Civil War Turning Point

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Civil War Turning Point

There is widespread disagreement over the turning point of the American Civil War. The idea of an American Civil War turning point is an event after which most observers would agree that the eventual outcome was inevitable. While the Battle of Gettysburg is the most widely cited (often in combination with Battle of Vicksburg), there are several other arguable turning points in the American Civil War. Possibilities are presented here in chronological order.
A Civil War Turning Point, furthermore, should not be confused with a Civil War Initial Turning Point and even a Civil War Major or Pivotal Turning Point. Only the positive arguments for each are given.

At the time of the event, the fog of war often makes it impossible to recognize all of the implications of any one victory. Hindsight well after the fact reveals the endpoint and all the developments that led up to it. In most cases, contemporary observers may lack confidence in predicting a turning point. In the Civil War, many of the turning points cited by historians would not have been recognized as such at the time.

Civil War Turning Point Map
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Civil War Turning Point

Confederate victory in First Battle of Bull Run (July 1861)

The First Battle of 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 a lengthier, bloodier war than they had anticipated. It steeled their determination. President Abraham 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, ironically, destroyed those hopes. (First Battle of Manassas: A Major Turning Point?)

Confederate invasion of Kentucky (September 1861)
By mid-1861, eleven states 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 (Kentucky Civil War History: HOMEPAGE) 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 was never again 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.

Union capture of Forts Henry and Donelson (February 1862)
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. General Ulysses S. Grant completed both actions 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. The loss of control of these rivers was a significant strategic defeat for the Confederacy. 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.

Union victory in Battle of Antietam (September 1862)

The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history. (Antietam: Major Turning Point of the American Civil War?) 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 soldiers there. (See: Maryland Civil War History and Why Lee invaded Maryland.) 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 (13th Amendment, U.S. Constitution, and President Abraham Lincoln); 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 pro-slavery side of a fight where slavery was now a prominent issue. This 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. (The Trent Affair, Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy, and American Civil War and International Diplomacy.) Antietam and two other coincident failed actions—Braxton Bragg's invasion of Kentucky (the "high-water mark of the Confederacy in the western theater") and Earl Van Dorn's advance against Corinth, Mississippi—represented the Confederacy's only attempt at coordinated strategic offensives in multiple theaters of war.

American Civil War Strategy Map
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(Civil War Turning Point Map)

After winning the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Army of Northern Virginia lost Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson due to a friendly fire accident. His death meant a blow to the morale of the Confederate army, as they lost one of their most popular and successful commanders. One month later, Robert E. Lee had no general with Jackson's audacity available at the Battle of Gettysburg. Many historians argue that Jackson could have succeeded in seizing key battlefield positions that his replacements were unable or unwilling to take.

Union capture of Vicksburg and victory in Battle of Gettysburg (July 1863)

On July 4, 1863, the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant. The previous day, Maj. Gen. George Meade had decisively defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. These twin events are the most often cited as the turning points of the war.

The loss of Vicksburg, a result from the Siege and Battle of Vicksburg, split the Confederacy, denying its control of the Mississippi River and preventing supplies from Texas and Arkansas that could sustain the war effort from passing east. As President Abraham 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." Furthermore, the 30,000 soldiers who surrendered with the city were a significant loss to the cause.

The Battle of 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 attempted no more strategic offensives. Although two more years of fighting and a new, aggressive general (Grant) was required, the Army of the Potomac had the initiative and the eventual end at Appomattox Court House seems inevitable in hindsight.

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 Lee had suffered only a temporary setback and would resume his winning ways against ineffective Union generals.

Some economic historians have pointed to the fact that after the loss at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the market for Confederate war bonds dropped precipitously. "European investors gave Johnny Reb about a 42 percent chance of winning the war in early 1863 prior to the battle of Gettysburg. ... However, news of the severity of costly Confederate defeats at Gettysburg/Vicksburg led to a sell-off in rebel bonds and the probability of a Southern victory fell to about 15 percent by the end of 1863."

Union victory in Third Battle of Chattanooga (November 1863)

Military historian J.F.C. Fuller contended 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.

Grant's appointment as Union general-in-chief (March 1864)

Following the victory at Chattanooga, Grant was appointed general-in-chief of all Union armies on March 12, 1864. Leaving Sherman in command of forces in the western theater, he moved his headquarters east to Virginia. Previous Union commanders in the critical eastern theater had not mounted effective campaigns, or pursued Confederate forces after gaining rare victories. Grant devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the Confederacy from multiple directions: against Lee near Richmond; in the Shenandoah Valley; against Johnston and Atlanta; against railroad supply lines in West Virginia; and against the port of Mobile. In May, Grant launched the Overland Campaign, putting the Confederates under an unremitting pressure that was maintained until the fall of their capital, Richmond, and the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Union capture of Atlanta (September 1864)

Some contend that the successful siege of Atlanta by the Union was the turning point, since the city was the most critical point in the South. This victory lifted the spirits of the North and helped re-elect Lincoln, in addition to its military result of crippling transportation in the heart of the Confederacy, and nearly destroying the city.

