Gallagher: Gettysburg, Vicksburg are ‘Flashy,’ but clearly not Civil War’s turning points

Benjamin Hoste | Staff PhotographerIn his Wednesday morning Amphitheater lecture, Gary W. Gallagher argues that 1863 as a whole and the battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg  specifically were not what turned the tide of the Civil War.
Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
In his Wednesday morning Amphitheater lecture, Gary W. Gallagher argues that 1863 as a whole and the battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg specifically were not what turned the tide of the Civil War.

Gallagher, a professor of American history at the University of Virginia, presented Wednesday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater on how human memories of events and the actual events are often conflicting, which may result in painting a picture of historical events that is not completely accurate.

“History and memory are two different things,” Gallagher said. “These examples represent strands in the fabric of our historical memory of the war. They suggest that the seismic clash in Adams County, Pa., changed the trajectory of the conflict.”

Gallagher’s argument began with an explanation of what he called “Appomattox Syndrome” — a complex in which historians study an event or era beginning with the end. (“Appomattox” references the courthouse where the Confederacy surrendered, bringing the Civil War to an end.) Gallagher said that this method of studying history is wrong because history didn’t happen backwards.

“Read forward in the evidence and you will find complexity and contingency far beyond what that other way of looking in the past allows you to find,” Gallagher said. “Do not ever start at the end in order to understand what happened if your goal is to understand how it unfolded.”

By studying the Civil War from the beginning, and from a historical point of view rather than relying only on memories, he said, it becomes very obvious that neither the Battles of Gettysburg or Vicksburg nor the year 1863 had very much to do with turning the tide of the war.

Gen. George Meade, who led Union forces at Gettysburg, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union at Vicksburg, are often given the credit of turning the war in favor of the Union. But  Gallagher characterized this as another factor of Appomattox Syndrome.

If it weren’t for another, earlier Union victory, Grant would never have been able to take the Mississippi River, Gallagher said. The Battle of Vicksburg was important, as it gave control of the entire Mississippi River to the Union and fulfilled part of Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” to “squeeze” the ports and entryways of the South until it was completely cut off.

But did Vicksburg really make a decisive difference in the trajectory of the war?

“I don’t think it did,” Gallagher said. “Much of its importance was tied to people being able to say say, ‘OK, we can check off part of Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan.’ ”

The real battle for the Mississippi took place one year earlier, Gallagher said, when the U.S naval flotilla, led by David Farragut, secured the port of New Orleans. Gallagher said that the river was only of value if New Orleans remained open.

“April of 1862 is when the Mississippi was really gone as a Confederate river,” he said. “Vicksburg is flashy, it got a lot of headlines and it made people feel good, but did it make a substantive difference in how the Confederacy waged its war going forward? I would say the answer to that is no.”

Gallagher said it is difficult to persuade people that, unlike the storyline in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” the Battle of Gettysburg did not end the Civil War.

Gallagher clarified that the Union victory at Gettysburg was indeed important. Without it, Lincoln would have had an extremely difficult time convincing Americans that the war, which conscripted young men and was being fought to free slaves, was worth it.

“But what did Gettysburg really change in the United States?” Gallagher said. “What we often lose sight of is that Meade didn’t follow up on his victory. Lincoln viewed Gettysburg as a great lost opportunity.”

Lincoln wrote a letter to Meade — which he never sent — thanking him for his service while hinting at his disappointment that the surrendering army got away. He believed that Meade’s inaction would lead to the war being prolonged indefinitely.

“Does Abraham Lincoln think Gettysburg is the great turning point of the war?” Gallagher said. “Absolutely not.”

Gallagher said the battle had no impact on national morale or on Lee’s reputation. Confederate diaries and journals from that time period corroborate this claim, as Lee was so loved that many Southerners believed he would never lose.

“Gettysburg had no impact on the long-term reputation of Lee and his army,” Gallagher said.

If Gettysburg wasn’t the turning point, what was?

