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Turning Point of the American Civil War
There is widespread disagreement over the Turning Point of the American Civil War. Probably the most cited event is the Battle of Gettysburg. But there are other, equally valid choices. The idea of a turning point is an event after which most observers would agree that the eventual outcome was inevitable. For example, in World War II, the Battle of Midway is generally cited as the turning point in the Pacific Theater because after that battle, the Japanese Empire changed from a strategic offensive posture to the strategic defensive. The Battle of Saratoga is widely recognized as the turning point of the American Revolution.
A key factor is obviously the hindsight that reveals the endpoint and all the events that precede it. In most cases, contemporary observers may lack confidence in predicting a turning point. In the American Civil War, many of the turning points cited by historians would not have been recognized as such at the time. For example, Gettysburg was seen by military and civilian observers as a great battle, but those in the North had little idea that two more bloody years would be required to finish the war. Southern morale was not strongly affected by the defeat because many assumed that Robert E. Lee had suffered only a temporary setback and would resume his winning ways against ineffective Union generals.
There are a number of arguable turning points in the war. Some possibilities are presented here in date sequence. Only the positive arguments for each are given.
The Confederate bombardment and capture of Union Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina was the turning point between an uneasy peace and armed hostility. It is conceivable that had this point not been crossed, the Confederacy may have merely drifted away from the Union over time, with President Abraham Lincoln unable to muster sufficient popular support and international neutrality to force them back. But after Sumter, further military action was inevitable.
Proponents of the bitter Lost Cause movement would consider this to be the point at which the war was lost, because the overwhelming industrial and manpower advantages the North possessed were unleashed. If the South had won the war, Fort Sumter may have also been considered the turning point, because Lincoln's call for 75,000 military volunteers was the proximate cause of four additional states joining the Confederacy.
Invasion of Kentucky
By mid-1861, eleven states had seceded, but four more slave-owning states remained in the Union—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Kentucky was considered the most at risk; the state legislature had declared neutrality in the dispute, which was a moderately pro-Confederate stance. The loss of Kentucky would have been catastrophic because of its control of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers and its position from which the vital state of Ohio could be invaded. Lincoln wrote, "I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game."
On September 3, 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk extended his defensive line north from Tennessee when Gideon Pillow occupied Columbus, Kentucky (in response to Ulysses S. Grant's occupation of Belmont, Missouri , directly across the Mississippi River). Polk followed that by moving through the Cumberland Gap and occupying parts of southeastern Kentucky. This violation of state neutrality enraged many of its citizens; the state legislature, overriding the veto of the governor, requested assistance from the federal government. Kentucky would never again be a safe area of operation for Confederate forces. Ironically, Polk's actions were not directed by the Confederate government. Thus, almost by accident, the Confederacy was placed at an enormous strategic disadvantage. Indeed, the early Union successes in the war's Western Theater (their only non-naval successes until 1863) are directly related to Polk's blunder.
First Bull Run
The Battle of First Bull Run, on July 21, 1861, was the first major land battle of the war. Until this time, the North was generally confident about its prospects for quickly crushing the rebellion with an easy, direct strike against the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. The embarrassing rout of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell's army disabused them of this notion. The North was shocked and realized that this was going to be lengthier, bloodier war than they had anticipated. It steeled their determination. Lincoln almost immediately signed legislation that increased the Army by 500,000 men and allowed for their term of service to be for the duration of the war. Congress quickly passed the Confiscation Act of 1861, which provided for freeing slaves whose masters participated in the rebellion, which was the first attempt to define the war legislatively as a matter of ending slavery. If the Confederacy had hoped before this that they could sap Northern determination and quietly slip away from the Union with a minor military investment, their victory at Bull Run destroyed those hopes. (The Confederacy did enjoy a small advantage when Lincoln used Bull Run as a reason to appoint the inept Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan as head of all the Union armies, but this advantage was fleeting.)
Forts Henry and Donelson
The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, and the Confederate surrender at the latter, were the first significant Union victories and the start of a mostly successful campaign in the Western Theater. Ulysses S. Grant completed both victories by February 16, 1862, and by doing so, opened the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as Union supply lines and avenues of invasion to Tennessee, Mississippi, and eventually Georgia. This was the start of offensive actions by Grant that, with the sole exception of the Battle of Shiloh, would continue for the rest of the war. The loss of these rivers was a significant strategic defeat for the Confederacy and the beginning of the end in the vital Western Theater.
The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day in American history. But it also had two strategic consequences. Although considered a tactical draw between the Army of the Potomac and the much smaller Army of Northern Virginia, it marked the end of Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North. One of his goals was to entice the slave-holding state of Maryland to join the Confederacy, or at least recruit a number of soldiers there. He failed in that objective. He also failed in marshaling Northern fears and opinions to pressure a settlement to the war. But more strategically, George B. McClellan's victory was just convincing enough that Lincoln used it as justification for announcing his Emancipation Proclamation; he had been counseled by his Cabinet to keep this action confidential until a Union battlefield victory could be announced. Otherwise, it might seem merely an act of desperation. Along with its immense effect on American history and race relations, the Emancipation Proclamation effectively prevented the British Empire from recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate government. The British public had strong anti-slavery beliefs and would not have tolerated joining the side of a fight where slavery was now a prominent issue. Thus was removed one of the Confederacy's only hopes of surviving a lengthy war against the North's suffocating naval blockade. Support from France was still a possibility, but it never came to pass. Antietam and two other coincident failed actions—Braxton Bragg's invasion of Kentucky and Earl Van Dorn's advance against Corinth, Mississippi—represented the Confederacy's only attempt at coordinated strategic offensives in multiple theaters of war.
Gettysburg and Vicksburg
On July 4, 1863, the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi, Vicksburg, surrendered to Grant. The previous day, Maj. Gen. George Meade decisively defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. These twin events are the most often cited as the turning points of the war.
Vicksburg split the Confederacy almost in two, denying its control of the Mississippi River, and preventing supplies from Texas and Arkansas that could sustain the war effort from passing east. As Lincoln had stated, "See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.... We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg." And the 30,000 soldiers who surrendered with the city were a significant loss to the cause.
Gettysburg was the first major defeat suffered by Lee. It repelled his second invasion of the North and inflicted serious casualties on the Army of Northern Virginia. In fact, the National Park Service marks the point at which Pickett's Charge collapsed—the Copse of Trees on Cemetery Ridge—as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. From this point onward, Lee would attempt no more strategic offensives. Although two more years of fighting and a new, aggressive general (Grant) were required, the Army of the Potomac had the initiative and the eventual end at Appomattox Court House seems inevitable in hindsight.
Historian JFC Fuller contends that Grant's defeat of Braxton Bragg's army at Chattanooga was the turning point of the war because it reduced the Confederacy to the Atlantic Coast and opened the way for Sherman's Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea.
Election of 1864
The re-election of Abraham Lincoln in 1864 is beyond the final point at which a positive conclusion for the Confederacy could have been contemplated. His opponent, former general George B. McClellan, ran on a Democratic Party platform that favored a peaceful settlement with the Confederacy. (Although McClellan himself disavowed this platform plank, there is no doubt that the South would have seen his election as a strategic victory.) For anyone who believed that the military prowess of the South could still come up with a miracle set of victories and discourage the North to give up its quest, this was the final nail in the coffin. The Union would not relent until total victory was achieved.
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