Lincoln's reelection (November 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 negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. Although McClellan disavowed this platform, the South would have likely seen his election as a strategic victory.

(Related reading and references listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War, by Edwin C. Bearss (Author), James McPherson (Introduction). Description: Bearss, a former chief historian of the National Parks Service and internationally recognized American Civil War historian, chronicles 14 crucial battles, including Fort Sumter, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Sherman's march through the Carolinas, and Appomattox--the battles ranging between 1861 and 1865; included is an introductory chapter describing John Brown's raid in October 1859. Bearss describes the terrain, tactics, strategies, personalities, the soldiers and the commanders. (He personalizes the generals and politicians, sergeants and privates.) Continued below...

The text is augmented by 80 black-and-white photographs and 19 maps. It is like touring the battlefields without leaving home. A must for every one of America's countless Civil War buffs, this major work will stand as an important reference and enduring legacy of a great historian for generations to come. Also available in hardcover: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War.

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Recommended Reading: Turning Points of the Civil War. Description: James A. Rawley examines the seven turning points of the Civil War: the course of the slaveholding borderland in 1861, First Bull Run, the Trent affair, Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and the presidential election of 1864. Continued below...
Among the topic unifying his book are slavery, democracy, British policy, military organization and progress, and the roles of Lincoln, McClellan, Davis, and Lee. The afterword looks at the Civil War itself as a turning point in American history. In a preface to this Bison Book, James A. Rawley, considers recent books that sustain the idea of turning points during the Civil War. Review: James Rawley does a magnificent job breaking down the civil war into 7 major turning points. We all understand the impact that any civil war has on a country and how it becomes a turning point in that country’s history forever. What Rawley does is tries to answer the question of why the American Civil War ended the way it did and how easily it could have favored the other side. He takes an in depth look at the Trent Affair, Bull Run, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Lincoln's last election during wartime, the Border states, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the battle of Antietam. All of these he lists as major turning points and gives concrete, specific details to back up his thoughts. He gives quotes from the time and from speeches given throughout the country and also dips into news articles not only from the U.S., but also from Europe. It is very simple reading and also enjoyable i would recommend it to anyone.
HIGHLY Recommended Viewing! The American Civil War (DVD Megaset) (2009) (A&E Television Networks-The History Channel) (14 DVDs) (1697 minutes) (28 Hours 17 Minutes + extras). Experience for yourself the historical and personal impact of the Civil War in a way that only HISTORY can present in this moving megaset™, filled with over 28 hours of American Civil War content. This MEGASET is the most comprehensive American Civil War compilation to date and is the mother of all Civil War documentaries. A multifaceted look at “The War Between the States,” this definitive collection brings the most legendary Civil War battles, and the soldiers and leaders who fought them, vividly to life. From Gettysburg and Antietam to Shiloh, and led by the likes of Sherman, McClellan, Grant, Beauregard, Lee, Davis, and Jackson, delve into the full military and political contexts of these men, their armies, and the clashes between them. Continued below...
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Almost 150 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, the unexpected secrets and little-known stories from Civil War history are divulged with fascinating detail. Cutting-edge CGI and accurate dramatizations illustrate archival letters and original diary entries, and the country’s most renowned historians describe the less familiar incidents that add perspective and depth to the war that divided a nation. If the DVDs in this Megaset were purchased separately, it could cost hundreds of dollars. This one-of-a-kind compilation belongs on the shelf of every Civil War buff, and if you know anyone that is interested in the most costliest and bloodiest war in American history, buy this, they will love it.
THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR contains the following programs:
* The Most Daring Mission Of The Civil War
* April 1865
* Battlefield Detectives: The Civil War (3 Episodes): Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh
* Secret Missions Of The Civil War
* The Lost Battle Of The Civil War
* Tales Of The Gun: Guns Of The Civil War
* Eighty Acres Of Hell
* Lincoln
* Investigating History: Lincoln: Man Or Myth
* Man, Moment, Machine: Lincoln & The Flying, Spying Machine
* Conspiracy?: Lincoln Assassination
* High Tech Lincoln
* Sherman’s March
* The Hunt For John Wilkes Booth
* Civil War Combat (4 Episodes): The Hornets’ Nest At Shiloh, The Bloody Lane At Antietam, The Wheatfield At Gettysburg, The Tragedy At Cold Harbor
* Civil War Journal (8 Episodes): John Brown's War, Destiny At Fort Sumter, The Battle of 1st Bull Run, The 54th Massachusetts, West Point Classmates—Civil War Enemies, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Sherman And The March To The Sea
* Full-Length Documentary “Save Our History: Sherman’s Total War Tactics”
* Behind the Scenes Featurettes for “Sherman’s March” and “Lincoln”

FIVE STARS! Recommended Reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote (3 Volumes Set) [BOX SET] (2960 pages) (9.2 pounds). Review: This beautifully written trilogy of books on the American Civil War is not only a piece of first-rate history, but also a marvelous work of literature. Shelby Foote brings a skilled novelist's narrative power to this great epic. Many know Foote for his prominent role as a commentator on Ken Burns's PBS series about the Civil War. These three books, however, are his legacy. His southern sympathies are apparent: the first volume opens by introducing Confederate President Jefferson Davis, rather than Abraham Lincoln. But they hardly get in the way of the great story Foote tells. This hefty three volume set should be on the bookshelf of any Civil War buff. --John Miller. Continued below…

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Product Description:

Foote's comprehensive history of the Civil War includes three compelling volumes: Fort Sumter to Perryville, Fredericksburg to Meridian, and Red River to Appomattox. Collected together in a handsome boxed set, this is the perfect gift for any Civil War buff.

