Was Gettysburg a critically decisive battle?

What were the aftereffects of the Battle of Gettysburg?

  • In addition to a horrific loss of men, the Army of Northern Virginia lost far too many officers, including several generals killed, captured, or severely wounded to not have an effect on both the morale of the Army and the command structure.
  • With the loss of Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan ‘Stonewall’ Jackson two months before the Battle of Gettysburg, Lee lost his most trusted confidant, most able lieutenant, and a fellow Virginian.  That this had an effect on the Army and its commanding general was suddenly and abundantly made clear at Gettysburg, much to the detriment of the Army.
  • Officers from other states that blundered or appeared to be unreliable were treated poorly by Lee and his Virginia subordinates.  For example, Pettigrew [North Carolina] was disbelieved on reporting regular Army units of the Army of the Potomac present in Gettysburg on June 30 during a reconnaissance in force; O’Neill [Alabama] and Iverson [North Carolina] on the first day, were sent packing from the ANV after the Battle.  Officers from Virginia who blundered, Heth on the first day by disobeying orders to not bring on a general engagement, and Mahone on the second day when he refused direct orders to advance his brigade, were not censured in any way – their offenses were either ignored, or covered up.
  •  As for being a personal military advisor and sounding board, Lieutenant General James Longstreet was not given the credence by Lee that was accorded to Jackson.  While Lee relied most heavily on Longstreet’s Corps to do the bulk of the fighting on the second and third days, he did so over the protestations of Longstreet who argued that the Union positions were far too strong for the ANV to be fighting a battle at Gettysburg.  Longstreet even went so far as to offer alternatives to which Lee responded with near scorn, and eventual impatience.

These four factors not only severely crippled the effectiveness of the command structure at Gettysburg, but they had lasting and telling negative effects to the end of the war.

In the hopes of winning diplomatic recognition from Great Britain, the Army of Northern Virginia launched the Gettysburg Campaign on the heels of two big victories, Fredericksburg, in December of 1862, and Chancellorsville in May.  It was the hope of the Confederate States government that a third consecutive major victory during this campaign would tip the diplomatic balance in favor of the Confederate States of America.  With diplomatic recognition would come arms, equipment, and perhaps even the Royal Navy to lift the blockade of Southern ports imposed by the US Navy.  Though the chances were very slim, the hope was nevertheless there for the British to officially recognize them.  Such recognition would also bring a larger stature among nations, and provide a counter to Lincoln’s policy of ignoring the CS government and states as a separate entity.  [For the record, it should be noted that the rest of Europe was pretty much embroiled in the throes of the nationalism movement, and the conflict which that engendered on the Continent.]

With the hope of diplomatic recognition virtually gone, the CSA could only hope to fight its way to a point where the people of the North tired of the war and were willing to grant the Confederate States independence.  However, with the loss at Gettysburg and the next day loss of Vicksburg on the Mississippi, little remained to nurture that hope.  Certainly the victory at Chickamauga in September 1863 helped, but after Gettysburg, any victories won by the CS forces were Pyrrhic in nature, and each defeat not only cost the Confederate states territory and what that territory could supply or transport, but the losses in men would never again be fully made up.  Additionally, manpower in the CS Army was drained by desertions at an increasing rate after Gettysburg/Vicksburg.

Finally, for the first time, Robert E. Lee was decisively defeated and forced to retreat back to Virginia.  While Antietam was indeed a major victory for the Union forces, it was not as clear cut as Gettysburg.  The arrival of the Stonewall Brigade late in the day at Antietam stopped the Union forces in their tracks.  There was no such event at Gettysburg – Lee was soundly defeated on the second and third days, gaining little on the Second, and being generally repulsed all along the line in the process, and being repulsed at great expense in casualties on the Third, again all along the line, including the Cavalry defeat east of town.

Indeed, the strategic positives achieved by the Gettysburg Campaign were few:

  • The infliction of heavy losses to the enemy army,
  • The relief of the farmers in the Shenandoah Valley long enough to plant, raise, and harvest their crops to feed an increasingly hungry population and its armies.

When balanced against the repulse at Gettysburg, and the death of any chance of diplomatic recognition, the positives were heavily outweighed by the negatives.

Additionally, from Gettysburg onward, manpower became a major issue for the Confederate States forces.  Between desertions and combat losses and losses from disease, the forces were unable to build higher numbers, and soon were struggling to maintain their 1863 force levels.  Such manpower shortages, while they did exist to an extent in the Union, were less significant, and as a result, the Union forces continued to grow larger as the war continued.

When discussing the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg, we often hear it referred to as the “High water Mark of the Confederacy.”  Indeed, with the advance to Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, across the Susquehanna River from the state Capital at Harrisburg, and with the exception of the St. Albans, Vermont raid/bank robbery in 1864, the Gettysburg Campaign was the geographic “high water mark” of the Confederate States Army.  The term was coined by a former Confederate Officer while being interviewed by Colonel John Bachelder after the war, while sitting near the famous Copse of Trees which the Union forces defended during Pickett’s Charge.

Indeed, the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg was critical to the success or failure of  the Confederate States of America.  Even if Lee had prevailed at Gettysburg and marched to the edge of the Washington, DC defenses, forcing the US government to flee at least to Philadelphia, there is no guarantee that Britain would still have gone ahead and granted diplomatic recognition to the CSA.  By then, British military observers had gone back to Great Britain and reported on the size of the Union Armies and their ability to take a beating and keep coming back, the advances in Northern industrial output, the resolve of the Union people and their President, and the growth and efficiency of the US Navy, along with the fact that for the most part, the war was fought inside what the Confederate States Government claimed as its boundaries.  Such was the sleeping giant of American power awakened by the secession of the Slave States, which Britain could not afford, financially or diplomatically, or for that matter militarily, to diplomatically disenfranchise in favor of the Confederacy.

But the question never got that far.  Hence, the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg was critical to the disposition of the war, militarily, and diplomatically.

About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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