Civil War - 1863-65 - Union Victories
Lee's victory at Chancellorsville was bittersweet. There he lost his right-arm General Stonewall Jackson, a victim of friendly fire. Despite the many victories the South racked up the Union's inexorable war machine kept cranking out a seemingly endless supply of recruits and munitions.
July 1863 - Vicksburg
The fortunes of battle were somewhat fluctuating during the first half of 1863, but the beginning of July brought the Union forces decisive victories. The reduction of Vicksburg (4th of July) and Port Hudson (9th of July), with other operations, restored complete control of the Mississippi, severing the Southern Confederacy. The struggle to capture Vicksburg in 1863 was the final act of a two-year contest for control of the Mississippi River.
The campaign for the control of Vicksburg was one of the most important contests in determining the outcome of the Civil War. As President Abraham Lincoln observed, “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” The struggle for Vicksburg lasted more than a year, and when it was over, the outcome of the Civil War appeared more certain.
The centerpiece of the Vicksburg campaign was the Mississippi River. When the Civil War started, the Mississippi and its tributaries proved highly important to the conduct of military operations west of the Appalachians. Typically, armies view rivers as obstacles. In the western theater of war, however, the rivers were highways that carried troops, supplies, and firepower. The war for control of the Mississippi was largely a struggle for control of the river-bluff interfaces.
President Lincoln, always concerned about maintaining his political support in the Midwestern states, was fully aware of the Mississippi’s importance to the farmers of that region. One of Lincoln’s worst fears was that those states might seek an accommodation with the Confederacy if that was the only way they could gain access to the vital waterway.
By July 1862, Union forces controlled the entire Mississippi River except for a two-mile stretch along the Vicksburg batteries. In the autumn of 1862 Vicksburg became the second most heavily fortified city in the Confederacy. Only the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, was more strongly guarded. Not everyone, however, was impressed by this “Gibraltar of the West.” Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston sagely noted in his postwar memoirs that the extensive fortifications came at a price: "The usual error of Confederate engineering had been committed there. An immense intrenched camp, requiring an army to hold it, had been made instead of a fort requiring only a small garrison."
By mid-1863, Charleston had been attacked, but with so little success that the attack had not been renewed. Virginia had been four times invaded, and now people were looking to the invasion of Pennsylvania. The siege of Vicksburg was drawing to a close not favorable to the North. In every direction there were grounds for great discouragement; and it was evident from the last news that the faith of the people was shaken, and that they were wavering in their views of the war.
But as the siege of Vicksburg wore on, conditions within the Confederate lines deteriorated. On 28 June 1863, the Confederate commander [Pemberton] received a mysterious letter signed “Many Soldiers” stating that the army had reached the limits of endurance. “If you can’t feed us, you had better surrender us.” On 4 July, the Confederate troops marched out of their positions and stacked arms. “The Father of Waters,” wrote President Lincoln, “again goes unvexed to the sea.”
Grant’s victory effectively shut down an arena of conflict that had absorbed significant Union resources since the spring of 1862. Grant’s veteran Army of the Tennessee was now free to enter other theaters of the conflict. With the Mississippi secure, the Union’s western armies could combine their forces in Tennessee and, in 1864–1865, Georgia and the Carolinas. Given the simplified strategic picture made possible by the conclusion of the Vicksburg campaign, the Union was able increasingly to focus its military strength against the Confederate center of power on the East Coast.
Vicksburg never attained the prominence in American culture enjoyed by the great battles waged in the east. Pemberton’s surrender of Vicksburg, perhaps the most momentous event of the war to date, was overshadowed by the great battle at Gettysburg, which reached its climax just one day earlier.
Some thought it by no means improbable, that if Vicksburg were taken, the Northerners would say, "We have prevented you from carrying out by yourselves that extension of slavery which you could not carry out through the Union, and now we shall leave you to yourselves to settle this slavery question as you can." But it was not a mere war, but a tremendous social revolution.
July 1863 - Gettysburg
The second Confederate invasion of the north during the Civil War began in mid-June 1863, when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River. Their first attempt was nine months earlier at the Battle of Antietam, MD, but Union forces turned them back.
