Today is July 4th, and as we're often told, the date marks an important turning point in American history. Pardon? No, not that turning point, back in 1776. Yes, that one was a fairly big deal too, I'll grant you. But the one I'm talking about is said to have taken place in 1863, with the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia following the three-day battle of Gettysburg. According to tradition in fact, this was the biggest of big turning points in the American Civil War.
Only one minor problem for me with that idea. I don't agree with it. At least, not in the sense I think it was the single most important turning point of the war.
Maybe at some point I'll get into why I don't think Gettysburg ranks as "the" turning point of the war. And bring up the little matter of Vicksburg while I'm at it.
For now though, I have another turning point in mind, and it took place about a year before Gettysburg was anything more than just a sleepy little name on a Pennsylvania map. And if anything, this particular turning point might just rank as not only the most astonishing turning point of the Civil War, but also be in the running for the most astonishing turning point of any war in American history. It would have some competition. But it would be quite a contest.
To see what I mean, let's set the stage by returning to mid-June in 1862. Keep in mind that there is a common (mis)perception out there that says the South won the first two years of the war while the North won the last two years of the war. Well, it wasn't quite that simple, as we're about to see.
Broadly speaking, this was the situation as of mid-June, 1862....
In the East, the Union Army of the Potomac was on the doorstep of Richmond, after a slow, meticulous advance up the Virginia peninsula that the defending Confederate army had been able to delay but not stop. Plans were being made to evacuate the capital and relocate the Confederate government elsewhere, as the fall of the city seemed all but inevitable. Confederate newspapers had taken to derisively referring to the army's new commander, Robert E. Lee, as "Granny Lee," among other things, due to his apparent penchant for digging trenches as opposed to actually fighting. The mood in and around the Confederate capital was grim.
In the West by this same point in the war, the Confederacy had lost control of Kentucky, most of Tennessee including the vital state capital at Nashville, virtually all of the Mississippi River except for a small stretch centered around Vicksburg, lost the important port city of New Orleans, lost control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, lost a 15,000-man army with the fall of Fort Donelson, lost the titanic fight at Shiloh, after which they were forced to abandon the crucial railroad junction at Corinth in Mississippi, and along with thousands of lives and millions of dollars worth of property had lost control of enormous amounts of territory. Similar to what was occurring back East, an immense army was also now poised to strike at the heart of the Mississippi and Tennessee valleys, ripping the guts out of the Confederacy.
In short, barely one year into the war the South, while not yet knocked out, was very clearly on the ropes, standing on a couple of pretty wobbly legs. Not quite fitting the image of "winning the first two years of the war."
If you knew nothing else about the American Civil War, including what happened next, and had only studied events up to the late spring/early summer of 1862, you could be forgiven for thinking that the North had probably won the war by the end of that year. That's how bad things looked for the Confederacy by this point.
Yet what happened next ranks as just this side of astounding. Or maybe just that side of astounding. By late spring of 1862 the Confederacy appeared to be on its knees. By late summer of 1862, it was the Union that appeared to be on its knees.
There may be other moments in other wars when fortunes changed with such breathtaking speed. But such things are the exception. Not the rule.
So what the heck happened? How did the Confederacy go from death's doorstep to victory's doorstep seemingly overnight? As is often the case, it was a combination of factors that came into play. And many of you already know the details.
In the East, Lee unleashed a series of relentless attacks on his cautious opponent, George B. McClellan, racking up enormous causalities but eventually driving the enemy army away from Richmond. Shortly afterward, Lee embarked on what probably ranks as his greatest strategic masterpiece of the war, resulting in another Union defeat at the battle of Second Manassas. By early September, Lee had his army splashing across the Potomac into Union territory, and had leaders in France and England talking about possible intervention.
In the West, the Union's top commander, Henry W. Halleck, elected to turn his giant strike force into a giant occupation force, spread out over a considerable area of Tennessee and Mississippi. Thus did Halleck - about to become the Union's General-in-Chief - cede the initiative to his southern opponents. Who were only too happy to run with it. By September, Confederate forces in the West, so recently on their heels, now found themselves on the offensive, taking the war to a greatly surprised enemy. Just like their counterparts back East.
Seldom has history witnessed such a rapid, widespread turnaround as what took place during the summer of 1862.
Although it might be a matter of opinion, between these two nearly simultaneous events - one in the East and one in the West - the harder to understand of the two, at least for me, is the one out West. What Halleck did with what was, to the end of the war, the largest army ever assembled in the Western Theater, was remarkably shortsighted, and as we've seen effectively handed the initiative to an overmatched opponent. His decision, made for what he no doubt believed to be logical reasons, very likely helped to prolong the war.
Halleck's elevation to supreme Union command also resulted in his leaving the Western Theater at a crucial moment in the war. This may have proven to be one of the worst things, and also one of the best things, to happen to the Union war effort in the West. Halleck's removal left a major void in Union leadership in the West, but it also eventually opened the door for U.S. Grant to step into that void. As well as, later on, step into the even larger void that Halleck created as General-in-Chief.
Maybe the only thing as surprising as the speed with which the Confederacy's fortunes turned around in 1862 is the speed with which it all came to a screeching halt. Near simultaneous Confederate defeats in Maryland and Kentucky - an early echo of even more simultaneous twin-defeats the following summer - brought to a crashing halt the only widespread Confederate offensive the war would ever see. Never again would the South be so close to final victory all across the board.
But for a few short, incredible months in 1862, the South showed that it was not quite as dead as many observers seemed to believe. Not by one heck of a long shot. Even though the idea that the South "won" the first two years of the war is largely untrue, when all seemed lost in the spring of 1862 and they absolutely had to do it, win is exactly what the South did.