Rather than point to a specific battle or time period, Gallagher said the ultimate success of the Union was due to Lincoln’s foresight in naming Grant general in chief. Though Grant is usually remembered as a president first and as a general second, his contribution to the North’s ultimate victory should not be underestimated. Gallagher called it “the most striking example of any individual in American history that shows the difference between history and memory.”

“As much as it goes against what I think most Americans believe was the case, neither the United States’ victory nor Emancipation was a sure thing at the end of 1863,” he said.

Q&A

Q: Since we’re not going to do a year from now — the anniversary of 1864 — what goes wrong for the Confederacy militarily after this 10-month respite from Gettysburg when you think that they, on some level, would be recharged and ready to go again — what goes wrong?

A: They were recharged, but here’s what went wrong — that the Confederates didn’t get the message that the war was over. And so you have, in 1864, tremendous expectations in the United States because [Ulysses S. Grant] is now in charge. Grant didn’t want to confront [Robert E.] Lee directly. He wanted to do it indirectly, but he was very astute politically and knew that the civilian population wanted somebody to smack Robert E. Lee around. So that’s what he decided to do. That results in the Oberlin campaign, with its 100,000 casualties in six weeks. Those casualties — a new kind of war comes in 1864. There used to be a big battle, and there’s a time when there wasn’t fighting; you had continuous fighting to get into the Oberlin campaign, and the civilian population became somewhat numb by this and wondered why Richmond [Va.] didn’t fall, and why [William Tecumseh] Sherman hadn’t captured Atlanta. Those are the two great things they’re looking at. It got to the point that the most problematical moment of the entire war for the United States is in the summer of 1864. That is the closest the Confederacy comes to achieving success, as you all know. Abraham Lincoln had his Cabinet sign a blind memorandum on Aug. 23, saying it looks like we’re not going to be re-elected. We have to win the war before the Democrats come in next spring, because they’re sure as hell not gonna win it — he didn’t say sure as hell — but they’re not gonna win it. The Republicans didn’t even call themselves Republicans in the election of 1864. They called themselves the Union party. They threw Hannibal Hamlin off the ticket, who was considered too extreme on emancipation by many people, and put Andrew Johnson on the ticket. Boy, sometimes vice presidential choices count. And that one really counted. They were trying to get as much of the loyal Union-centered citizenry as possible to support the war. Wouldn’t have worked — except two great outcomes on a battlefield from the United States prospective, as you know. William succumbs to Sherman, captured Atlanta at the beginning of September, and then Philip Henry Sheridan waged a really effective campaign in the Shenandoah Valley that essentially took the Shenandoah Valley out of the Confederate side of the equation between Sept. 19 and Oct. 19, 1864. Those two campaigns re-elected Lincoln, sent huge Republican majorities to the House and Senate and guaranteed — sometimes it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a choice in elections — in 1864, you vote for the Democrats, you might get an armistice and who knows. You won’t get emancipation if they have their way. And you vote for the Republicans, you push the war through to victory and get emancipation. Stakes couldn’t have been higher. And Sherman and Sheridan re-elected Lincoln and the Republicans, and that to me is the turning point of the war. War still goes on for several months, but that’s the end of it. One of the great military outcomes.

Q: Two questions about General [James] Longstreet. His contributions to Lee and … how significant was the death of Stonewall Jackson?