Lee's decision to concentrate his army in northern Virginia reflected a perspective much narrower than Grant's and the fact that he was politically constrained to defend Richmond. However, this decision was due also to Lee's insistence on an offensive strategy - not merely an offensive defense as in the early stages of the war but eventually an ambitious offensive strategy in 1862 and '63 aimed at invading the North as a means to breaking Northern will. Given the South's relative weakness, Lee's strategy was questionable at best-both as a viable means of attaining the South's policy aims and also in regard to operational practicability, particularly the South's logistical ability to sustain offensive campaigns.
Lee did not have the overall intent of the campaign firmly defined in his own mind. Failure - to convey commander's intent caused his subordinates to operate without unity of effort. This led to confusion throughout the campaign and ultimately disaster at the Battle of Gettysburg.
In June 1863, Lee led his army into Pennsylvania. General Meade and a large force of Union soldiers were sent to stop Lee's advancing troops. On July 1, the two armies met at the small town of Gettysburg. The Battle of Gettysburg is the most written about and studied battle in American history. Many historians consider the battle to be the turning point of the war and the last opportunity the South had to win the war. Lee sought to achieve the following objectives: (1) to relieve pressure on Vicksburg (2) to defeat the Federal Army on Union soil in order to effect European recognition of the Confederacy and (3) to destroy the confidence of the people of the North in their ability to defeat the South. As a lesser objective, Lee's army would be able to forage and refit itself in an undamaged countryside and allow the farmers of Virginia to raise a crop unmolested by the war.
From the perspective of generalship and the operational level of war, Gettysburg showed Lee and his generals at perhaps their worst; in sharp contrast to the brilliant success they achieved just 60 days before at Chancellorsville. There, using bold moves, clear commander's intent mission type orders, and acting on limited information about Union intentions, Lee and his subordinates had successfully imposed their will on the Union Army and its leaders in devastating fashion. Now, at Gettysburg, the roles were reversed, and the Union Army and its leaders execute one of their best performances of the war.
On the first day of the battle, 40,000 Confederate troops squared off against an 18,000-man Union covering force that was made up of Buford’s cavalry and Maj. Gen. John Reynolds’ infantry. A head count after the first day's battle would revealed 25,000 Union troops to the Confederates 35,000. But that evening re enforcements and stragglers from both sides streamed into camp and by the morning of July 2nd manpower had climbed to approximately 46,000 Union troops facing roughly 43,000 Confederates.
Lee’s plan focused on coordinated attacks on the Union right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills. But due to faulty intelligence, made worse by the absence of Maj. Gen. J.E.B Stuart’s cavalry (which had broken away to attempt a flanking maneuver of the Union army prior to the Battle of Gettysburg), the Confederate generals did not realize Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles had repositioned his corps.
Meade ordered his seven corps commanders to assemble a team of signal communication troops. These men were schooled and trained in using flag communication. They communicated Confederate movements to the Union leadership from the top of the Little Round Top, which provided each adjacent corps and the Union headquarters the ability to maintain secure communications throughout the battle. In addition to its defensive position value, Little Round Top also was the locale of a Union signal station that proved invaluable in providing Union forces with timely intelligence.
Lee made a mistake that doomed the hopes of the Confederate States of America to compel the United States to sue for peace. Why one of the great generals of his time made such a blunder continues to be a topic of research and intense debate. Lee said little at the time or afterward to justify his decision to launch what has become known as Pickett's Charge, so analysis must be inferential and inconclusive.
Pickett's Charge - the massed infantry frontal assault by the Confederates on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg - was a disaster. Fifteen thousand men emerged from the woods and, as if on parade, began the march toward Cemetery Ridge. The assault force -- 47 regiments -- moved at a walk until it neared the Union lines and then broke into a run. Federal artillery opened fire, enfilading the Gray ranks. Despite heavy casualties, the Confederates kept their formation until they were intermingled with the northerners. A gap opened in the Union line that the Confederate soldiers tried to exploit, but they would be beaten back by fierce hand-to-hand combat and point-blank cannon fire.
Such bravery as that exhibited by Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, although inspiring, was exactly the kind of attrition the South could stand the least. Thousands of men were killed and, at the end, Lee's troops were forced to retreat to Virginia.