Fort Sumter to Perryville

"Here, for a certainty, is one of the great historical narratives of our century, a unique and brilliant achievement, one that must be firmly placed in the ranks of the masters." —Van Allen Bradley, Chicago Daily News

"Anyone who wants to relive the Civil War, as thousands of Americans apparently do, will go through this volume with pleasure.... Years from now, Foote's monumental narrative most likely will continue to be read and remembered as a classic of its kind." —New York Herald Tribune Book Review

Fredericksburg to Meridian

"This, then, is narrative history—a kind of history that goes back to an older literary tradition.... The writing is of the historical and literary achievements of our time." —The Washington Post Book World

" described with such meticulous attention to action, terrain, time, and the characters of the various commanders that I understand, at last, what happened in that battle.... Mr. Foote has an acute sense of the relative importance of events and a novelist's skill in directing the reader's attention to the men and the episodes that will influence the course of the whole war, without omitting items which are of momentary interest. His organization of facts could hardly be bettered." —Atlantic

Red River to Appomattox

"An unparalleled achievement, an American Iliad, a unique work uniting the scholarship of the historian and the high readability of the first-class novelist." —Walker Percy

"I have never read a better, more vivid, more understandable account of the savage battling between Grant's and Lee's armies.... Foote stays with the human strife and suffering, and unlike most Southern commentators, he does not take sides. In objectivity, in range, in mastery of detail in beauty of language and feeling for the people involved, this work surpasses anything else on the subject.... It stands alongside the work of the best of them." —New Republic

Recommended Reading: Chancellorsville and Gettysburg: An Eyewitness Account of the Pivotal Battles of the Civil War. Description: This edition is completely reset with large easily readable type. The new maps allow you to follow the battle much better than the originals. This book is part of a series of 12 short volumes on the land war published in 1882-3. It took congress twenty years to finally allocate funds to all the documents and communications sorted through. Americans could at last have an inside look at who actually said or did what, and when. Continued below…
While that massive project was still underway, the publisher of this series persuaded highly qualified people - most of them participants -- to produce a quick readable history in light of the new information.
M.F. Force ("From Fort Henry to Corinth"), says, "The main source of information is the official reports of battles and operations. These reports, both National and Confederate, will appear in the series of volumes Military Reports now in preparation [by] the War Records office in the War Department."
Alexander Webb ("The Peninsula") adds "To be of any practical use, all history, and particularly military history, must be gradually sifted and reduced to small compass."
Jacob D. Cox ("The March to the Sea - Franklin & Nashville") sums up purpose and limitations: "The class of readers which has been most in mind [includes] includes the surviving officers and men who served in the war. [My] aim has been to supplement their personal knowledge by the facts ... of recent research. To give unity and symmetry to the ... campaigns here told, by examining each in the light of the plans and purposes of the leaders on both sides. The limits assigned... made it necessary to choose between the narration of incidents which would enliven the story, and that fullness to strictly military detail which seemed necessary to make the several campaigns clearly intelligible, and to enable the reader to judge, with some degree of satisfaction, the character of the operations. ...the effort to do so will give to each a broader understanding of what the great game of war really is."
Editor's Choice: The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns. Review: The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns is the most successful public-television miniseries in American history. The 11-hour Civil War didn't just captivate a nation, reteaching to us our history in narrative terms; it actually also invented a new film language taken from its creator. When people describe documentaries using the "Ken Burns approach," its style is understood: voice-over narrators reading letters and documents dramatically and stating the writer's name at their conclusion, fresh live footage of places juxtaposed with still images (photographs, paintings, maps, prints), anecdotal interviews, and romantic musical scores taken from the era he depicts. Continued below...
The Civil War uses all of these devices to evoke atmosphere and resurrect an event that many knew only from stale history books. While Burns is a historian, a researcher, and a documentarian, he's above all a gifted storyteller, and it's his narrative powers that give this chronicle its beauty, overwhelming emotion, and devastating horror. Using the words of old letters, eloquently read by a variety of celebrities, the stories of historians like Shelby Foote and rare, stained photos, Burns allows us not only to relearn and finally understand our history, but also to feel and experience it. "Hailed as a film masterpiece and landmark in historical storytelling." "[S]hould be a requirement for every student."

References: Fuller, Maj. Gen. J. F. C., The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, Da Capo Press, 1929, ISBN 0-306-80450-6; Rawley, James A., Turning Points of the Civil War, University of Nebraska Press, 1966, ISBN 0-8032-8935-9; Unpublished remarks by Gary Gallagher and James M. McPherson, 2005 University of Virginia seminar: Great Battles and Turning Points of the Civil War; United States Military Academy (West Point).

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