Was Gettysburg a Decisive Battle

Was Gettysburg the Decisive Battle of the Civil War?

Ryan Toews

Richard McMurray, writing in The Fourth Battle of Winchester: Toward a New Civil War Paradigm (2002) stated that the Battle of Gettysburg was significant for only three reasons. It ended the Gettysburg Campaign, it determined the site of the Gettysburg Address, and it spawned the tourism industry of Adams County, Pennsylvania.

Yet the Battle of Gettysburg has become the iconic battle of the American Civil War. Often described as the war’s decisive battle, the turning point of the war, or the “High Tide of the Confederacy”, it is by far the most written about engagement of the war. But should it in fact have this reputation, and, if not, why has it assumed this distinctive reputation?

The battle was important. The Army of Northern Virginia suffered its first major loss and was forced to retreat south back to Virginia. But in a letter to Jefferson Davis on 31 July, 1863, Lee termed the campaign “a general success”. Two weeks prior he had also written to Davis that everything was “accomplished that could have been reasonably expected. The Army of the Potomac has been thrown north of that river [the Potomac], the forces invading the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia had been diminished, their plan of the present campaign broken up…” This hardly sounds like a decisive defeat or a turning point in the war.

When Lee’s stated plans following the Battle of Chancellorsville are considered, it is evident that the main purpose of striking northwards was to improve the logistical situation of the Army of Northern Virginia by subsisting on the riches of Pennsylvania and force the Army of the Potomac to leave Virginia for the season. The Gettysburg Campaign should therefore be seen as a raid or a spoiling attack, not a strategic offensive to defeat the Army of the Potomac. 

Even if the Rebels had been able to defeat the Union army at the actual battle would that had made that much difference? On July 1 the command of Army of the Potomac had already made plans for the possibility of taking up a position along what is termed the Pipe Creek Line. This would have enabled for the Federals to be able to continue to protect both Baltimore and Washington. Unless the Army of Northern Virginia could actually destroy the Union army a Confederate victory would not do much more then again enhance the reputation of the Rebel’s ascendency over their counterparts. And bear in mind that in the course of the war the ability to destroy an opposing army simply did not happen unless one side had an overwhelming superiority in numbers.

Should Lee have won at Gettysburg the Confederates would still have had to abandon Pennsylvania before the end of the campaign season. Although Pennsylvania could provide ample sources of foodstuffs as long as the Army of Virginia was spread out to be able to forage, once it was concentrated for battle it would be at a severe logistical disadvantage. And as long as the Army of the Potomac was within striking distance the Southerners had to remain concentrated. As well, the ammunition carried by the army, especially for the artillery, was only sufficient for one battle and the supply line back to Virginia was long and tenuous.

But, it has been argued, the loss of the Battle of Gettysburg so badly crippled the Army of Northern Virginia that it never recovered its former strength. However, in Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864, (2000) Steven Newton compares the strength of the comparable elements of the Army of Northern Virginia as of 30 June 1863 and 20 April 1864. He demonstrates that the army had a “Present for Duty” strength of 79,880 for the former date and 79,860 for the latter. Alfred Young’s recent study of the strength of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study, (2013), agrees with Newton’s conclusion that all the major formations within the Army of Northern Virginia had been successfully brought back up to strength by the spring of 1864 in spite of the heavy losses suffered at Gettysburg. Indeed, it was the Army of the Potomac that was forced to disband the I and III Corps during the winter of 1863-64. The old XI and XII Corps, transferred to the west in September 1863, were also combined into a single corps. The rebuilt Army of Northern Virginia remained quite capable of mounting further large scale raids into the north as witnessed both by the Bristoe Campaign in late 1863 and later by the appearance of Early’s troops in front of Washington in mid-1864.

Why then has Gettysburg been described as the decisive battle of the war? It can be argued that this is more a result of post-war myth-making then of any strategic importance. Remember that Gettysburg was the most obvious defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia by the hard-luck Army of the Potomac. After almost two years of war the Union army in the east finally won a clear victory on the field of battle. It also occurred in a location that was on northern soil and was easily accessible to veterans wanting to memorialize their sacrifices. The battle also garnered further significance by its connection with the martyred Lincoln and his “Gettysburg Address”.

