I’ve been reading some of the books in the battle series published by Emerging Civil War. So far, I’ve read about Shiloh (1862), Gettysburg (1863), and the Battle of the Wilderness (1864). It was while reading this third one that the author mentioned something as almost an offhand comment that threw me – and upended something I believed for 50 years.
The book was Hell Itself: The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864 by Chris Mackowski, but the comment was about Gettysburg. At the time of the battle in 1863, he said, “No one recognized Gettysburg as anything other than a setback, and certainly no one looked at it as the ‘High Water Mark of the Confederacy.’”
How it gained that reputation was due to a marketing-savvy photographer, lithographer, and Gettysburg historian named John Badger Bachelder, who was a tireless promoter of the Gettysburg Battlefield and worked to promote the site as a tourist destination.
In other words, the whole idea of Gettysburg as the turning point in the Civil War came from a promoter for the battlefield, decades after the battle was fought.
I can remember from my primary (and college) education how the Battle of Gettysburg was described – the turning point in the Civil War, the high-water mark of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. And this wasn’t something that was taught and understood half a century ago, and we’ve all gotten a lot wiser since then. No, the belief still has considerable legs. See, for example, how the history site Battlefields.org describes it in the first sentence. The Wikipedia entry for the battle notes it that way as well, but includes a note about “turning points” – that there is widespread disagreement among historians. In fact, historians now point to 13 or 14 turning points in the Civil War, some of them being Confederate victories. Go figure.
Gettysburg was an important battle, to be sure. Coupled with the fall of Vicksburg at almost exactly the same time, it portended a change in the Union’s fortunes. But the war continued for almost two more years, and it still wasn’t finished until Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865 and General William Johnston surrendered two weeks later in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The ”Gettysburg as turning point” story is a reminded that we should never automatically use one event as the critical one in a war, or (even worse) in a nation’s history. Our Constitution, for example, wasn’t invented from whole cloth in a room in Philadelphia one summer, but instead developed through the 1760s, 1770s, the American Revolution, and the 1780s. Elements of our Constitution can be traced back to the Magna Carta and the Roman Republic (especially the writings of Cicero). We have the First Amendment largely thanks to John Milton.
History turns out to be more complicated than we realize, and certainly more complicated than battlefield promoters would have us believe.
Top illustration: Battle of Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrap.