Last week, we studied the question of whether or not the South could have won the Battle of Gettysburg. This week, will look at a different question. Supposing the South had, in fact, won the Battle of Gettysburg, how would this have altered the course of history? Would the Confederacy have won the American Civil War and emerged as an independent nation? Would the war have still ended as a Confederate defeat? Would something else have happened? In today's entry, we'll try to answer these questions.
Most of the scenarios of a Confederate victory at Gettysburg which we discussed last week - better intelligence allowing Lee to unite his forces earlier, taking Culp's Hill on the first day, more coordinated attacks on the second day - would have seen the Union army retreating in some confusion to the south/southeast, out of Pennsylvania and back into Maryland. What then?
It was extremely rare for armies in the Civil War to achieve what military thinkers term "decisive" victories. In other words, victories so complete that the opposing army is effectively if not actually destroyed. When one thinks "decisive victory", one is thinking of battles like Hannibal's victory at Cannae or Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz. In the American Civil War, the only thing approaching a decisive victory was the Battle of Nashville, in which the Confederate Army of Tennessee under John Bell Hood was effectively destroyed by the Union forces under George Thomas.
Gettysburg might have easily been a victory for the Confederates, but it is extremely unlikely that it would have been a decisive victory. In all of the scenarios we outlined last week, considerable Union forces would have remained relatively unaffected by the overall Confederate victory, allowing Meade to use them as a reserve to block Lee's pursuit. Moreover, the Confederate forces themselves would have undoubtedly suffered heavy casualties and become disorganized. It was a truism in Civil War battles that the winning army was almost always as disorganized by victory as the losing army was by defeat. Even assuming that Lee wins a victory at Gettysburg on the scale of, say, Second Manassas does not mean that the Army of the Potomac is going to be destroyed. It will, instead, live to fight another day,
In the few days between assuming command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28 and the beginning of the battle on July 1, Meade has selected Pipe Creek as the line along which he intended to meet Lee in order to protect Baltimore and Washington. It was, indeed, a formidable position, with excellent defensive terrain and a stream that would have to be crossed by any attacker. Once the battle had commenced, Meade designated Pipe Creek as the logical fallback point for the army in the event of a defeat. If Lee wins at Gettysburg, the most likely outcome would have been for the Army of the Potomac to retreat south to Pipe Creek and take up a defensive position there on July 4 or July 5.
What would have happened then? Lee, suffering from the common malady of Civil War armies being in no condition for effective pursuit after a victory, would probably not have been able to catch up to the Union army before it settled into its new position (especially if we are dealing with a scenario of victory on the first day, when Stuart would still have been absent). At best, he would have been able to beat up on the rearguard a bit and take a couple hundred more prisoners. A few days after the battle, Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, flush with victory but having suffered heavily themselves, would have looked upon the formidable Union position along Pipe Creek.
Would Lee have attacked? Quite possibly. He was a general of enormous aggressive instincts, as was shown by his relentless pursuit of McClellan in the Seven Days and of Pope in the days after the victory at Second Manassas. He regretted deeply not attacking Burnside after the slaughter of Fredericksburg, having not done so out of a belief that the Union commander would attack again the morning after the battle. At Chancellorsville, having smashed up the Army of the Potomac between May 2 and May 5, Lee was preparing an all-out frontal assault against a fortified enemy that outnumbered him when Hooker withdrew across the river. In all likelihood, a Confederate assault on a prepared Union position on Pipe Creek would have been Fredericksburg in reverse, with the Southerners bloodily repulsed with heavy casualties.
A defeat at Pipe Creek, even after a victory at Gettysburg, would have left Lee's army in a perilous position. Indeed, his situation would have been much worse than was actually experienced in the historical aftermath of Gettysburg, because Lee's army would have been drawn farther to the east, away from its crossing of the Potomac, with Meade in a position to more easily assemble reinforcements for a potential counter attack. The increased ease of communication between the army headquarters and Washington City would have allowed Lincoln and Stanton to more forcefully express their demand that Meade focus not on driving Lee back to Virginia, but on cutting him off and destroying him. Paradoxically, in this case, a Confederate victory at Gettysburg might have then led to a defeat at Pipe Creek that would have endangered the survival of the Army of Northern Virginia. And if Lee was cut off and forced to surrender north of the Potomac, the war would have surely ended before 1863 was over.
