Fourth of July: Turning point of the Civil War
UNITED STATES — Today is the celebration of the Declaration of Independence of the original 13 colonies of the United States from Great Britain. It was on this date, in 1776, that the North American British colonies became the United States of America. Just 67 years later, July 4 again became significant to American history.
On that day in 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia began its retreat from Pennsylvania the day after it was resoundingly defeated at Gettysburg, ending his second attempt to take Washington D.C. Most historians cite this battle as the turning point of the American Civil War. The battle, by itself, however, aside of battering Lee’s army, may not have been, by itself, crucial to the defeat of the Confederate States of America. Lee amassed just under 25,000 casualties at Gettysburg, fully one-third of his army. Although it would never again function as an offensive military threat, the Army of Northern Virginia would still continue, for nearly two more years, as a formidable defensive unit, capable of inflicting unimaginable damage to any offensive force.
What may be more significant to ending the rebellion was the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which occurred on the same day Lee began his retreat.
Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, said that “Vicksburg is the nailhead that held the South’s two haves together.”
U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln, saw it that way, as well.
Vicksburg sits atop a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. From there, Confederate artillery could effectively prevent any Union traffic from moving up or down the river. Further south, Louisiana’s Port Hudson blocked all Union river travel from New Orleans north, keeping agricultural products from Northern farm states from reaching east-bound ports to the south.
Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant had tried a number of attempts at to take Vicksburg by force, each ending in failure. He finally concluded to put his troops behind the city, on the west side of the river, and lay siege to Vicksburg. At the same time, Union General Nathaniel P. Banks laid siege to Port Hudson, further down the river, in Louisiana. Vicksburg, however, was the key, because if it could be taken, Port Hudson would necessarily fall in due time.
While these two ports were under siege, Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania. His purpose was two-fold: To relieve economic pressure from Virginia, and to reach Washington D.C. and end the war. Lee’s legendary reputation for military genius failed him on this campaign. For three days at Gettysburg, Lee battered his army against strongly held Union positions, first on the left flank of Union General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac, then agains the right flank, then, as Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George Meade predicted, against the center of the Union line. While the three-day battle did not destroy Lee’s Army, it would never recover. For example, General George Pickett’s division, which had made the disastrous “Pickett’s Charge,” was destroyed on the field.
Lee began his retreat back to Virginia on the same morning that Grant was preparing to receive the surrender of Vicksburg, along with General John Pemberton’s surrender of his Confederate army of 33,000 men.
The fall of Vicksburg had crippling consequences for the Confederacy as a whole. Grant’s victory split the Confederacy in half geographically. It isolated the states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, which cut off beef, pork, other agricultural products to the east, as well as leather and horses, vital to the Confederacy’s survival. It also isolated Port Hudson.
The port’s defender, General Franklin Gardner, learned of the fall of Vicksburg on July 7. He surrendered the port, along with his battered army, to Gen. Banks on July 9. The Vicksburg campaign was more than an astounding Union victory; it damaged the Confederate States beyond saving.
In addition to the loss of the vast majority of agriculture from the west, needed for both the armies and the civilian population, the human cost was more than the South could sustain.
Lee’s loss of 23,200 men at Gettysburg, added to the loss of Pemberton’s 33,000 — and the additional 6,800 troops surrendered at Port Hudson, combined to remove more than 63,000 veteran Confederate soldiers from military field service, the equivalent of a fair-sized army.
Taken together, the Vicksburg and the Gettysburg campaigns were fatal to the Confederate States of America.
Once back in Virginia, Lee was able to patch up what was left of his battered army, but with severely limited resources, the Confederacy could not replace the army’s losses, nor completely re-outfit it, but it remained a devastating defensive force.
The Fall of Vicksburg opened up the entire length of the Mississippi River to Union traffic, relieving economic pressure on the Midwest and Plains states, while causing the fall of Port Hudson, which cut off the major food source from Trans-Mississippi states.
While Lee’s army was still able to defend the Confederate capital of Richmond militarily, it– like the other armies still in the field — could not fight effectively if it could not be properly fed.