces. A detachment went off to fill canteens and were captured before the assault. Who knows what might have happened had they had water. I learned this from an astute NPS Ranger, Mike Phipps, who was well versed. He took me and my daughter to Hunterstown, the east cavalry field where Cobbs Legion (GA) charged Custer in a delaying action covering the wagons that Stuart had stolen. My GGGrandfather was in that charge and survived the war, and his brother, was killed in that charge. They almost got Custer. Too bad. Phipps said on another day, Custer charged the Confederates in a field, leading them right into a fence and Confederates were pulling Yankees off their horses taking them prisoner. Phipps was unbiased unlike the PC NPS Rangers of today I’ve experienced elsewhere.

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