But suppose Lee declined to attack the Pipe Creek line. Then things get more interesting. By driving the Army of the Potomac out of Pennsylvania and into Maryland, the victorious Army of Northern Virginia would have been left as the master of the Keystone State. Lee's original plan to live off the enemy's country would have been realized as roaming bands of foragers would have swept the countryside clean of livestock and crops. Historically, the Confederate army substituted for months off the food and fodder it gathered in Pennsylvania during its brief time there; one can only imagine had much more effective and complete the foraging would have been had they remained in Pennsylvania through August and perhaps even into September. Telegraph lines, key railroads, and bridges over the Susquehanna and Monongahela would have been destroyed, seriously damaging Union transportation and communication between east and west.
Lee's army would not have been able to remain in Pennsylvania indefinitely. There never was any thought to a permanent occupation of Union territory, for Lee's invasion of the North was, in essence, simply an enormous raid. Sooner or later, the Army of the Potomac would recover and advance against the Confederates, threatening their lines of retreat back to Virginia. Lee would eventually have to get out of Pennsylvania while the getting was good. Preferably, he might have withdrawn without a further battle, so that the Union could not have claimed to have driven him out.
Such a scenario, a Confederate victory at Gettysburg that forces the Army of the Potomac back to Pipe Creek, followed by a thorough Southern foraging (pillaging?) of Pennsylvania, would have been disastrous for the Union cause. The Army of the Potomac would again have been defeated, the Lincoln administration would again have been made to look foolish, and Robert E. Lee's reputation for invincibility would have been as strong as ever. By luring the Union army north of the Potomac, the farmers of Virginia would have been given a critical reprieve and the front lines perhaps moved back to the north of the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers rather than south of them.
Politically, the situation in the United States was already very tense, with attention already beginning to shift towards the presidential election that was due in just a year-and-a-half. Since the commencement of the war, the Democrats had been divided into War Democrats who supported the war effort and Peace Democrats who were pushing for some sort of ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. The strength of the so-called Copperheads, Peace Democrats who so strongly opposed Lincoln that they nearly crossed into being pro-Confederate, steadily increased after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1864, the Peace Democrats became so strong that they effectively took control of the party and almost brought down the Lincoln administration in the fall presidential election. Had they done so, the Confederates might have been able to establish their independence, for if a ceasefire went into effect it is highly doubtful that the political will would have existed in the North to resume fighting at a later date.
Lee understood this perfectly well. In a perceptive letter to Jefferson Davis written on June 10, as the army was just beginning the advance that would lead to Gettysburg, the army commander pointed out that an outright military victory by the Confederacy over the Union was impossible, given the disparity in numbers and resources. That being the case, the only policy which might bring about Confederate independence would be to encourage those elements within the Northern public that wanted a negotiated peace with the South. The best way to do this, Lee clearly felt, would be by demonstrating the futility of bringing the South back into the Union by force. In other words, military success for Lee was aimed at achieving a political goal as much as a military one.
Historically, during the first half of 1864, the Confederates were able to hold their ground and inflict such heavy losses upon the Union armies that it appeared likely that Lincoln was going to lose the election and the incoming Democratic candidate, George McClellan, was going to be willing to declare a ceasefire as a prelude to a negotiated settlement. Lincoln himself believed this and was astute enough to realize that a ceasefire was tantamount to Confederate independence. It was only the trio of Union victories that summer - won by Farragut in Mobile Bay, Sherman at Atlanta, and Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley - that restored the morale of the Northern public and saved Lincoln's reelection.
