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.