A: I could be giving a lecture on mortgage rates in Peoria [Ill.] in 1863 and the first question would be what if Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg. I’ve had it so many times and my tendency is to not take it seriously. And please don’t take this wrong, whoever sent it. It would have made no difference because he would have been a putrefying corpse. He’d been dead for two months. But anyway, James Longstreet, what do I think of James Longstreet? Longstreet was an exceptionally able core commander. He’s a senior core commander and leads his army through the whole war. He’s senior to Stonewall Jackson. Lee trusted him. Lee called him “the staff in my right hand” after the seven days. I think Lee was genuinely mystified by Longstreet’s behavior at Gettysburg. Longstreet was not a good subordinate at Gettysburg. He didn’t agree with what Lee wanted to do — and if you’re a subordinate, and your superior gives you orders and you don’t agree with them, you have two options: You either carry them through the very best of your ability, or you say, “I can’t do that” and you step aside and let somebody else do it. But Longstreet was a lethargic, sort of pouting subordinate at Gettysburg. It’s not his finest hour, although overall, I think he’s a very, very good core commander. What if Jackson had been there always comes down to would he have captured Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 1? Richard Ewell didn’t, we know Stonewall wouldn’t have. Who knows what would have happened there. He might’ve tried to capture them and he might not have succeeded. But there’s — all those kind of “what if” things can’t be answered. But would he have been aggressive? Of course he would’ve been more aggressive than Richard Ewell. The culture of command in Lee’s army, as I said — it prizes aggressiveness, ruthlessness, risk-taking. And Jackson absolutely personified that dimension of the high command. He absolutely did. But it rippled all the way down, all the way down. An opportunity presents itself, you have orders to do “A,” but on the ground “B” looks like it’s going to inflict greater damage on your opponent, do “B.” In the army, the [Army of the] Potomac never do “B.” You play it safe. You make sure everything’s just right. You don’t do anything until everything’s just right. And I can tell by the fact that many people in this audience of hair the same color of mine, that you are well aware of the fact that if you wait until everything is just right to do something in life, you will not ever do anything in life. Because everything is never just right. It never is. Jackson probably would have tried. But we can’t even be sure about that.

Q: As long as we’re dealing with what ifs, what would have been the impact if the Union had lost at Gettysburg? Is it solely a political impact on Lincoln or …?

A:Well. I think its political impact would have been huge, but no — it would have been a problem militarily. But it doesn’t mean Lee would have just gone and captured Washington. He had no intention of capturing Washington. Washington was really heavily defended, as you know, girded by this very complicated series of forts that were well-manned, mounting hundreds of guns. It would have meant that the army, the Potomac, would have fallen back to the Pipe Creek Line, which is not far from Frederick, Md. Now it’s part of the Monocacy River network. Probably would have fallen back to there. And then Lee would have done — who knows what. It would have been bad for the United States, no question about it. It would’ve been bad. But how bad? Would it have ended the war? Certainly not necessarily. But it would have been bad news.

Q: No one has yet mentioned General Sherman and the march through the South. How important was this?

A: Well, the capture of Atlanta was more important than his march through the South, but they’re both important. For years, we thought that Sherman’s march, that 60-mile swap between Atlanta and Savannah that he made, that destroyed Confederate morale. And that’s what he wanted to do. It was Grant’s idea to destroy the logistical base of the Confederacy. But historians call the strategy of exhaustion — you don’t have to kill Confederate soldiers to defeat their armies, just deny them the things they need to wage a war. And that’s what Grant wanted Sherman to do. He’d already told Sheridan to do the same thing in the Shenandoah Valley. Sherman’s not the first. Sherman’s the second to be doing that. Sherman added his own twist. He added a pyschological twist to it. I want to destroy their will to resist. I want to show them, he said, that their government is powerless to protect. We can go anywhere we want to go, and if they really believe that we can go anywhere we want to go and can do anything we want to do, they’ll give up. And historians believe that’s what Sherman’s march did for a long time. And what they often quoted was Sherman. Who said that’s what they did. But we’ve had two studies of what actually happened. Now, one is published and one’s about to be published. One by a historian named Jacqueline Campbell. The title is When Sherman Marched North From the Sea. Jackie Campbell’s shows that the initial reaction among civilians in central Georgia and the Carolinas was that their morale plunged, but very quickly, it came back up, and they were even more determined than ever not to give in to an opponent who would do the kinds of thing that Sherman would. You had a hardening. You had an initial period of despair and then a hardening. And Sherman, of course, is quoted — historians love to argue about whether women were part of the problem in the Confederacy’s continuing, or whether they propped up the Confederacy. Most United States soldiers during the war, they would have said, “what are you talking about?” Sherman said repeatedly, yeah, the men are one thing; it’s the women who are the real problem in the Confederacy. We need to break them. That’s what his campaign to the sea did — and it didn’t. But it’s important — destroyed a lot of stuff. A hundred million dollars, Sherman said. They used about 20 million, and that’s when a million was not 11 seconds of what we spend now. That’s another thing students have a hard time with. I tell them that the Federal budget was 63 million dollars in 1860. The whole federal budget. And Lincoln’s last budget was 1.25 billion, and I know by the expressions on their faces, that 1.25 billion — Jerry Jones’ [Dallas Cowboys] stadium cost more than that. He destroyed a lot of stuff.

