Was the Battle of Gettysburg the Turning Point of the Civil War?

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 10.48.41 AMI got an email recently from a Battle of Gettysburg  student (Mike B.) asking me to clarify something I said about the battle on the Interwebs.

I mentioned something along the lines of “Gettysburg is not as important as you might think it is.” Thanks for the note, Mike – lets see if I can clear things up a bit.

When analyzing history from the vantage point of the present (as I have warned people not to do), one could surmise that the battle was indeed the turning point. The Confederates never again could claim a decisive victory along the lines of Chancellorsville or Fredericksburg. But the Union victory here was not by any means the stepping off point towards guaranteed victory.

The participants and citizens of their respective countries certainly didn’t think so. Just read a newspaper from the period. The Confederates, with Lee at the helm the Army of Northern Virginia, still firmly believed that victory was within their grasp – Gettysburg or not. The Union Army was bogged down in Virginia, the northern civilian population was growing increasingly weary of the war, and even Abraham Lincoln thought he was going to lose the election of 1864 and perhaps the war along with it.

Sure as shit – the letters home from the Confederate Army indicated that morale was up. I have read them myself…tons of these letters are housed at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Go there yourself and check them out if you don’t believe me.

So all this “High Tide of the Confederacy” stuff is a postwar creation. Sure, the citizens of the North and South thought the battle was important to be sure, but perhaps for different reasons than many Americans believe today.

And…if you read all the way to the end of this post I have a got a surprise for you – you can get the super-uber-deep- discount on my Gettysburg web-course HERE. You’re welcome 🙂

With compliments,


4 thoughts on “Was the Battle of Gettysburg the Turning Point of the Civil War?”

  1. It definitely was not the turning point of the war. That came later in 1864 when Grant took the Army of the Potomac south and fought a sustained campaign that eventually resulted in the destruction and defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia. Instead of falling back after the Wilderness battle he kept on attacking and maneuvering forcing Lee’s troops to fight a protracted campaign which would eventually break the ability to sustain a military force by the Confederate rebels.

    1. I agree that Grant in the Wilderness was certainly one. On a political front, I believe that Lincoln’s reelection was a significant turning point as well.

  2. I think while it was not *the* turning point of the war for the Union it was a key victory on three fronts that lead to ultimate victory:

    1. The losses that Lee’s army sustained from killed, wounded, or missing were never truly recovered, especially in terms of officers.

    2. It was a hugely important victory for the morale of the Army of the Potomac which up to that time had been soundly defeated at the hands of Robert E. lee.

    3. Clearly, along with later victories, it helped Lincoln win re-election, and sustained morale of the Union.

    I think the morale boos the Army of the Potomac gained from winning at Gettysburg is a critical and often overlooked factor.

    Would be interested to know if Dr. Harris agrees with these points.

    Imagine if Lee had won at Gettysburg, certainly then the question would be an easier one to answer and everyone would agree it had been *the* key battle. Stating the obvious sure, but seems to be an interesting question what would have happened. Lincoln would have been done for sure.

    1. More or less, I think all of the things you say are valid – from our perspective. However, my case against Gettysburg being the turning point is that in July, 1863, all of the things you mention (with the exception of the Union boost in morale…which of course could have easily changed depending on the circumstances…as it did in the summer of 64) are in the future. So I tend to look at it from their perspective. I have read a number of letters from Confederates in 1864 who still claim that Lee had never been defeated…and a number from Union soldiers and citizens in 64 who are ready to throw in the towel.

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