July 5, 2013

The other big battle

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.


diamond dave said...

Good argument, and one I'm mostly in agreement with. Vicksburg really was a more decisive victory because it effectively severed a large chunk of the Confederacy from itself. Gettysburg was more of a marker in hindsight, where the Union finally started putting effective leaders in charge and the smashing Confederate victories came to an end.

But IMHO, the most decisive battle of the Civil War was neither of these battles, it was the fall of Atlanta the following year. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had battled Union General William Sherman's troops to a standstill by refusing to engage in direct battle, but maneuvering to avoid being outflanked. Johnston's maneuvers against Sherman created the sense that, for all the territory they were gaining, the Union army was accomplishing little that was decisive, and this was being used as a platform against President Lincoln's reelection by none other than the failed commander General George McClellan, a leader who was once Lincoln's top general but removed for his lack of tactical sense and apparent knack of snatching defeat or at least stalemates from the jaws of victory (see Antietam). Had Atlanta been able to hold out a little longer (and it just might have with Johnston's tactics), Lincoln may well have lost his reelection and been replaced by an administration that was willing to settle with the Confederacy. But at this juncture Jefferson Davis, after perceiving Johnston as lacking aggressiveness for all the territory he'd given up, replaced him with General John Bell Hood. Hood was a brilliant and aggressive corps commander, but his talents were mismatched to command a whole army, and he turned out to be the wrong man at the wrong time. He rashly tried to attack Sherman's superior forces head on and lost, losing too much of his army in the process and finally opening the door for Sherman to sweep in and take Atlanta. Once Atlanta was secured, the whole of the South was wide open and even the most diehard peaceniks could see that the end was finally in sight for the Confederacy. Thus I believe Atlanta had more significance than just about any other battle in the Civil War in ensuring final Union victory over the Confederacy.

Sorry this got so long, I sometimes get carried away when talking about military history and tactics. Probably should've done a blogpost on this myself.

Ed Bonderenka said...

But nobody made a moving "Address" about Vicksburg (or Atlanta).
Dave, copy and paste it to your site.
There's no law agin it.
I was well informed by both Joe's and your analysis.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...


I often contemplated doing a compare and contrast paper on Gettysburg and Midway. Midway seems to me to be the Japanese Gettysburg. Maybe I'm nuts but after years of study of both battles and their historical context, that's how I see it.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

In all fairness, anything that stopped Lee from getting around behind Washington DC and placing him thereby in a position to dictate terms to Lincoln was a much bigger victory than Vicksburg ever could be.

But that's my opinion.

diamond dave said...

Meade's greatest contribution to the victory at Gettysburg was quite simply, unlike his many predecessors, he didn't screw things up. He mostly relied on the advice of his capable subordinates, particularly General Hancock, as far as troop deployments and positioning went. It may be fair to say that most of the credit should go to Hancock, though General Reynolds deserves some credit for holding up the Rebels in town long enough for the Union troops to fortify Cemetery Ridge, at least up until he was shot dead. Meade was harshly criticized for not chasing and attacking the retreating Rebels after the battle, but historical hindsight shows that might have not been a good idea, given the depleted Union forces and the fact that the Confederates were very adept at defensive warfare while retreating. It could be argued that Meade didn't so much defeat Lee as Lee defeated himself.

And as far as Midway goes, Fuzzy, I would be interested in reading such a paper if you ever did one. If you haven't already, read Shattered Sword by Parshall and Tully, probably the best analysis I've read of the Battle of Midway, and mostly done from the Japanese point of view.

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