Q: What was the Navy doing in 1863? 

A: What was the Navy doing in 1863? Well, the Navy was supporting operations on the Mississippi River. The U.S. Navy — one of the huge advantages that the United States had in the war, of course, was its Navy. It started with about 45 vessels in commission. It ended with 700. The United States Navy was as big as the Royal Navy at the end of the Civil War. It’s an astonishing example of what the United States economy can do. This is the war that sets the pattern for how we have fought all our other wars. What do we do? Crank up the economy, produce on an unbelievable scale, an unbelievable scale. That’s what the United States did during the American Civil War. And the Navy is a striking example of that. It assisted Grant up and down the Mississippi River. It closed Confederate ports. There was a lot of naval action off Charleston in 1863. They couldn’t reduce Fort Sumter, but they tried. Those of you that have seen the film “Glory,” well, that’s going on the U.S. Navy as also very active. And they’re chasing down Confederate commerce raiders. Those are the things they’re doing. The Navy’s a wonderful story. It’s just — the Civil War is a story of what goes on on land, for the most part.

Q: You refer to the United States versus the Confederacy rather than the Union. It seems most historians refer to the Union. Why this choice of terms? Is it significant?

A: I think it’s significant. I didn’t do that inadvertently. I get tired of the “it’s the North versus the South” stuff. This isn’t a war of the North versus the South. There are 15 Southern states — slave-holding states — in 1860, and four of them stay in the United States. Four of them stay in. Missouri and Kentucky and Maryland and Delaware and a fifth, in essence, is created when West Virginia breaks away from Virginia. Should have been about 38 counties, but they rounded it up to 50 to make our current West Virginia. It is not the North versus the South. It is the war between two modern mid-19th century nation-states, one of which didn’t last very long, and its whole life was played out in the midst of this military trauma. But the British looked at the Confederacy, the French looked at the Confederacy and the duck analogy comes in here. That it walked like a duck, it quacked like a duck, it pretty damn well looked like a duck. It just didn’t win enough victories in the end. These are nation-states that are fighting one another. And it didn’t change the name of the country. It’s still the United States … it’s the United States Army. It’s the United States Navy. No one thinks “Union” is a more important term than I do. The Union — if anyone doesn’t understand what Union meant in the mid-19th century has no chance of understanding the Civil War. None. Zero. Absolutely none. And 99.99 percent of Americans have no idea what the Union meant in the mid-19th century. None. Unions mean labor related things to them. They have no clue. You cannot understand the Civil War if you don’t understand what “Union” meant and what the concept of citizen soldier meant. Don’t pretend you understand anything. I mean, go ahead and pretend, if that makes you happy. I told my son not long ago that my hair still looked brown, and he said, “Pop, if that makes you feel good, I think it’s great.” And so if it makes you feel good, not to come to the grips with the Union, then don’t. That’s fine. No penalties, no exams, no harm, no foul except you won’t understand anything.

Q: In the movie “Lincoln,” the Confederate peace delegation plays an important role in the plot. Can you expand upon the history of this peace mission and its influence?