Lincoln was elated over General Meade's victory. He thought the war could be ended in 1863 if Meade would launch a resolute pursuit and destroy Lee's army before it could cross the Potomac and get back into Virginia. However, Meade's army was too mangled for aggressive pursuit and Lee slipped away. Meade’s public reputation after the battle became tarnished, as many people believed he should have pursued the Confederate army and Lee more aggressively. But like Lee’s army, the Union army had been battered. Of the 51,000 casualties, 28,000 were Confederate and 23,000 were Union.
On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln dedicated part of the battlefield that was made into a national cemetery. President Abraham Lincoln pledged "a new birth of freedom" in his now-famous Gettysburg Address. It is scarcely too much to declare that Gettysburg and Vicksburg prevented a Democratic revolution in the North. It is true they did not prevent an attempt at revolution, but they deprived the opposition of popular support.
Winston Churchill later noted "There is no reason to suppose that the war will stop when the final result has become obvious. The Battle of Gettysburg proclaimed the ultimate victory of the North, but far more blood was shed after the Battle of Gettysburg than before."
August 1864 - Sherman's March to the Sea
Grant's strategy of 1864 was directly supportive of the established policy objectives. He recognized immediately that his military strategic aim must be the destruction of Lee's army, and he devised a strategy of annihilation focused resolutely on that aim. Consistent with the policy objective of ending the war as rapidly as possible, Grant initiated offensive action simultaneously on all fronts to close the ring quickly around his opponent.
In May 1864 Grant advanced deep into Virginia and met Lee's Confederate Army in the three-day Battle of the Wilderness. Losses on both sides were heavy, but unlike other Union commanders, Grant refused to retreat. Instead, he attempted to outflank Lee, stretching the Confederate lines and pounding away with artillery and infantry attacks. "I propose to fight it out along this line if it takes all summer," the Union commander said at Spotsylvania, during five days of bloody trench warfare that characterized fighting on the eastern front for almost a year.
In August 1864 Union General William T. Sherman departed Chattanooga, and was soon met by Confederate General Joseph Johnston. Johnston's tactics caused his superiors to replace him with General John Bell Hood, who was soon defeated. Hood surrendered Atlanta, Georgia, on September 1; Sherman occupied the city the next day. General Sherman continued his march through Georgia to the sea. In the course of the march, he cut himself off from his source of supplies, planning for his troops to live off the land. His men cut a path 300 miles in length and 60 miles wide as they passed through Georgia, destroying factories, bridges, railroads, and public buildings.
By January 1865 transportation problems and successful blockades caused severe shortages of food and supplies in the South. Starving soldiers began to desert Lee's forces, and although President Jefferson Davis approved the arming of slaves as a means of augmenting the shrinking army, the measure was never put into effect.
April 1865 - Appomattox
On 23 December 1864 there was a dramatic occurrence of the aurora borealis, which many northerners interpreted as a divine omen of a forthcoming Union victory.
Lee had stated that having the weaker force, his desire was to avoid a general engagement. In practice, however, he seemed unable to resist the temptation of a climactic Napoleonic battle whenever the enemy was within reach. Despite a number of tactical successes, Lee was eventually pinned to the fortifications at Petersburg, where he was besieged by Grant from mid-June 1864. On 25 March 1865 General Lee attacked General Grant's forces near Petersburg, but was defeated -- attacking and losing again on April 1. Lee's attempt to escape from Petersburg led to his army's capture at Appomattox. On April 2, Lee evacuated Richmond, the Confederate capital, and headed west to join with other forces. General Lee's troops were soon surrounded, and on April 9, the two commanders met at Appomattox Courthouse, and agreed on the terms of surrender.
The terms of surrender at Appomattox were magnanimous, and on his return from his meeting with Lee, Grant quieted the noisy demonstrations of his soldiers by reminding them: “The rebels are our countrymen again.” The war for Southern independence had become the “lost cause,” whose hero, Robert E. Lee, had won wide admiration through the brilliance of his leadership and his greatness in defeat.
On April 14, as President Lincoln was watching a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, an actor from Maryland obsessed with avenging the Confederate defeat. Remaining Confederate troops were defeated between the end of April and the end of May. Jefferson Davis was captured in Georgia on May 10, 1865.
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