Post-war Confederate mythologizing also lent a hand. The eastern theatre of the war was endlessly promoted by a number of important Army of Northern Virginia veterans. Thomas Connelly examined the elevation of Robert E. Lee by these post-war writers in The Marble Man: Robert E Lee and His Image in American Society, (1977). Here he outlined how Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia became symbolic of the Southern side of the Civil War. And as Lee gained in importance, his only clear defeat further served to strengthen the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg for the veterans of the Army of the Potomac.

The contention that Gettysburg was the High Tide of the Confederacy is also debatable. While the engagement was undoubtedly the northern-most large scale battle, the term has any validity only if one accepts that the eastern theatre was of primary importance in the war. Yet elsewhere in June of 1863 the Confederacy was hard-pressed. Both Vicksburg and Port Hudson were under siege and would fall in early July. In Tennessee Rosecrans’ army moved against the Army of Tennessee on the 23rd of June and by the end of the first week of July had forced the Rebels to fall back to Chattanooga. Lee’s defeat was only one of a number of disasters to befall the Confederates in the summer of 1863. By mid-1863 the Confederate tide had already been ebbing for half a year.

If one wishes to establish a point in time in which Rebel fortunes looked most promising it may be best to look at the situation in early to middle September 1862. In the first weeks of September Hindman’s newly created Rebel army in Arkansas advanced north across the Boston Mountains to take up a position near the old Pea Ridge battlefield. Although still too weak to move further into Missouri it still posed a potential threat to that state.

In western Tennessee Grant’s army was dispersed to garrison that region while Van Dorn and Price maneuvered to combine their troops and advance against the Federal forces. In Kentucky the change in the strategic situation was the most dramatic. On 30 August Kirby Smith’s small army had destroyed a similar sized Union force at the Battle of Richmond and had subsequently occupied Lexington. Bragg had also pushed his army northwards and on the 17th of September captured Munfordville, cutting the rail line along which Buell’s Federal army was retreating to Louisville.

Further to the east the Confederate threat to Maryland had caused the withdrawal of Union troops from the Kanawha Valley in West Virginia and on 13 September Charleston was occupied by the Rebels. Last of all, in Maryland the Army of Northern Virginia captured 12,500 Union troops at Harpers Ferry on 15 September. In the next two days the Army of Northern Virginia was able to concentrate its troops and hold on to its position at Antietam. Only after this last battle was Lee forced to fall back over the Potomac, although the Southerners remained in the upper Shenandoah Valley for almost another two months.  

Thus if one must set a date for the High Tide of the Confederacy the 17th of September 1862 is a much better candidate then the Battle of Gettysburg the following year.     


  1. Good, well argued article. Thank you.

    1. Thanks John, Ryan always comes up with something thoughtful about the war and I thought others would be interested. It's good history.

    2. This is very interesting and of wider application. As you know I've dabbled a bit with Brunanburh and in a piece titled "Brunanburh: The Defeat of Empire" examine the evidence for Brunanburh being firstly decisive and secondly a great English victory. I concluded that the main evidence for it being either was that the English said it was. yet all objective measures such as the behaviour of the combatants post bellum, subsequent diplomatic and political relations between England and Scotland and the military performance of the English in the years following all bring this into question. My own view, controversially, is that in strategic terms Brunanburh was a defeat for Athelstan and a victory for Alba and Strathclyde. A major beneficiary of the battle (who may not even have been involved) was the Welsh king, Hywel Dda.

    3. Controversial indeed but very interesting.

  2. Forgive me for hijacking a Gettysburg piece but just to clarify my reference to modern scholarship. Alex Woolf, Wm Knox "Scottish History for Dummies", Karen Jolly and Pauline Stafford, "A Companion to the Early Middle Ages", 2013, have all recently asked the question as to whether Brunanburh was a Pyrrhic victory. So far as I can tell the earliest suggestion was by me in the piece mentioned which has resided on my Academia page for several years. To what extent, if any, it has influenced a revision of attitudes to the battle I can't say and it's entirely possible other historians reached similar conclusions entirely independently.