There has been a lot of press over the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. From July 1-3, 1863 Union and Confederate forces joined in a mighty battle near a small hamlet in southern Pennsylvania. Casualties topped 50,000. Pickett's Charge on the last day over the bare fields and near breakthrough of the Union center is often described as the "high water mark of the Confederacy". Only the hindsight of time can give us that perspective.
In point of fact, historians and contemporary pundits view Lee's foray into Pennsylvania as a disaster. The campaign did little to relieve the Union pressure in the Shenandoah Valley. The battle can only be described as Confederate loss, and Lee could ill-afford the resulting 20,000-plus casualties. Mead, the Union commander, was heavily criticized for not following up the defeated Confederates, but in reality the army was exhausted and in no position to chase Lee.
Can we truly look upon Gettysburg as the "high water mark"? Nothing was accomplished by the invasion of Pennsylvania. Nothing was gained by the Union in victory. In fact, it was a battle that concluded the very next day that garnered the headlines of the times. That battle was also a Union victory, but it was won not in Pennsylvania, but 1,047 miles away at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Grant's victory at Vicksburg put the entire Mississippi River under Union control. The Confederacy was effectively cut in half. The rich agricultural lands of Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri now could no longer support the Rebel army. The fall of Vicksburg was the proverbial straw that broke the Confederacy's back. Not Gettysburg.
New Orleans and Memphis were in Federal Control. The important rail center at Nashville was captured previously. That fall Union troops would move across Tennessee to cut the Confederacy again, and bloody Chicamauga would result. The following year the Confederate States would see Atlanta fall and at that point the end result was never in doubt.
Gettysburg may be the popular winner of the most famous of Civil War battles, but it was the lessor and far more important fall of Vicksburg that was the crown in Union victories. One further point to prove my theory: It was Grant who was picked by Lincoln to head up the United States Army, not George Mead, after their respective July 1863 victories.