The Union Army put paid to the Confederacy 150 years ago today. From here, 150 years removed from the trials of civil war it looks as if they had no chance. At the time it was touch and go. Lee knew this was probably his last chance to throw the dice with any chance of forcing a decision.
The war was never going to be won for The South, on the field of battle. The battles were all about public opinion. Not, though the history books told me so in high school, the public opinion of Great Britain and France, but rather the public opinion of the Union. Because the nation facing off against Lee, and the Army of Virginia (a regional dept, not actual the army of the State of Virginia), and working it’s way down the Mississippi (US Grant was wrapping up the Siege of Vicksburg while George Meade was, a bit reluctantly, fighting the most important battle of the war) was most decidedly a Union divided.
Any number of interests were unhappy about the war. It was expensive (when all was said and done it cost about 6.5Bn USD: in modern terms, about 75 Trillion dollars). It was also destroying the specific economy of the North. Slavery drove the economy of the nation, North and South. The South had cheap cotton (because they sweated it out of blacks in servitude: depending on where in the South one lived between 17-40 percent of the money earned was stolen from the labor of slaves [Virginia, for which Lee fought was at the bottom of that list; but it also included what is now W. Virginia, so it’s possible the portion which seceded was significantly higher]). If ending it, and accepting a slave-owning South (and that’s what the South was fighting for, a slave-owning society, to the end of time. They rebelled because Lincoln’s Republicans were going to prohibit the expansion of slavery) would bring back the good times when King Cotton ruled, then they were happy to do it.
There was also a lot of endemic racism; by 1863 the war had cost a lot of lives, and the shift to it being about freeing slaves was well under way, which wasn’t as palatable.
So Lee had the chance to gain a victory (as an election was coming; where McClellan, seen as a hero (and possessed of large factions in the Army of the Potomac) was going to be running against him. If there was a large victory for the Confederates, then Lincoln might be forced to sue for peace. If he didn’t the odds were good he’d be turned out of office and McClellan (who would rather have had no war in the first place) would be in office and something could be negotiated.
So Lee sent his army north, and told Jeb Stuart to go and harass the enemy. Which he did. He may not have been much of an actual cavalry general (the US didn’t have anything but light cavalry, which had some interesting effects on the battlefield, not the least of which making the slaughters a bit more awful, because broken units were hard to chase from the field, and so they could reform and come back to the line) but he loved to raid. His troops went on a spree, sending as many blacks South (into slavery) as they could lay their hands on. He was a bit late getting back to Lee (but no so late, nor so distressing in his absence as Lee’s later hagiographers would have you believe), which was most troublesome in that his men were exhausted from eight days hard riding, and raiding.
With the screening/recon/raiding of Stuart underway he slipped into the Union. Consternation ensued. His intent was to engage The Army of the Potomac. Given what transpired in the tail end of June, when he began the campaign things seemed to be going his way. The command of the Army of the Potomac was taken from Joe Hooker (whom Lincoln was trying to pressure to resign the command) and given to George Meade, who didn’t want it (no one much wanted it, except McClellan, who wasn’t going to have it returned to him). The troops didn’t like Meade. Meade wasn’t all that resolute in the best of times, and this was far from the best of times. An army in the field was invading the United States, and his forces were spread across Hell’s Half Acre.
If Lee could engage the Union of the Potomac piecemeal, and defeat it in detail he could move on DC, and threaten the capital (it’s not likely he could have penetrated the defensive works [which McClellan had designed; you can still find remnants here and there. I walked to one near Walter Reed when I was a patient there).
A major defeat, and that threat against Washington (or Baltimore, or PhiladelphiaL both of which were panicking) would probably have brought about an armistice, of some sort (though the fall of Vicksburg, and Grant’s bulldog bellicosity, might have affected that). The North couldn’t lose, so long as it had the will to fight.
Gettysburg (more than Vicksburg) stiffened the resolve (and Lincoln exploited the battle to the utmost with the Gettysburg Address), and self-created the, “high water mark of the Confederacy”.
The battle itself is too complicated to go into in detail, from the myths about Pickett and Chamberlain. The latter’s defense of Little Round Top was desperate, and well managed, and important, but it wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination the “lynchpin” of the battle, as some might have you believe (I had to give a presentation on that battle in BNCOC [an army course for Staff NCOs], it was well fought, and important, but minor). The former’s assault on Cemetery Hill was dramatic, but the issue had been decided by the time his troops left cover.
In truth the battle was probably won in the middle of the second day; and it was touch and go; because Sickles had overextended his line. Lee was, wisely; given the logistical trials he was under, and the nature of the Union army, engaging in an “echelon attack” and on both the first and second days came close to pulling it off. Sickles blunder was the closest he came to a decisive breakthrough (I think, had he won the first days engagement, Meade would have withdrawn, and the incomplete victory would have required the campaign to continue, which wasn’t in Lee’s interest).
Sickles (a figure of mythic proportions; none of them good) had created an exposed salient, and Lee sent Longstreet’s Corps against it. Sickles’ Corps was both understrength (he was short his third division), and overextended, with a large gap (about 600 yards) on his right flank. He was asking 10,000 men to defend a front of 1 ½ miles. Had Longstreet’s divisions been less tired, and the supporting troops on Sickles’ left less on top of things, and Hancock pouring his division into the breach it wouldn’t have mattered that Chamberlain held Little Round Top because the Union forces would have been split, and the odds of them being able to stand were slim.
But they didn’t, and Lee didn’t change his plan, and the next day tried again, and failed again.
And the Confederacy was doomed.