There is widespread disagreement over the turning point of the American Civil War. The idea of a 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. 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.
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. 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 disappointing Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan as head of all the Union armies, but this advantage was fleeting.)
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 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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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.
Stonewall Jackson's death (May 1863)
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 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.
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.
- Rawley, pp. 49-67.
- See, for instance, Martin, David G., Gettysburg July 1, rev. ed., Combined Publishing, 1996, ISBN 0-938289-81-0, pp. 563-65.
- Oosterlinck and Weidenmier, Did Johnny Reb have a Fighting Chance? A Probabilistic Assessment from European Financial Markets, Lund University School of Economics and Management.
- Fuller was inconsistent in naming turning points. In his 1929 work The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant he cited three (p. 46): First Bull Run, which resulted in establishment of unity of command in the Union army; Fort Donelson, after which he considered Vicksburg and Atlanta (and presumably Chattanooga) to be inevitable; the fall of Wilmington, which he claimed led directly to Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House.
- 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.