If this is what happened historically, how much more likely would a 1864 peace-through-exhaustion be for the Confederates if they had won at Gettysburg? The Lincoln administration would have suffered yet another humiliation rather than a face-saving victory. Lee's army would have ended the campaign with yet another victory under its belt, having secured far more supplies and probably having suffered far fewer casualties. The Army of the Potomac would have been beaten once more, its men still questioning the competence of their commanders and regarding Lee as an invincible opponent. In such a scenario, we can only assume that the Confederates would have done better during the 1864 campaign than they did historically, thus making the defeat of Lincoln and a negotiated peace much more likely.
What about the oft-raised possibility that a Confederate victory at Gettysburg might have led to foreign recognition by the United Kingdom and France? In the summer of 1863, a pro-Confederate member of Parliament, John Roebuck, undertook a bit of personal diplomacy and sought out Napoleon III of France about the possibility of joint recognition of the Confederacy. The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation had dampened European inclinations to recognizing the Confederacy, but not entirely extinguished them. Napoleon III hinted that he would follow England's lead, and Roebuck addressed the House of Commons to push for diplomatic recognition.
Historically, Roebuck's effort was turned aside without too much trouble. Indeed, the government was rather upset with his engaging in freelance diplomacy with the French without permission. News soon arrived of Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, which shut down Roebuck's push for recognition altogether. Never again was the possibility of British and French recognition a serious threat to the Union cause.
But what if the news had, instead, been of a dramatic Confederate victory on Northern soil, which the Union army forced to flee and the South yet again triumphant? Might Roebuck's push for recognition have gained steam? It's entirely possible. As mentioned in a past blog post, British and French recognition of the Confederacy would almost certainly have led to Confederate independence. It would not even have required military intervention by the European powers, for financial and political repercussions by themselves would probably have been sufficient to ensure Confederate victory in the war.
So although Gettysburg is not going to lead to the fall of Washington City and the surrender of the United States government, it is possible that it would trigger political and diplomatic changes that would vastly increase, if not guarantee, an ultimate Confederate victory in the war. But we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. It's important to note that Vicksburg fell to General Grant the day after the Battle of Gettysburg concluded, forcing the surrender of thirty thousand Confederate soldiers and securing Union control of the Mississippi River. From a strategic point of view, this was an even more important victory than was the Union victory at Gettysburg. Even if the war in the Eastern Theater continued to favor the Confederates, it would not change the fact that the war in the Western Theater was still going the Union's way.
Oft-repeated suggestions that a Confederate victory at Gettysburg would force the Union to pull troops away from the Western Theater have never made any sense to me. By the time any of those troops would have been able to intervene, Lee almost certainly would have withdrawn back to Virginia on his own accord. The best strategy for the Union to employ would be to push harder against Confederate forces in Mississippi and Tennessee, thus placing pressure on Richmond to shift forces from Virginia westwards, as indeed happened in September when Longstreet's corps was sent from Lee to reinforce Bragg's army in Georgia.
Would the Union victory at Vicksburg have compensated for a defeat at Gettysburg? In a military sense, perhaps, but not in a political or diplomatic one. To Lincoln's annoyance, public attention in both the United States and the rest of the world was focused on events in the Eastern Theater and comparatively little press coverage was given to events in the West. So long as Lee was winning victories, the world seemed to believe that the Confederacy was winning the war. In the American Civil War as in so many other historical events, the perception of reality was more important than actual reality. Since the most important consequences of a Confederate victory at Gettysburg would have been political and diplomatic rather than military, it is the perception of reality that has to be considered.
So, would a Confederate victory at Gettysburg have led to an ultimate Confederate victory in the war? Perhaps. It might have triggered foreign recognition, which in turn would have had an enormous impact. It might have made it impossible for Lincoln to win the following year's presidential election and set the stage for an administration pledged to peace coming into the White House. Alternatively, if Meade had fallen back to Pipe Creek and lured Lee into attacking him there, the Confederates might have been smashed up themselves and a completely different situation would have emerged, paradoxically making a Union victory before the end of 1863 a possibility.
As with all alternate history, we'll never know the answer to these questions, yet we'll never stop asking them. That's why it's fun.