A: Yes. I wish I could close my eyes and excise that whole part from the movie. It’s ludacris. Has nothing to do with anything. Here’s the deal: Jefferson Davis had one minimum demand for any negotiation — Confederate independence. Abraham Lincoln had two minimum demands for any negotiation — no Confederate independence and emancipation. You tell me where the common ground to debate things is there. Absolutely none. Absolutely none. It’s an absolute — I don’t know who thought that was a good idea to make that a big part of “Lincoln.” Luckily Daniel Day Lewis is so transcendent it doesn’t matter in the end. And they did get Jackie Haley, who looks so much like Alexander Stevens, you’d thought he’d been cryogenically frozen someplace and brought out … I mean, where did they find an actor who looks like Alexander Stevens? He weighed 98 pounds. Oh, there he is. So the casting was good, but the strategy for insinuating that was, I think, questionable.

Q: Why so little mention of General George Thomas, the best fighting general the Union had, apparently in the opinion of our questioner.

A: I love a question that  — it doesn’t have a point of view. George Thomas was a really able general. You often get the idea that he’s the only Virginian who stayed loyal to the United States, when in fact there were six colonels from Virginia in the United States Army in 1861. Only one of them left the United States. Arie Lee is the only one that did. The rest stayed loyal. About 30 percent of all Virginians in the U.S. Army stayed loyal. But Thomas, along with Winfield Scott, was the most important of them. Thomas was an able army commander. The idea that he was the best general in the war — of course, you can’t prove that in any way. I think you could make a better case if he’d ever been up against anybody his own size and as talented as he was, but he simply was not. He’s like [Philip] Sheridan — if you have overwhelming advantage, it’s hard to gauge just how good you are. But he was clearly a very good soldier. And he paid an extremely heavy price for his decision. He only lived until 1870. And when the United States Army officers went to tell his sisters, who had gone with the Confederacy, that their brother George was dead, they closed the door in the guy’s face and said, “our brother died in 1861.” Died in 1861 — no forgiveness there.

Q: Let me try these three questions that I’ve got up here about Lee: Does he lose his spirit after Gettysburg? What position, if any, was he offered in the U.S. Army prior to his resignation? And if he had been brought to trial for treason, what do you think the outcome would have been?

A: Well, he was a colonel in the United States army, promoted just before secession. What he was offered was command of the United States, the volunteer army that was gathering outside Washington in April. The offer was made by Francis Preston Blair … he’d been in Jackson’s kitchen cabinet and so forth. So that’s what he was offered. That’s the command he would have had and he turned it down, resigned from the United States army and then a few days later went to command the Virginia State Force — he didn’t go straight to the Confederacy, he went to Virginia right after that. Was Lee cast down after Gettysburg, was that the question essentially?

Questioner: Did he lose his spirit after Gettysburg?  

A: Did he lose his spirit? Well, he wasn’t used to losing and he didn’t like losing and he wrote this letter to Jefferson Davis. A whining letter, which was kind of out of character with him, saying oh, the papers in Charleston are saying mean things about me. And I hear that even some officers think maybe I shouldn’t have done some things that I did. And all I know is that if all the officers don’t have faith in the commander he should step down, so I’m tendering my resignation. He sent that to Jefferson Davis and got just what he wanted back. You’re wonderful, you’re wonderful, you’re perfect. It’s what we tell all students now. No one’s been as wonderful as you are. If only I had time to tell you all the ways you’re wonderful and I’m sorry you only got an A minus … Jefferson Davis wrote him a letter and said, “Of course there’s no one who can replace you. “ And then Lee wrote back and said “OK, that’s what I needed.” And so he continues on. What if he’d been put on trial? Nobody knows what would’ve happened if any of these people had been put on trial. Jefferson Davis hungered for a treason trial after the war. Desperately wanted a treason trial after the war, because he believed the Constitution would not be shown to say you cannot secede. And if secession is not unconstitutional, every drop of blood was on Abraham Lincoln’s hand. Every single one. He wanted it. His lawyer, who was a very smart Irish-born guy from New York City … he knew the best thing to do was just drag this out and the U.S. Government in the end would not have a trial, and that’s what happened. That different people were gonna lead the prosecution. The Constitution’s tough on treason. You need to try someone before the treason was committed. The treason was committed in Richmond. The jury is going to be drawn from Richmond. I’ll say that again. The jury is going to be drawn — now can you get 12, can you be certain 12 people from Richmond are going to say this guy’s guilty, hang him? In the end, they thought it was simply too risky. They let Jefferson Davis go. Davis really wanted that. His council just wanted to get Davis out of Fort Monroe. Davis wanted a show trial. He didn’t get a show trial. It would’ve been no different with Lee, I think. The pesky Constitution doesn’t tell us that. Lawyers argued both ways in 1861. The Supreme Court finally stepped in with Texas v. White, retrospectively, and ratified what the armies had settled in trial by battle, which is how lawyers talked about it.

Q: Can you explore a little more the comment that the problem might have been Southern women?

A: Yes, and I don’t want to be misquoted on that. It’s so easily done. There’s been a debate about why the Confederacy fell apart. And there’s a long tradition going back to the ‘20s and ‘30s and 40s and then picking up steam in the ‘70s and ‘80s, continuing down, that it fell apart from within. Fishers along gender lines and class lines and racial lines, nobody really cared about the Confederacy, and so it didn’t win because the Confederates didn’t try hard enough in the end because they never thought of themselves as a nation. That’s a simplification, but that’s it. Women are a big part of this. Women finally just say there’s nothing in this for us, we’re not going to support this. To me that overlooks the elephant in the room. And the elephant in the room is that the white South, within our American context, suffered far more than any other element of white American citizenry in our history. It’s not even close. It’s so far off the scale. They lost one in four of all military-aged white men — killed. And that’s the old number, that’s the 620,000 number. If we bumped the number up to 700,000 for overall dead in the Civil War, that goes up. Think about our society now losing 16 to 18 million dead in a war and saying, “Well, we just didn’t try hard enough. We only lost 18 million. We should’ve lost more.” I think that we sort of — was there class conflict in the Confederacy? Of course there was. Course there was. There’s always class conflict. It’s like going to the beach and riding home and saying I found some sand at the beach. It was exciting. I hadn’t expected to find it. It’s always there. It’s in the United States. It’s everywhere. The question is, did it really make a difference? One of the old things that people would trot out is what was called the 20 Negro Law in the Confederacy, which exempted one white man for every farmer plantation, exempt from conscription from military duty. One white man from every farmer plantation that had at least 20 enslaved people became a hugely controversial class-based problem for the Confederacy. Sounds good, makes sense to us — it’s just simply not true. The people who have looked at thousands and thousands and thousands of letters from Confederates and back home —Joe Glatthaar is perhaps the most obvious. He’s just a demonic researcher, teaches at [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill]. He looked and he estimated 25,000 letters. He found six complaints about this. And far more that said, “leave some white men at home.: Although after the war, former Confederates pretended that all the enslaved people were happy. Of course, we know that’s not true and they knew it wasn’t true and they didn’t want all the able-bodied men gone … And you have to have some white men around, from their point of view, to maintain white supremacy. So that’s the argument — did some women become disaffected? Of course they did. One of the sources people go to is letters to the secretary of the war and the governor complaining about things. Well, who is going to write to the secretary? Well, who’s going to write to the secretary of war and say, ‘You’re doing a great job. I’m so happy you’re such a good bureaucrat. Keep it up.” Of course they’re not. They’re going to write when they’re unhappy about something. Here’s the question that I wish we could ask Confederates. Even in 1864. Here are your choices: Continue fighting this bloody war, where you have a central government that’s far more intrusive than you ever imagined, or go back into the United States under Abraham Lincoln with emancipation. Those are your choices. And I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the Confederates would have said, “We’ll fight it out. We’re not going to put, at risk, the entire social structure that allows us to maintain control of three-and-a-half million enslaved people among us.” To me, it would have been an overwhelmingly landslide. So, it’s interesting. And you can’t prove it either way. Because no matter how diligent we are as researchers, we read this many documents. We can see such a tiny sampling, and it’s just impossible. It’s hard to read 19th-century letters. And I’ve read thousands of them. It takes a long time. And the thousands I’ve read — compared to the millions that were written.

—Transcribed by Maggie Livingstone